Faculty called upon for expertise as media cover significant current events
When a young man was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., media coverage did not naturally gravitate toward examining mid-century suburban development in the St. Louis area.
For Clarence Lang, however, the connection between the current situation and his historical research on St. Louis was clear.
“In terms of my interest in race, urban politics and governance, social movements and the 20th century, I think that positioned me in an interesting way to comment on contemporary issues,” said Lang, an associate professor of African & African-American studies and American studies.
Recently, national and world crises have dominated headlines and media have frequently sought researchers’ expertise to gain a new perspective and better understand the context of current events. College of Liberal Arts & Sciences professors at the University of Kansas have been called on to provide new insight on issues surrounding Ferguson, as well as Ukraine and the Ebola virus.
Lang has examined African-American communities and social movements in St. Louis and its suburbs between the 1930s and 1970s. Shifts in the racial makeup of the suburbs between then and now have contributed to the tension and unrest seen in Ferguson, Lang said. White residents have moved into outer suburbs or back to the city center, while black residents have moved or been displaced into inner ring suburbs, such as Ferguson. At the same time, municipal leadership has not shifted to reflect current demographics.
“Part of my argument with St. Louis is that it’s a laboratory that can tell us a lot about national trends. And I think that Ferguson in a similar manner can tell us a lot about issues of space, of race, of inequality, of politics today. It’s a microcosm,” Lang said.
Lang is among several faculty in the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences who have become de facto media experts. Calls have come from around the country and around the world, including The New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week and Buzzfeed in Nairobi.
The connection between researchers and news media is facilitated through the KU News Service, whose mission is to help KU research reach broader audiences.
“One of the interesting things about this episode is that there’s no such thing as a marginal topic,” Lang said. “Because you never know in the course of political, social and cultural events when your topic may come to the forefront and suddenly your expertise is called upon.”
Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, studies contemporary culture of the post-Soviet world, with primary focus on Ukraine and Russia. As relations between the two countries have quickly deteriorated since the Ukrainian revolution, his specialty has been thrust front and center.
“I got calls asking to comment on an extremely broad range of topics. Some of them lend themselves more easily to discussion, such as the role of minority religious groups in Ukraine’s life – many Westerners were surprised to learn that the acting president of Ukraine in February-June 2014, Oleksandr Turchynov, was a Baptist minister,” Chernetsky said. “Other topics were more unusual; for instance, I had to comment on the fistfights that occasionally break out in the Ukrainian parliament.”
An Ebola researcher, however, is more used to seeing his subject make headlines. John Janzen has studied and compared all Ebola outbreaks until this year’s. He has tracked the pattern of spread, containment methods, public health measures and social control. The knowledge allows him to provide media greater detail about why the reaction varies from case to case.
“I explain why in some cases the community reacts to these fearful outbreaks with panic, flight, and attacking healthcare workers, whereas in other cases the response is more reasoned and deliberative,” said Janzen, a professor emeritus of anthropology.
What was striking for Janzen in his interactions with media was how the interests varied in the U.S. compared with media outlets abroad.
“The conventional U.S. media … are totally focused on whether we are in danger here. There is no interest in the actual developments of the epidemic in Africa, how people are organizing and coping, overcoming the threat,” he said. “By contrast, international media … were interested in the actual events, or even specific aspects, like containment in Monrovia, whether multiple-country collaboration was possible diplomatically, and so on.”
Janzen also saw challenges in distilling wide-ranging research into quick soundbites.
“Journalists operate on a 24-hour cycle and expect you to be an instant expert with a few phrases to encapsulate really complex realities that anthropologists take months or years to figure out,” Janzen said.
Chernetsky noted the contrast as well between media interviews and his daily routine as a professor.
“News media interaction is very different from the classroom setting. You have to be really concise; at the same time, be prepared that the journalist interviewing you might use only one sentence from the interview,” Chernetsky said.
Yet, the researchers see the experience as a significant opportunity to better inform the public and elevate the conversation around current issues.
“The recent developments in Ukraine offer a fundamental challenge to the world. More than ever, we need to step outside comfortable stereotypes, established patterns of thought, and knee-jerk reactions,” Chernetsky said. “The recent sociocultural developments keep making our world smaller and more tightly connected. Ukraine may be far away from Kansas, but what happens there impacts our lives here in innumerable ways.”
And just as what happens across the world can have broad impact, research at the University of Kansas can have broad implications. The researchers’ role as media experts expands access to their ideas beyond academics and students. For Lang, he views the experience as an extension of the mission of a public research university.
“To have the opportunity to address broad publics I hope answers the question about what the humanities and what research universities and what trained scholars can bring to society,” Lang said. “They can help interpret the issues of the day in ways that other people are not always as positioned to do.”