In moving beyond the heated debate about whether or not having lots of Twitter followers makes you important (rilly – the things people get heated up about) Jeff Jarvis makes some broader, more important points. And, unusually, I find myself disagreeing with him on one.
Jeff makes this assertion about the role of journalists, and whether or not they deserve to be regarded as expert in a subject (bold emphasis is mine):
“[T]he press came to believe its own PR and it conflated size with authority: We are big, therefore we have authority; our authority comes from our bigness. But the press, of all parties, should have seen that this didn’t give them authority, for the press was supposed to be in the business of going out to find the real authorities and reporting back to what they said. This is why I always cringe when reporters call themselves experts. No, reporters are expert only at finding experts.”
Let me start disagreeing by agreeing. Jeff is right on this, in a historical sense. Many reporters are not experts about what they report on. Indeed, it’s probably accurate to say most stories are written by journalists who have only just come to the matter in question. They enter the scene – a motorway crash, a political dispute, a murder investigation, whatever – find the principle figures, ask questions and write up the answers. That’s their job.
But away from those staples, there’s a strong argument for journalists in the future to be experts in what they write about, especially when they cover complex fields. Experts make fewer mistakes, and say fewer sillier things. Read Ben Goldacre’s summary of The Year In Bad Science to see what a potent mix of innumeracy, scientific ignorance and bad reporting can bring readers over 12 months. Or, another way: anyone who has been the subject of much press coverage, or read much coverage of a subject they really know about, will know that journalists often make mistakes.
Sometimes it’s a simple error of fact, but a common transgression is the error of interpretation; the facts are all there, and correct, but presented in such a way as to introduce an inaccuracy. It’s like reading a Google Translate version of a bit of writing; the words are all there, but the translation doesn’t necessarily make any sense to a native speaker.
This kind of error creeps in because that interpretation only comes with deep knowledge and experience, and a journalists can’t get that deep understanding by writing just a single story.
Sometimes, specialism isn’t possible. And this inefficiency has been the case for as long as journalism has existed – part of the trade-off needed to allow an affordable mass media (you lose economies of scale if you have an expert on staff for every occasion, and a specialist write-up of every niche story. Staff, ink and paper cost money).
But that trade-off is also at the heart of what is changing today in journalism, because in some cases staff, ink and paper costs are falling to zero. True experts – often non-journalists – can find a mass media voice too, without journalism having to be their job. Someone can live the story – but they can also blog, tweet, podcast and vidcast about it. They’ll find an audience if they’re any good, and anyone’s interested.
Having insiders cover a story they are also part of presents an obvious ethical challenge, but a concern has to be readers may not care, valuing insider access over ethics (they may figure they can figure out biases for themselves). And in this world, the old journalism – the old, generalist, non-expert just-ask-the-questions-ma’am journalism – doesn’t work any more. Across specialisms, there will be people who know more, doing a better job of explaining what’s going on than the pros.
How does journalism react? Well, as Jeff says, by doing what we do best and linking to the rest. But it would also be very limiting to reduce journalists to simply making calls to bring the right people together (although that must be part of their role too, of course). Expert knowledge injects passion, lets us ask better, harder, fairer questions, lets us call bullshit where we see it, enables a view of their bit of the world that goes beyond he-said-she-said. Where editors believe particular stories are core to their journalistic mission, we need to employ the experts – or encourage journalists to become expert in their subject.
A rise in specialism in journalism – and more true experts working in journalism – is going to be a central plank in journalism’s recovery from the hole it’s in. It’ll keep it relevant, and make it better.
Maybe many journalists haven’t made great gurus to date. But, in the future, cringe at the thought of journalists as experts? Nah – celebrate them. They’ll be some of our profession’s saviours.