From speaking to community groups to liaising with the media and briefing policymakers, political scientists share their work with non-academic audiences in diverse ways. In this new interview series from APSA’s Public Engagement Program, APSA members discuss how and why they engage in the public arena and offer their tips for successful engagement. For more information, including resources on engagement and a sign-up sheet for APSA’s Experts Database, visit the APSA Public Engagement Program home page.
Melissa K. Miller, Ph.D.
Bowling Green State University
Melissa Miller is an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University. Dr. Miller is an expert on American politics with a specific focus on elections and voting behavior, women in American politics, public opinion, and the media. She teaches courses in American Government, Political Parties, Voter Behavior, Women in American Politics, and Research Methods. Dr. Miller holds an A.B. from Cornell University, where she majored in Government; a Master in Public Policy from Harvard University, where her concentration was Press, Politics & Public Policy; and a PhD in Political Science from Northwestern University.
In what ways do you engage in the public arena? Share some background on the different public engagement activities you’ve carried out.
Dr. Miller: Media interviews are my most frequent form of public engagement. This no doubt stems from the fact that I live and work in Ohio, where I study and teach American politics with an emphasis on voter behavior, political parties, and gender. Thanks to Ohio’s status as a key battleground state in presidential elections, my public engagement spikes every four years like clockwork.
I have never thought of myself as a thrill-seeker, but live television and radio are my favorite mediums for public engagement. I relish the challenge of having one chance to state things clearly and succinctly on live television. In the 2016 election cycle I have provided live, on-air analysis of presidential primaries and caucuses, the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and the presidential debates.
Live radio presents a different challenge: taking calls from listeners. My approach is to treat radio listeners as I would my students. I am gratified when my remarks have piqued their interest, so I treat listeners’ questions with respect and acknowledge when they add insight to the discussion or introduce an important perspective heretofore ignored in the conversation.
Interviews with the print media are rewarding in a different way. They allow for fuller exposition of a topic in what can often become a conversation with a reporter. While a 20-minute interview with a print journalist may or may not result in lengthy quotations in print, I often find that such interviews give me a chance to elaborate on a topic that inevitably comes up during a subsequent class or, often, subsequent interview.
…I approach my public engagement as an extension of my teaching: my goal is to illuminate an issue so that viewers, listeners, readers, and students can make a more informed choice or hold a more educated opinion – not adhere to my particular political viewpoint.” – Dr. Miller
In 2016, I have begun experimenting with the op-ed format. Together with my friend and colleague, Sam Nelson of Cornell University, I have co-authored two op-eds published online by CNN Opinion. The first was published during the 2016 presidential primary season and took on the myth that style trumps substance in presidential debates. The second was published shortly after NBC anchor Matt Lauer was widely panned as moderator of the “Commander in Chief Forum.” Sam and I argued that the moderator role should be significantly limited beginning in 2020. Compared with being interviewed on each topic, the op-ed format allowed us to provide an extended discussion and argument, and each was read by a wide, national audience.
Most recently, I initiated a weekly podcast on the 2016 presidential election featuring faculty from the Political Science Department at Bowling Green State University. “Battleground Ohio: Assessing the 2016 Presidential Race” is available on ITunes and is a collaborative project of our American Politics faculty. The project spans the 9-week period between Labor Day and November 8. Each podcast addresses a discreet, election-related topic on which we have expertise. The fact that the podcast is recorded on the campus of Bowling Green State University – situated in a swing county within a swing state – gives us a unique vantage point from which to assess the race.
Why do you engage? What motivates your public engagement activities?
Dr. Miller: Turn on cable news on any given night and you will most likely be confronted with dueling partisans battling it out on panels that weigh in on the latest political developments. Opinion seems to dominate cable news coverage – not to mention Twitter, social media, and increasingly, America’s print and online media. Thus I consider it a privilege to offer insight to the broad public based on my scholarship and study.
The more you can efficiently link your public engagement work to your research, teaching and service, the better.” – Dr. Miller
As political scientists, our value added is precisely the research and scholarship – rather than partisan orthodoxy – on which our views are based. Sharing such knowledge can elevate public discourse and understanding of critical issues. Viewers, readers, and listeners in the media landscape recognize the difference. I am often struck by how many people – neighbors, acquaintances, and even complete strangers – remark on the unbiased nature of my contributions in the media. This stems not from any lack of partisanship or strong political opinions on my part, believe me, but from the fact that I wear my proverbial “political scientist hat” when faced with a question from a TV, radio, or print reporter. In this way, I approach my public engagement as an extension of my teaching: my goal is to illuminate an issue so that viewers, listeners, readers, and students can make a more informed choice or hold a more educated opinion – not adhere to my particular political viewpoint.
As a scholar at a public university, I also feel especially obliged to engage with the public through public talks and media interviews. I am fully aware (and often concerned) that elected officials sometimes question the value of our work. Demonstrating the real-world applications of political science is important to build both public and public-sector appreciation for our important contributions, both on-campus and off.
What tips would you offer to other scholars interested in becoming more actively involved in public engagement?
Dr. Miller: As someone who feels strongly that scholars should engage with the public, I was lucky to have public engagement find me, rather than having to seek it myself. The year was 2007, when the U.S. Representative for Ohio’s Fifth Congressional District suddenly died in office, necessitating an unusual, off-year, special election. Fox News was the first to call the department for an expert to weigh in on the race, and I happened to be standing next to the secretary’s desk at the time.
My initial foray in the media may have been happenstance, but its longevity probably stems from the lessons I quickly learned in 2007 – lessons which are reinforced every four years when Ohio’s battleground state status once again draws the media to the Buckeye State and my office.
- Time is of the essence. Academics tend to take the long view when it comes to research and scholarship – an approach that is anathema in the news business. For the media, quick turn-around is essential, so responding quickly and enthusiastically to interview requests tends to be rewarded.
- Know what you’re going to say. Never be embarrassed about asking for the general topic and questions in advance of a media interview. After all, TV reporters want guests to appear comfortable and prepared on camera. Print reporters would prefer not to waste their time with a source who lacks detailed knowledge of the topic at hand. Knowing the topic and general questions in advance also allows you to gather pertinent information and prepare talking points. Just 15-20 minutes of preparation to organize your thoughts can make the difference between an effective interview full of substance and insight, and one that lacks clarity and focus.
- Embrace the sound of the sound bite. Academics, including myself, often lament the “sound bite” nature of the news. After all, we deal in books, chapters, footnotes, and citations – not 30-second sound bites. But the reality is that journalists are looking for sources ready with pithy, quotable insights that shed light on breaking news in a compelling and easy to comprehend manner. Academics may lend gravitas to a news broadcast, but holding forth at length only guarantees fewer interview requests in the future. In academic parlance, provide the abstract, not the dissertation.
- Find synergies between your media work and your scholarship, teaching and service. Look for ways to get extra mileage out of the time you put into media interviews. If you’ve done several media interviews on the topic of immigration reform, chances are you could prepare a 35-minute talk on the subject for the local chapter of the League of Women Voters or a brief lecture on the topic for your introductory or upper-division political science course. The more you can efficiently link your public engagement work to your research, teaching and service, the better.