AUSTRALIA: Academics and the media

Surprisingly little has been written about academia's relationship with the media in Australia. The exception has been recent interest in defining and naming 'public intellectuals' - people who can move easily between topics, drawing on a variety of philosophical positions or contextual understandings. Public intellectuals are exalted, but rare, birds. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. Academics can move between three models of media engagement.

One is the public intellectual, a true generalist. Another is the advocate, an activist for (or against) reform. The third is the educator, the sub-disciplinary expert.

This essay defines and explores these roles. It draws in part from law, my discipline of 17 years, but is generalised to the broader academy.

Historically, academics were wary of the media's tendency to scandalise and inability to convey the nuance which scholarship prizes. This scepticism is pronounced in disciplines where practitioner or liberal educational values counsel modesty and impartiality. The disciplinary upbringing of most academics as specialists, rather than generalists, means few are groomed to become public intellectuals. Yet many engage in advocacy and education in the media. With media diversification, there are more outlets than ever, including through blogging.

There remain good grounds for ambivalence about the media and, indeed, the 'corporate' university's hunger for publicity. The essence of academia is not mere opinionation or reaction to cycles of controversy, but reflective expertise. The intensification of media cycles ensures that concerns about media 'scandalisation' and shallowness remain relevant. In addition, the internet risks fragmenting public discourse as much as it may democratise it.

However, there is consonance, as well as dissonance, between academia and the media. Thus, while some wariness is justified, engagement with the media, if practised with self-restraint, is a valuable extension of academic endeavour. It should not be mandated in every academic job description. But it is a natural, public calling of academic as a whole.

Full article on the University World News site

* Graeme Orr is an associate professor of law at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

* "Academics and the Media" appears in the latest edition of the journal Australian Universities' Review. It is republished with permission.