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Media slut or community-minded public intellectual?

by Shari Graydon

Media slut — the term probably brings to mind the ubiquitous Paris Hilton of a few years ago, which perhaps explains why it’s an insult feared by tenure-track seeking scholars who want their academic credentials taken seriously. Nothing undercuts that like being perceived as irrepressibly self-promotional.

Neither a performing artist nor an academic, my perspective’s a little different, but I think there’s a lesson to be taken from the fact that every significant career opportunity I’ve had in the past 20 years has resulted — directly or indirectly — from the profile I gained through providing commentary to the news media.

As the president of MediaWatch (now Media Action) throughout most of the 1990s, I gave hundreds of interviews on issues related to the portrayal and representation of women in the media. But often the only reason my name made it into reporters’ Rolodexes in the first place was because I’d taken the time to write an op ed about an emerging issue. By publicly declaring my informed opinion, I often increased both the life of the story and the profile of my organization.

In the process — although this wasn’t the plan — I enhanced my own career opportunities. My occasional op ed writing helped me get accepted to grad school, gave me an opportunity to write a regular column for the Vancouver Sun and convinced the W Network (then WTN) to take a chance on allowing me to produce a 13-part TV series about women and media. Those experiences, in turn, helped me get a book contract, semi-regular gigs on both CBC Radio and TV commenting on media issues, and eventually a job as press secretary to a BC premier. Along the way, I’ve been invited to speak to hundreds of groups and at dozens of conferences, which has translated into more speaking and writing opportunities.

On Saturday, one of the scholars from the University of Western Ontario who participated in the Informed Opinions workshop there, echoed this experience. She did so in response to some of her colleagues expressing reservations about being seen as a “media slut” if they cheapen themselves by responding to — let alone seeking — media interviews or exposure. Even though she’s operating in a very different, tenure-track environment — one that places more value on publishing in peer-reviewed journals than in a daily newspaper — she claimed a similar benefit from having provided context about her field to mainstream media. In her case, such exposure led to invitations to speak internationally — and those, in turn, led to increased credibility here at home.

In my books, scholars who provide illuminating analysis about complex issues are performing a public service — and given that they are, essentially, public servants (on the government payroll, paid to educate citizens), that seems both laudatory and appropriate.

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