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Working to Get Women, Minority Voices in the Media

Deadline to apply for 2013 Public Voices Fellowship Program is Aug. 16

EVANSTON, Ill. — Applications are now being taken for a Northwestern University program that got off to a great start last year helping women and minority faculty members raise their profiles and make their voices heard on a wide range of issues in major media.

The 2012 fellows in Northwestern’s Public Voices Fellowship Program shared their expertise in more than 100 radio or online news segments, including in 70 op-ed pieces that ran in news outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Al Jazeera and CNN.

The program is sponsored by the Office of the Provost in partnership with The OpEd Project, created by journalist and author Catherine Orenstein in response to the dearth of female and minority voices in mainstream media opinion.

Applications and all required materials for the 2013 Public Voices program must be submitted by Aug. 16.

The fellows work with journalist coaches who demystify the ways the media operates through individual coaching and in seminars and phone conferences with leading editors. After the program concludes, the fellows receive an additional full year of access to the OpEd Project’s national network of mentor-editors.

At first glance, the marriage of the media with scholars with such deep knowledge about the crucial issues of the day may seem like a cinch. But, as the fellows learn in the program, communicating complex ideas with simplicity of expression for a wide audience -- and with a relevant news hook -- is not as easy as it seems.

According to feedback from the scholars as well as the number of media placements, the fellows learned their lessons well.

Christina Traina, a professor of religious studies at Northwstern and a 2012 Public Voices fellow, was effusive about the domino effects that follow the publication of op-eds in major media.

“If the idea is to have your work produce some kind of influence in the world and get connections with people who can further your work, this is a wonderful pathway that most academics don’t exploit,” she said.

Public Voices is facilitated by Michele Weldon, journalist, author, public speaker and assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication, and E. J. Graff, contributing editor at The American Prospect and The Advocate and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

The two journalists work closely with the fellows in one-on-one coaching. In seminars that take place four times a year, the fellows come together to share experiences and learn through various exercises how they can best communicate their expertise in ways that make sense in a media format. And in regular phone conferences, they learn from top editors what a particular news organization is looking for in op-eds or media sources.

Traina stressed that women -- even at the highest levels of academia -- tend to underestimate their authority as media experts. The Public Voices exercises and discussions about serving as a media source were enlightening, she said.

When a journalist calls on a tight deadline, she learned, simply telling the reporter that you will call her back in 15 minutes can alleviate stress and make the difference in feeling prepared for the interview.

“You don’t need to say a lot,” Traina said. “You need to be succinct and direct -- and you need to realize that even though you’re not the world’s expert on a particular subject, you probably know more than the average person.”

For op-ed writing, the importance of being relevant cannot be overstated, she said.

“You continually have to think of ways to make the issues important to you relevant to this moment, either to an unfolding news issue or something that is breaking.”

For op-ed writing, scholars also must leave behind the highly nuanced and specialized writing of the academy. 

"The most important lesson to learn is the difference between academic writing and opinion writing," Traina said. “Opinion writing needs to have a hook. It needs to have a lead; it needs to cut to the chase; it needs to have embedded references to easily accessible sources; it needs to be current.”

Keep in mind also that Northwestern’s department of media relations works regularly with faculty on writing, editing and placing op-eds and connecting experts with media on the big stories of the day.

Twenty fellowships will be awarded to the 2013-2014 Public Voices Fellowship Program.

Apply now.

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