Engaging with the media, punditry and public sociology: On becoming the accidental voice of a micro-generation

Dan Woodman, TASA President:

Many TASA members are regular contributors to the media (old and new). I try to take up as many opportunities as I can to talk to journalists about my research, particularly if there is an opportunity to defend the groups I study from unfair attack, or to advocate for the importance (and excellence) of a sociological way of looking at contemporary issues. In this letter, I take the opportunity to share a recent experience of media engagement that did not go as I expected, highlighting the possibilities available to us to reach a wider audience than ever before, but also how easy it is to lose control of the messages we hope to convey.

For readers who don’t know my work, I am a sociologist of youth and generations. With Johanna Wyn and others I have spent well over a decade following Australians through young adulthood. Journalists regularly contact me asking about generational labels. Often, they are asking for a comment about new marketing research or statements from a Minister, CEO, marketer or media personality playing into stereotypes that ‘Gen Y’s are entitled or narcissistic’.

I have my standard answer to these queries. There is a grain of truth to generations talk, our lives are shaped by the times in which we grow up and this can have life-course effects. But the way we talk about generations tends to be blunt, homogenising, to underplay inequality, and often functions as a nasty form of stereotyping. The sociology of generations can help us understand our changing world and how youth and adulthood are altering, but generation bashing can distract us from the causes of inequality, intra– or inter-generational. I try to add some nuance to the debates, but often end up being quoted a couple of times as the voice of caution among other ‘generations’ pundits pushing the stereotypes.

A couple of months ago I received an email from a journalist named Rachel Curtis requesting an interview, seeming after my usual spiel. Little did I know that this particular little piece of public sociology was going to play out very differently. When we spoke, Rachel hit me with a slightly different question. If the labels tend to function as blunt stereotypes, would it make sense to cut the generational groups differently, or make finer distinctions? She had seen the idea of a cross-over generation between Gen X and Gen Y in online journalism and blogs.

My answer was that this was plausible but difficult, largely because of the limits of any generational typology. Different generational schemes cut the generations at different points, and some include smaller transitional generations like the ‘Baby Busters’ or ‘Generation Jones’ between the Boomers and Generation X. The arguments for the particular generational groupings we use are not so empirically robust if you take the time to look beyond the labels to the research behind them. I was clear that this was speculative, not based on my research, and that all the usual warnings about generational labels applied.

I was expecting to be one of several voices contributing to the article, but when the article appeared it was an interview piece and I was the solo contributor. The article was largely a fun take on a transitional group between two well-known generational cohorts, but was ambiguous on some key points. It read as if the idea of a crossover generation might have been mine, and like I might have done some research to back it up, not simply given a speculative response on the fly to a few questions from the journalist. Oh well, I thought, no real harm. A day later a new article appeared in the Daily Mail (a publication well-known for recycling material). Now all ambiguity was gone – with the sub-banner headline reading Australian Professor Dan Woodman says there is a new micro generation. The journalist who wrote this piece never talked to me, but wildly exaggerated the content in the original article (I will now claim, after a couple of drinks, to be part of the same club as JK Rowling and Amal Clooney in getting ‘Daily Mailed’).

For reasons known only to the news-site algorithms and masters of click-bait, this idea hit at the right moment, and went viral around the echo – and amplification – chamber of the new media. A couple of months later there are (by my rough count) over one hundred new articles and blogs across at least four continents discussing my take on the Xennials. Many of these pieces feature quotations from me, taken without attribution from the original article, with very few authors bothering to talk to me to confirm what was said or meant. Many of the journalists involved seem not to have taken the time to research (even Google) the history of the term, or just decided that it would be a better yarn if an academic’s name was attached to it.

In the end, this coverage was relatively harmless. Many of the issues TASA members research and talk about are tied much more closely to core questions of identity, inequality and even life and death. I’ll probably even get a certificate from my university at some point for my ‘engagement’ (in my experience, unless they start fielding criticisms, the media office focuses on how many times the university and its academics are mentioned, and isn’t too concerned about the quality of what is being said).

The experience has, however, left me a little sheepish. As someone who has written a book about the value of the sociology of generations but critical of simplistic generational labels, I was concerned about what my colleagues would think about my seemingly wholehearted embrace of ‘generations’ punditry.  I’ve written and spoken many times about the need for a healthy dose of scepticism towards the generational snake-oil sellers, who tell us that they have discovered a group alien in attitude and that we need their expertise to be able to work with them, or sell to them. And the coverage I received made it look like I’d pulled out several overpriced bottles of oil and set up a stand. I felt a little better after writing a piece for The Conversation, to clear things up.

A key way for sociologists to contribute to public debates is through engaging with the media. For sociologists studying youth and young adulthood, this engagement will likely mean talking about generational labels, and hopefully being able to add some critical nuance to the debates. I have learned something of the workings and risk of the new media environment we face over the past couple of months. Your words are not only in the hands of one journalist, but then potentially reworked many times over by others who have never spoken to you. Once something takes off, the over-zealous email writers and Twitter trolls appear, even on seemingly innocuous topics. I was lucky to be a man with all sorts of privilege, discussing something pretty light-hearted. Yet, I have at least some new insight into why others, writing on more contentious topics, may be wary of engaging with the media, new or old, no matter how much their employer tells them that they should.

Happily, the Xennials craze has died down, and the handful of trolls have moved on, leaving me time to return to important tasks, like writing my letter for Nexus. There is a great public thirst for sociological insights and one of the tasks facing the current TASA Executive is to find ways to facilitate our members providing these insights while protecting sociologists, and sociology, from the more egregious attacks. The Executive are also working on ideas to engage more directly with the public. Stay tuned for more in the next issue of Nexus – it’s what the Xennials are doing.

Dan Woodman

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