Mass communication of professor’s work changes his approach to future studies

4 weeks ago
Cara Santucci
Managing Editor

Alex Piquero’s work has appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It’s been lambasted in an opinion authored by Ann Coulter. Former President Barack Obama has cited Piquero’s research as a reason for declaring October National Youth Justice Awareness Month.

The Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology and associate dean of graduate programs for EPPS, believes the influx of media attention on his research has caused him to relate differently to his work as an academic.


Advertisement


“(As) a scientist, you’re never taught how to deal with the media. You go to graduate school, you never learn this stuff,” he said. “So it’s kind of learning as you go. … It’s been interesting to communicate to different audiences the same message. And so it forces you as a scholar to kind of think carefully about that. It’s pushed me to be better.”

Piquero’s latest research project delved into whether or not NFL players had higher rates of arrest than the rest of the population — which he said most of the country was inclined to believe.

“That was all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t based on any objective data,” he said. “As a social scientist, I’m always interested in understanding the way the world works, but also, if people say, ‘X is the reality of the world,’ to me that’s what’s called an empirical question. I need to gather data to see if that is in fact the case.”

The effort resulted in three papers. The first, published in 2015, found NFL players actually had lower arrest rates. The second, published in 2016, proved incidents of violent arrest are lower than expected for NFL players.

The most recent study found a positive correlation between NFL penalties on the field and arrest outside of the workplace.

“Some people do really stupid things when they’re 14 or 15 years old. A lot of people have arrests. It doesn’t mean that just because they have one arrest they’re going to be a bad employee or a bad person. In fact, the majority of people in the general population who have one arrest never have a second arrest,” he said. “The key is to use that information to inform a decision, but not automatically to rule someone in or rule someone out.”

As Piquero’s football studies emerged over the past three years, media attention for his NFL research — among other projects — exploded.

After his first paper on the players and arrests published, Lisa Friel, special counsel for player conduct to the NFL, helped Piquero set up a conference call with three vice presidents of the corporation, who wanted to keep tabs on what he was learning.

Reuters, ESPN, CNN and The Huffington Post all covered his research. Gaining that kind of recognition for UTD is critical to help put a university on the map.

Part of the media’s interest in his work, he said, comes from the blending of pop culture and science.

“It’s been interesting because everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I always thought it was this.’ And so they’re intrigued by the novelty of the research, not just debunking this myth, but also the fact that we were able to access these data and to ask these kinds of research questions,” he said.

Despite Piquero’s willingness to be interviewed for radio shows, television and print articles, he said he was never given any formal training to do so. Academics shouldn’t have to learn to communicate with media, he said. But, there are definite advantages to scholars who push themselves out of their comfort zones.

“It’s useful, because you never know when someone might come across a study or a newspaper might see a press release, or something, and then they’re interested,” he said. “I think it would be helpful for (academics) to understand the process.”

When thinking about his entry into the press, Piquero recalled the adage, “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

“If you’re going to enter the domain, be ready for the domain,” he said.

Having 20 years of experience as a devoted academic made him more comfortable speaking with reporters, he said.

“I couldn’t have done this one year out of graduate school, because I didn’t know anything. Who knows anything? I know a little bit more now. And 10 years from now I’ll be better than now. But I could not have done this earlier in my career,” he said.

Piquero said learning to communicate his message to the laypeople has caused him to think more critically about certain aspects of his research.

“The craft of an academic and a researcher is a serious enterprise. You are contributing scientific knowledge to the body of scientific knowledge that exists in the world. I think you have to take that part seriously,” he said. “I think very carefully about what the study finds will mean, but more importantly about how people interpret the findings. And that’s the key.”

For example, reading the study that shows a correlation between NFL penalties and arrests might cause one to think it unwise to draft a player with a record. That, Piquero said, is the exact assumption he wants the average reader to avoid.

He not only wants his readers to interpret his work correctly, but also to enjoy the science behind it.

“I want my message to be able to reach my academic peers,” Piquero said. “I want it to be able to reach my parents, who never went to college. I want people to have dinner conversations about this stuff. Anything that can get people engaged and talking about the science, I think it’s fun. I think science should be fun.”

When he first began publishing his research on the NFL three years ago, Piquero did not expect an international spotlight to shine on his work. Though engaging with the media and communicating his findings to all different kinds of audiences, Piquero said he’s begun to write better and think a little differently.

“You don’t set out to do this. As an academic, you’re setting out to do good research,” he said. “Never that this would happen.”