In Media Res

Placing Duke in the Center of the News
January 31, 2004
Placing Duke in the Center of the News

Chris Hildreth.

Alex Roland is hearing something odd. "So you're here to talk about Colombia?" says a disembodied voice in his ear. "It's our own secret war, isn't it?"

"Well, actually I'm here to talk about Columbia the space shuttle, not Colombia the country," Roland responds, his voice carried through a clip-on microphone, his bemused expression multiplied across a bank of television monitors.

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Roland is in a TV studio in the basement of the Bryan Center. It's the second day of classes for the fall semester, and the day that a commission led by Admiral Hal Gehman has released its findings on last winter's space-shuttle disaster. Roland Ph.D. '74, a former NASA historian and now professor of history at Duke, gained notoriety when he wrote an eleven-page article for Discover magazine titled "Triumph or Turkey?" that called the shuttle program wasteful, misdirected, and unmanageable. The article appeared two months before the explosion of the Challenger in 1986. Today, Roland has been bombarded by reporters' queries; he's hardly had time to absorb the six-inch Gehman report, which he's sampling in quick glances as airtime approaches.

The main decorative element in the studio is a blue screen with repeated representations of the university shield. But there are more functional touches--air-conditioning that actually quiets down, rather than whooshing, as it comes on, and facing walls angled so that sound waves won't bounce around. In its self-contained subterranean spot, the studio is a big step up from its predecessor in the Mary Duke Biddle Building, created in the early 1980s to serve the audio-editing needs of the music department.

Roland jokingly tells a technician to "make me beautiful," and that pretty much is the aim of a rapid-fire exchange between the Duke studio and PBS' NewsHour in Washington: Straighten the necktie. Tighten the shot in the camera frame. Swivel the chair so that he won't seem to lean or slouch. Adjust the color balance--the monitors have him looking a little gray. "Let's dust him up," says Scott Wells, manager of studio operations. A technician pats Roland's bald spot with talcum powder.

A taped interview with Admiral Gehman leads off the NewsHour, followed by a three-way conversation with host Ray Suarez, Roland, and Donna Shirley, former manager of NASA's Mars exploration program. Roland makes the point that the advice of the Challenger commission was largely ignored. He adds that the shuttle is a complex machine that, unrealistically and now tragically, has been expected to meet conflicting demands. Wrapping up the interview, he questions whether NASA can fix itself without external oversight and says the time is ripe for a broader national conversation: "Since the end of the Apollo program, we've continued to have a manned space-flight program but no avowed, explicit national policy of why we're sending people into space."

As he's untethered from the mike, Roland notes his surprise at the relatively small amount of disagreement between him and Shirley, who did not toe the NASA party line. "I'm a little disappointed that we didn't get a fight out of that."

If he hasn't quite achieved media-star status, Roland is representative of a rapidly growing presence in the media of Duke faculty experts. You see them on CNN, commenting on civil rights in terrorism-wary America. You read them in The New York Times, discussing mental health on Indian reservations. You hear them on NPR, talking about restoring the wetlands of Iraq.

This burgeoning media presence presumably adds to Duke's name recognition. But the frequent mention of Duke by the media "is important on its own terms," says David Jarmul, associate vice president for news and communications. "Duke has insight to help inform the public debate on issues ranging from Iraq to Enron," he says. "Of course, as we engage this debate, audiences learn what we actually do here at Duke. Whether it's a student or faculty member thinking of coming here, a donor, a journalist, or someone else, they'll see for themselves the scholarship and activity that makes Duke so exciting."

The dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, William H. Schlesinger, is pretty excited about media contact. Last spring he wrote in the school's magazine that "academics should make every effort to translate their findings, and their best interpretation of the state of the science, so that the public can understand it.... Indeed, when taxpayer money has supported our research investigations, one can argue that we have the responsibility to go public with our findings." As one component of his school's annual review of faculty members, Schlesinger now asks them to document their efforts in "public outreach, education, and media." For his part, Schlesinger--who has contributed op-ed columns on the thinning ozone layer, higher mercury concentrations in fish, the case for higher gasoline prices, and the ties between global warming and exotic diseases--says that one of the reasons he sought out the deanship was the opportunity it presented to bring science before the public.

Scott Silliman, a veteran of everything from the call-in shows on National Public Radio to the op-ed pages of national newspapers, says he considers media work an extension of his teaching. "In my area--national security and national-security law--I am painfully aware that there is a lot of ignorance out there. A lot of folks don't really understand the issues. That's particularly true with the 'war on terrorism' and what we're doing at Guant·namo Bay. So I take every opportunity that I can to be interviewed, as long as I feel that the interview is going to help further public knowledge."

Through his own media appearances, a law-school colleague, Michael Byers, is working to further public knowledge across borders. On a warm fall morning, Byers, who is also director of Canadian studies at Duke, is fighting off sleepiness as he enters a less imposing space than the Bryan Center, a small radio studio alongside the News and Communications office. He's there for an appearance on The Current, a current-events program on the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Byers, dressed in shorts, is just back from some avid lap swimming--meant to help clear his mind and collect his thoughts, he says. He puts on earphones, sits down in front of a microphone, and jots down some talking points.

At 8:20, Cabell Smith, radio and TV manager for News and Communications, is still working out the correct signal-synchronizing configuration. "I like to live dangerously," he says. At 8:30 on the dot, the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, introduces the program with a teaser about "Cut Piece," a Yoko Ono show in which the artist cuts her clothing into pieces and asks spectators to send the clips to loved ones. Then she brings on Byers to discuss the political evolution of Paul Martin, the current finance minister for Canada, who is about to take the helm of the federal Liberal Party and, presumably, the office of prime minister. How important is the personal chemistry between the leaders of the two nations? Byers argues that economics trumps chemistry: The financial ties between the U.S. and Canada are "unmatched anywhere else in the world."

"The trick," Byers observes afterwards, "is to pretend you're just talking to one person. I just went live in front of one or two million people, including my parents and my grandmother."

Every day Duke professors are reaching readers and listeners in the millions. This enviable track record of purposeful publicity points not just to communications technology but also to institutional trajectory. "The reality is that Duke is now widely recognized as one of the great universities of the world," says John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations. "That means that when there is good news about Duke, we are likely to get lots of attention. When there is bad news about Duke, we are likely, again, to get lots of attention."

Part of Duke's "maturing process," as he puts it, has been "coming to grips with our newfound prominence. One of the things I've so admired about this place over time is how it's learned to be comfortable with that. Like everybody else, we don't want our dirty laundry airing on news pages. That's a cost that comes with being prominent. And on balance, I don't see it as a big problem, because, on the other hand, there is so much positive being written about our faculty and students all the time."

Duke's frequency in the media reflects the faculty's research agenda as much as it reflects the university's luster. In mid-October came word that a research team led by Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke professor of neurobiology, had taught rhesus monkeys to consciously control the movement of a robot arm, using only signals from their brains and visual feedback. The Washington Post called the findings "science fiction-like" and added that "the technology could someday allow people with paralyzing spinal-cord injuries to operate machines or tools with their thoughts as naturally as others today do with their hands."

Duke officials knew that the Nicolelis story was big--"the single most important research story to come out of Duke," according to Dennis Meredith, who specializes in science and technology research for the News and Communications office. An advance news release was sent out selectively so that the most important and influential science reporters could reach Nicolelis in advance of the media maelstrom. Some 700 media representatives, identified by Duke Medical Center's communications office as wanting Duke-related material, later received the release. A series of video segments offered to television stations featured Nicolelis summarizing the research, a colleague discussing its implications, scenes of paralyzed patients undergoing rehabilitation, and an explanatory animation. Sound bites were posted on Duke's website so that radio stations could download descriptions from Nicolelis and blend them into their own broadcasts. And the news was fed to other websites, notably EurekAlert!, which reaches 4,500 science journalists, about half of them from outside the United States. The result was "viral," as Meredith puts it. "A really good story like this begins the process of marketing itself, spreading itself."

In a single afternoon, Nicolelis did three back-to-back radio interviews in the Duke radio studio, with Public Radio International, KCBS in San Francisco, and the BBC World Service. The New York Times cited the research over two consecutive days. Within hours of its release--timed to coincide with publication in The Public Library of Science, a new scientific journal that makes articles available free of charge--the story straddled the world. It appeared in New Scientist and The Scotsman in the United Kingdom, Independent Online in South Africa, CBC News and The Toronto Sun in Canada, the Hindustan Times in India, the China Daily, the New Zealand Herald, Al Jazeera, and CNN International, along with hundreds of newspapers and television and radio stations in this country.

This is CNN: zoologist Alberts discusses baboons as good fathers

This is CNN: zoologist Alberts discusses baboons as good fathers. Jim Wallace.

Even Comedy Central's The Daily Show found the idea of monkeys manipulating robot arms irresistible. On the mock news broadcast, comedian Lewis Black suggested that it signaled the end of human civilization: "We can defeat the monkeys. We can defeat the robots. But not at the same time!"

David Jarmul of News and Communications says the university shouldn't be driven by publicity for publicity's sake. "Everything that goes on in the communications realm should have a larger strategic purpose. We should be promoting the values of the university, communicating what Duke stands for as an institution."

Those institutional values, in Burness' view, include openness. "I believe we serve the university best by serving the news media well. It's in Duke's enlightened self-interest to work effectively with the media." Invariably there will be negative stories, he says. "One of the questions you always have to ask when you have a negative story is how to keep it a one- or two-day story as opposed to a one- or two-week story. The best way to do that is to be direct, to be honest, to be transparent in discussing it."

He offers an example from several years ago, when a federal oversight agency shut down research on human subjects at Duke Medical Center. The shutdown hinged on technical violations of research protocols. It's clear that Duke was chosen for the punitive action because of its high profile, Burness says. At the same time, the shutdown was limited to only four days because the university's response--in its dealings with the press, as well as in commitments from the medical center--was widely seen as facing up to the problem.

Duke officials have also come to realize that communications technology and instant name recognition can cut both ways. The velocity of information transfer is "one of the things we need to think about all the time," says Burness. "People are able to get information instantly. But it can be inaccurate information."

A case in point occurred last winter after Duke literature professors organized a film series showcasing movies from Iraq, North Korea, and Iran--the three countries branded by President Bush as "the Axis of Evil." The series also featured films from Cuba, Syria, and Libya, dubbed "rogue states" by Washington. Selections included romantic comedy, family drama, science fiction, and World War II action. The organizers created a catchy title for the series--"Reel Evil"--and that label, with the accompanying logo, made it stand out from all the familiar film festivals.

Duke sent out a news release, originally pitched to arts editors. But as it turned out, the series garnered more political notice than comment from the cinema community. In fact, Duke communicators had set in motion a media firestorm. Negar Mottahedeh, assistant professor of literature and co-curator of the film series, was interviewed extensively. She told CNN that the aim was to "show the fundamental disparity between the representations we see in the global media and those attempts at self-representations by directors around the world."

What happened next illustrates the electronic echo-chamber effect: Stories on the festival ran on National Public Radio in this country, and in newspapers and radio stations in Britain, Canada, Brazil, Italy, and elsewhere. Something that calls itself "the independent Kurdish web portal" picked it up. So did Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk-show host, for whom the film festival confirmed the worst, liberal-leaning tendencies of America's campuses.

Just this fall, a media frenzy followed word that a Duke fraternity, Sigma Chi, had promoted a "Viva Mexico" party with invitations that looked like expired green cards and a mock border-patrol checkpoint at the door. Campus protesters fixed on the party as evidence that Duke has ignored its Latino students. Duke's Chronicle covered the controversy; from there, Durham's Herald-Sun picked it up, and then it became wire-service copy. MSNBC's Abrams Report gave it prominent play. Host Dan Abrams '88 called the party "stupid" and "in bad taste" but saw the protest rally as a "politically correct overreaction at my alma mater." The events earned mention on the online Drudge Report, which provided a link back to The Chronicle. The Chronicle website had more than a million hits in the course of a single day.

At the same time, the presidents of a Latino living group, along with the senior-class president, were sending e-mail messages to national media, Latino press outlets, Latino organizations, and college newspaper editors at other campuses. The subject line was purposefully "incendiary," as one of the organizers puts it: "Racial incident at Duke University."

If they weren't exactly incendiary, the Women's Initiative findings this fall painted a less-than-satisfying campus scene. University communicators worked to give the study wide exposure, and it showed up in places ranging from The New York Times to the Harvard Crimson. Sometimes those accounts placed campus-climate problems in a larger cultural context, and sometimes not. Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen wrote that being a female undergraduate at Duke means following a "prefeminist" credo of " 'effortless perfection,' in which young women report expending an enormous amount of effort on clothes, shoes, workout programs, and diet. And here's a blast from the past: They're expected 'to hide their intelligence in order to succeed with their male peers.' "

Because this was a Duke-derived story with implications beyond the confines of the campus, it was a surefire bet that it would have national resonance. But would Duke be celebrated for its self-scrutiny or criticized for putting a problem front-and-center? The media-relations quandary illustrated by Quindlen's column brought back memories from just over a decade ago, when a segment on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes focused on self-segregation among college students. The correspondent made it clear that Duke was the only campus to cooperate in the reporting effort. So Duke earned points for candor. Still, the portrayal of racial dynamics at Duke was discomfiting to some--including some prospective students.

"The general value system of a university should suggest that it's unafraid to discuss controversial issues, even when those issues may be perceived as affecting us negatively," says Burness. "It's important to provide some context, some understanding as to why a university has taken a particular action or why it has to defend a particular faculty member's right to say something or do something. Universities occupy a very special place in society. This is one of the few places where controversial issues are discussed openly and where all points of view are invited."

"A lot of people who do public information for colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out what makes a good story," says Sally Rimer, an education reporter for The New York Times. "But I'm really impressed by the Duke operation. These people are former reporters, and they're really good at what they do." Burness wrote to Rimer last summer to alert her to the Women's Initiative. He stressed that it could be considered part of a national dialogue on the issue of women in higher education. Later, a News and Communications office staff member, Kelly Gilmer, a former reporter for the respected St. Petersburg Times, worked with Rimer to set up telephone interviews, suggest contacts within and beyond Duke, and provide statistics relevant to understanding the context. Rimer says one of her Times editors commented that the Duke news release was so sensitive to news imperatives that it could almost have been published intact.

The days are long gone when campus communicators might distribute a news release broadly and await a response expectantly. A more targeted approach is represented in the daily "Rapid Response" meetings, which aim to pitch news tips to the media. There are standard, commercially provided contact lists for reporters covering beats ranging from war issues to sports law; also, the News and Communications office tailors its own roster of contacts.

In early September, several News and Communications staff members squeeze into an attic-level conference room and fuel themselves with Diet Dr Pepper. A few of the day's national newspapers are slapped onto the table. There are a couple of asides about having missed "the big story of last week," the kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears.

Radio play: Byers, Canadian studies director, talks to the CBC about potential prime minister

Radio play: Byers, Canadian studies director, talks to the CBC about potential prime minister. Jim Wallace.

Associate Director Keith Lawrence, who leads the meeting, mentions a more elaborate version of the regularly refreshed news tips, a list of Duke experts for the upcoming September 11 anniversary. Among the themes: American cities after September 11, the concept of a national memorial to the victims, a divinity school professor's "Ten Suggestions for Preaching After a Catastrophe," gauging the American public's tolerance of casualties in Iraq, the U.S. and the Muslim world, and the impact on civil liberties of the "war on terrorism." Already, based on those tips, Jacob Vigdor of public-policy studies was part of an Agence France-Presse story about Americans having been jolted out of a false sense of security; Katherine Pratt Ewing of the cultural-anthropology department was in the Boston Globe on how September 11 gave cities and towns a new chance to establish a community-building tradition; and Frederick Mayer of public-policy studies appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Dallas Morning News, discussing the economic costs of the terrorist attacks.

Blake Dickinson '87, a senior writer, reels off a list of hot-button environmental issues, including more snowmobiles in the national parks and more resource-extraction activity in wildlife refuges. Lawrence notes that James Hamilton in public policy has written about the Environmental Protection Agency and might be mentioned to the media. He asks a communicator from the law school, Jonathan Goldstein, to think about professors who might speak out about proposed changes in medical-malpractice awards. Dickinson cites an editorial supporting toughened financial-disclosure requirements for attorneys in publicly traded companies. Goldstein says the law school's much-quoted James Cox can expertly tackle that theme. Cox is in Denmark for several weeks but is reachable by e-mail.

Senior writer Sally Hicks proposes getting a scholarly take on the death of actor Charles Bronson. Does it represent the passing of a certain type of action hero? And she brings up the media buzz about the "metrosexual" phenomenon--the widespread incorporating of fashion qualities associated with a gay sensibility. She says she'll track down John Clum, head of theater studies, who recently wrote a book on images of masculinity in the movies.

Rapid response means responding to media interests as well as anticipating those interests. That's where ProfNet comes into play. It's an example of communications technology operating on principles of marketplace supply and demand: Reporters and freelance writers post queries, and publicity operations nationally join in the "rat race," as Lawrence describes it, to get media attention for their experts. Queries from ProfNet come by e-mail several times a day. On a recent day, the Cape Cod Times was "looking for an expert to speak about the potential benefits and drawbacks in genomic medicine"; the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was after experts on "pressure-treated lumber, which has been the subject of controversy lately"; Newsday wanted to explore "the problem of grandparents who interfere in their adult children's lives"; and the New York Daily News asked, "Can Sharon Stone be a sex symbol at forty-five?"

Susan Alberts, assistant professor of zoology, is about to appear on CNN as a result of another exercise of communications technology. Alberts was part of a research team that found that male baboons give preferential protection to their own genetic offspring, despite the fact that multiple males may mate with each female in a troop. That discovery is significant because it suggests that the fathering instinct might be more fundamental to primate evolution than previously believed.

CNN's chief science news correspondent, Ann Kellan, who has done science reporting at Duke before, is now a remote presence--by speakerphone--in Alberts' office. Alberts is gingerly walking around an array of camera lights. Studio manager Scott Wells and technical supervisor Tom Wilson have brought in the lights and the camera and rearranged Alberts' bookshelf as a backdrop. A set of thick binders and a big, bright box labeled "David MacCauley's The Way Things Work" are now out of range; books with titles like Darwin's Descent of Man, Private Life Histories and Socioecology, Foraging for Survival, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution, and Quantitative Conservation Biology will form the backdrop. "It's not even my office anymore," she says. "It's a jungle."

There's some discussion about whether Alberts should give up her jacket in the interest of projecting informality. Wells suggests that the jacket should stay on: "It gives us a lapel to hang the mike on." "Does my hair look okay?" Alberts asks. "This is one of the few times I can actually ask a man that."

Alberts sits across from Cabell Smith of News and Communications. Smith is someone for her to look at while she's talking--a kind of silent proxy for the remote Kellan, who, after editing, will appear to be engaging with Alberts on the scene. Right after the CNN interview, Smith will do his own interview, which he'll package into a video news release. He'll also get Alberts to do a voiceover commentary on the researchers' field footage of the baboons; CNN will run some of the footage along with the interview.

Kellan asks about the research and the researcher: Just how do adult baboons intervene on behalf of threatened young baboons? How do they recognize their offspring? Was Alberts surprised by her findings? What's the next stage in her research?

At the end of the interview, Alberts says, "Can you tell I've never done this before?" In fact, she showed herself to be a composed and knowledgeable interview subject. She expresses concern about the projected minute-and-a-half length of the segment. "I'm not sure a sound science story can come through in that time," she says. Smith assures her that, by TV standards, a minute and a half is a long time. "This has been really exciting," Alberts says. "I'm going to call my mom."

Scott Silliman has long since passed from nervous news novice to self-assured stalwart on the media must-call list. Silliman is director of the Duke Law School Center for Law, Ethics, and National Security and a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Since the start of the war on terrorism two years ago, he has done several hundred interviews. On a fall day consumed, like so many, with national-security news, Silliman is being interviewed on The Connection, a National Public Radio interview and call-in program from WBUR in Boston. Silliman's topic is the sexual-assault scandal in the Air Force Academy; the previous night, he was on another WBUR show, The Point, talking about the treatment of prisoners in Guant·namo Bay.

Just after the broadcast, Lindsay Miller, an associate producer with The Connection, explains what makes Silliman such a good expert for radio. "The expert has to be genuinely knowledgeable in his field and able to communicate it out loud, in a way that can be understood by the typical NPR listener. That listener may be really interested in the subject but isn't necessarily informed about it. We're often looking for that big-picture person who can help put events into a broader context."

Miller says her team talks about "wanting people who are ready to play, meaning they can kick that theme around, talk back and forth with the host and then with our callers. Some of the coolest things happen when the guest and a caller have a conversation. There are plenty of skilled professors, but some of them come across as if they're giving an academic paper, pointing out every nuance and hedging every statement."

Duke's location can be an asset when the program looks to book experts, she says. "We certainly try to reach out beyond Harvard. We don't want to go to one well all the time, because there are so many important and significant people elsewhere, and we're enriched by a range of voices." She also notes a technical virtue offered by Duke, the on-campus presence of a radio studio. "That certainly makes our life easier. We want a guest in a studio. It's a subtle audio thing, but the sound on a phone is different from studio sound, and if you're relegated to listening over phone lines, it's going to grate on you after a while."

For his part, Silliman says that the interviewing routine, for which he prepares with the same care he brings to his teaching, doesn't make his life easier: "You can't just walk into a studio and say, well, I didn't read today's paper, so don't ask me those questions." Still, he is wary of being questioned outside his expertise. He offers the example of a radio program that sought him out after the Israeli government threatened to displace Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. He declined the request. "If you start becoming an expert in everything, you become an expert in nothing. I don't want to be saying things where I don't think I can speak with authority."

Particularly in Silliman's area of expertise, reporters tend to be well-informed. (He did tell a local reporter that she would serve her readers better if she did basic research; she had begun an interview by asking him what the Geneva Convention was.) His only sour media foray, he says, was with Fox News on the theme of the war on terrorism. Silliman wanted to focus on substantive policy matters; Fox was more interested in his take on a presumed personality clash between a senator on the Judiciary Committee and the attorney general.

Silliman shares that story, between interviews, at a media-training workshop that draws about fifty faculty members to the depths of the divinity school. Fellow presenter Sally Hicks, from News and Communications, notes that the media encounter doesn't conform to the thorough and thoughtful academic routine of researching, writing, and revising. "Avoid jargon," she says. "Think through the few points you want to make, and bring in the relevant fact or anecdote." Think of the encounter as a teachable moment, and handle the poorly conceived or off-point question as you would in a class discussion: Guide the interviewer back to the point you're aiming to drive home. Never say, "No comment."

Richard O'Dor, who coaches Duke's debate team and is a lecturer in public policy, demonstrates mannerisms--tapping a pen, twirling some strands of hair, adjusting eyeglasses, tilting one's head at an unusual angle, staring disconcertingly, pivoting in a swivel chair, engaging in "chaotic, erratic eye behavior"--that can distract viewers of a television interview. "Be yourself," he counsels. "Don't role-play a person doing an interview."

A couple of professors ask about the downside of media exposure. Might their colleagues see them as showboating, perhaps evolving into a figure like Cornell's Carl Sagan, who came to be perceived within scientific circles as more of a popularizer than a working scientist? Burness, the senior vice president, says that faculty members will have to strike an appropriate balance, depending on where they stand in their career and how they define their scholarly focus.

Burness observes that the university and the media share a basic goal: "a mission to get to the truth and expand public understanding." He acknowledges that the two communities "don't necessarily talk very well together," that it can be a difficult task to educate reporters about the context behind a complex issue, and that a faculty is "filled with healthy skeptics and cynics."

But for all those who are skeptical or cynical about the media, there are many more who would identify with the scholarly sentiments of Provost Peter Lange. He tells his colleagues at the workshop, "As a faculty member, I love to have other people talk about my research."