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Journalists Need to Do a Better Job Matching ‘Experts’ to Their Actual Expertise

These are busy times for U.S. law professors. I study the constitutional law of the presidency—impeachment, pardons, the 25th Amendment, and the like. Reporters call and email frequently, asking for information or a quote about the latest Trump-related hullabaloo.

For a republic to thrive, its populace needs a solid grasp of civics. Ideally, journalists and experts will combine to spread knowledge and squash misinformation. By and large they do. But sometimes I worry about how well the “media-academic complex” performs these functions when highly technical issues are in the news.

My worries spiked on December 3, when Republican Representative Matt Gaetz suggested that lawmakers impeach Barack Obama rather than Donald Trump. In response to the public’s startled reaction, Gaetz doubled down, tweeting that yes, ex-presidents really can be impeached.

As luck would have it, I published a lengthy law review article in 2001 on the impeachability of former officials. More recently, I devoted a chapter to the question in my 2012 book, Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies. Nobody else has published any formal scholarship on this question. When it comes to “late impeachment,” I’m the guy.

But while multiple media outlets reported on Gaetz’s weird idea, not a single reporter contacted me. Late impeachment is not something law students learn about in their classes, and it takes more than a quick glance at the Constitution to sort it out. It also takes more than a web search to find me as the leading authority. I had dominated search results for all those years when nobody was talking about the issue. But Gaetz’s comment quickly banished me to the barren wasteland that is the second page of Google results.

Most of the professors who were consulted—experts on impeachment more generally—said things that were mostly correct. And the right answers to the key questions emerged in the lay press: yes, ex-presidents can be impeached; no, it almost never makes sense to do so. But most of the news stories contained basic technical errors and omitted key points.

So far, no doubt, everything you’re reading here sounds like it should fall under the headline “temperamental professor believes himself under-appreciated.” But the issue is broader than my own academic ego. And there’s a mismatch on the flip side, too, because in some cases, I get attention from journalists that isn’t really warranted. As I wrote at the outset, reporters contact me all the time. Sometimes, they ask about my areas of specialty. But often, they ask about things of which I have only a glib understanding and no special expertise.

It typically plays out like this:

Reporter: Hi. I’m writing a story about [legal issue X] on a tight deadline, and I found your name on a list of constitutional-law experts.  I have some questions that I was hoping you could answer.

Me: I’m sorry, but X isn’t really my area of expertise. This sounds like it’s actually more of a [some area other than constitutional law] issue. I don’t know any more about it than your average lawyer.

At this point, the reporter reminds me about the tight deadline, and I offer up what little I know. Often, this suffices. Reporters on tight deadlines generally are not seeking stunning and original insights. Usually, they just want basic information that they can attribute to somebody credible. The title of “professor” apparently supplies that credibility. Being the best person to comment on an issue with nuance and perfect accuracy? That is much less salient.

Compounding this problem is the phenomenon whereby risk-averse and time-stressed journalists simply follow one another’s lead: Once I am quoted in a story about a particular legal issue, I am much more likely to get calls from other journalists reporting on the same issue. I might find myself quoted all over the place. This will not be because I am a leading expert—or even because I am necessarily correct. Rather, it will be because of my promptness in returning reporters’ calls and my willingness to be quoted.

Many scholars, like me, have spent their careers analyzing hypothetical problems and issues that we believed would become relevant in the real world. What kind of system would allow journalists—whose job is to translate experts’ knowledge into something concise and understandable—to identify and leverage this kind of scholarship in that magic moment when the news cycle maps onto our areas of specialty?

* * *

My first suggestion is that journalists should do more to find the best sources on highly technical issues (Professor Right). They should be less willing to settle for the first person willing to provide a quote (Professor Right Now). One easy way to do this is to peruse Google Scholar (which, as the name implies, is a search engine that indexes scholarly literature) instead of just plain Google.

Experts can help fix the situation when the wrong phone rings. If journalists need more information than I can provide, they typically ask me to suggest other people to call. But I might not know off the top of my head who the real experts are. Indeed, if I only have a casual understanding of a technical question, chances are that I will have only a foggy (and maybe even biased) idea of who the best people to call might be. And so, for the reporter, a better question than “Who should I call?” is “Could you hop on your industry-specific digital channels”—which in my case would mean Westlaw or LEXIS—”and do a quick literature search, and tell me whose name comes up?”

This is a lot to ask of a busy academic, but it is worth it. Experts who are interested in helping journalists with technical queries (and if they were not interested, the conversation would have ended already) should have a few minutes to spare to identify the best sources. Even if I may not know the answer to a technical question, my general familiarity with the vocabulary used in my broader field will at least help me get the search terms right.

My second suggestion is that journalists be willing to use experts as reviewers instead of just sources. In my experience, journalists rarely will consult with an expert to ensure that their drafts are free of technical errors and misquotations (except at magazines, where fact-checkers are employed). In part, this is because a broadcast or newspaper reporter simply might not have enough time to make such a post-facto call. Or she might be worried that such self-review procedures, if institutionalized, may compromise her editorial independence.

But even something as basic as reading back an expert’s quotes can pay dividends. When experts feel misquoted, and thus mistreated, they will be more reluctant to talk to reporters in the future. I suspect that I am not the only academic with a no-go list of people and publications that have done me wrong. By simply letting experts see how they are about to be quoted, everyone will end up happier.

In some cases, even some kind of third-party informal peer review would help, such as with op-eds about highly technical issues. A recent piece in the Guardian by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich supplies a case in point.

Reich argued that it is worthwhile for the House of Representatives to impeach (i.e., formally accuse) President Trump for various crimes, even if there is zero chance of the Senate convicting him and removing him from office. One key reason, according to Reich, is that the House’s action would bar any future president from pardoning Trump for those crimes: “If Trump is impeached by the House, he can never be pardoned for these crimes…Even if a subsequent president wanted to pardon Trump in the interest of, say, domestic tranquility, she could not.” Or as the Guardian headline and sub-headline put it: “Trump won’t lose his job—but the impeachment inquiry is still essential: The process . . . will render the president unpardonable.”

Reich is a smart guy, but he is not an expert on the pardon power. The Guardian must not have taken the time—it would not have required much—to have an expert review Reich’s piece for glaring technical errors. If they had, they’d have known that Reich got it wrong. Constitutional law features a lot of questions over which reasonable minds can differ. This is not one of them.

By publishing Reich’s piece unvetted and shooting an error out into the world, the Guardian made the world a dumber place. I sincerely doubt that Reich or the Guardian had that as their goal. And yet it happened. (And as of December 16, more than two weeks later, the piece is still sitting there on the Guardian site, apparently unmodified from its original form.) A Google Scholar search and a phone call could have prevented this in a matter of minutes.

While journalists and academics have different audiences and operate at different paces, they share an underlying commitment to getting things right. They already combine to do a tremendous amount of work educating the public. But they could do better. And with a few small tweaks, they would.

 

Professor Brian C. Kalt teaches at Michigan State University College of Law.

Featured image: Brian Kalt speaks with Michael Smerconish of CNN in October, 2017. 

Comments

  1. I find this article fascinating because I am an expert in certain areas of law, but would never ever think of giving my advice to a journalist. Moreover, I suspect an Australian journalist would not ask real expert at all, but an academic who may have some knowledge of the area in question. The reason for that of course is that the real experts are practising lawyers who avoid giving out their opinions for free.
    A friend of mine is very bright barrister who was asked to do a semster’s teaching at a local university here in Sydney. He told me how amazed he was at the ignorance of the academics in our field, an ignorance that grew from the fact that they didn’t practise law, but were following along behind.

  2. I’ve been thinking for a while about how to restore flagging faith in the institution of the Free Press, especially in the light of some vaguely remember comments by Eric Weinstein talking about how the fact that Technology may well be eating it’s father Capitalism, causing the link between value and price to become dislocated in many respects, and this is what I’ve come up with. The incentives in journalism have become warped by the Tech Giants capture of Ad revenue from it’s traditional avenues. It’s all about clickbait these days, and the linking of narrative, with fans loyal to your political messaging, perverting modern journalism.

    The only way I can think to reverse these perniciously twisted incentives, would be to create some form of neutral Accreditation Service, with simple guidelines for objective fact-based journalism, a clear dividing line between real journalism and Opinion ‘think’ pieces and an inbuilt ‘right to reply’. There are independent services out there such as Newsguardtech.com, but they tend to be pretty basic and don’t really incentivise investigative journalism of the sort that used to break news on consumer products that could and did harm the public. Plus, there would need to be some sort of limited tort protection, at least for the purposes of shielding journalists from legal costs incurred by spurious SLAPP suits, whilst a civil proceeding was ongoing.

    Acting like a reimbursement mechanism for real investigative journalism, an Accreditation Agency like the Associated Press could refund the work done to bring public interest stories to light, acting as both a matter of prestige and engagement driver for the News Organisation, and a powerful incentive for potentially activist journalists to reform themselves and start investigating real news again- in the process, building themselves a reputation for impartiality whilst working towards their accreditation. The reimbursement mechanism would become a guaranteed basic salary subsidy for employers investing in research and investigation. News Organisations might become like professional stables, housing the thoroughbred racehorses of the investigative world, with entry level staffers working for low pay and the hope of learning from the greats, by doing their scutwork.

    And how to pay for it all? Well maybe a tiny sliver of turnover tax taken solely from ad revenue generated in the country that the sales are made. Also, whilst I like Andrew Yang’s policy of ‘Democracy Dollars’ and think it’s one of his better ideas- I can’t help thinking that it should be possible for Voters to alternately channel funding to those News Organisations or Online Publications that express their desire for better journalism. We might actually find that, much like the Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan phenomena, there is a deep yearning for more subtle and informative News Sources, and an appetite for Politicians to engage more with each other in earnest and civil conversations, as well as ‘Battle of Ideas’ debates.

    These ideas aren’t up to my usual standard of researched and thought-out commentary. I haven’t really had a chance to bounce my ideas off anyone on this subject. Although I do know a couple of people in media, I feel somewhat ignorant on the subject and worry that it might be taken as implicit criticism of their chosen specialism. Many journalists are somewhat more blameless than we tend to think, operating as they do, in the cosmopolitan liberal bubble with their inbuilt selection biases and believing that differences emerge from a lack of information, rather than a fundamentally divergent worldview based on differing experiences and different cognitive wiring which this website highlights:

    It’s why I always recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, whenever the opportunity presents itself…

  3. “While journalists and academics have different audiences and operate at different paces, they share an underlying commitment to getting things right”
    I doubt that’s true most of the time, and therein lies the rub

  4. Interesting. In a similar, not completely thought out post, I’ll share my thoughts. It seems to me connected to the conundrum of liberty- what happens when people make bad or stupid choices? What if, given freedom, most people will make a mess of it for themselves and others? What if most people are actually not interested in honest objective journalism? What happens when most people want to exercise their freedom by voting in their destruction, one way or another. Thomas Sowell brings up this point with economic policies- the democratic system actually disincentivizes long term beneficial policies, bec politicians are working towards getting reelected in the short term.
    I think that’s where inevitably, liberty supporters begin to support some measure of government imposition. Perhaps its akin to granting the government the power to stop bad players, we also grant it the power to stop really bad policies. But who gets to decide that?

  5. @Peter

    This detachment from the every day real practice of law is beginning to infect the appellate courts in the U.S. as more and more appointed appellate judges hail from academia. As one trial judge friend of mine once commented on the record, “Oh you know who the Court of Appeals are. They’re the ones who ride down off the mountain top after the battle and shoot all the survivors.”

  6. I do as well, and when I can, I follow up later to see if they’ve read it. Very often, they haven’t, but they have read some reviews of it online and feel that they are more than ready to discuss the book with you.

  7. I am confident that a neutral Accreditation Service would soon be taken over by progressive socialists.

  8. Interesting post however I think you may be overestimating societies desire for cold hard facts and underestimating mankind’s need for stories and narratives to make sense of the world around them.

    People generally prefer to read opinion pieces and columns instead of plain factual reporting(I’m guilty of this). I would point to the proliferation of “talking head” news channels that popped up in the 80’s as an example of society’s preference for narrative based reporting. I believe CNN, Fox News, & other networks are so popular because they dramatize the news and feed into our primal appetites(Fear, Tribal Belonging, and I would argue even Sanctification in some cases). I also would argue that it is more accurate to categorize the cable news outlets as entertainment channels instead of “news” channels.

    So in my opinion “click bait” is not anything new but simply a new form of sensationalizing facts to get attention which has been around for a long time. Unfortunately for this business model to last you have to keep ramping up the outrage factor which inevitably lead to absurdity and will then destroy any credibility you had in the first place(where we are now).

    And most importantly since information is shared so quickly with the internet it is not imperative for a news network to break a story since everyone else will have the information a few hours later. The reputation boost from breaking a story is not as big of a deal as it used to be. So why spend most of your overhead paying for reporters when you can have bigger personalities which are the main driver in ratings.

  9. As @Curious already pointed out, this passage rings false. I think most journalists and a good chunk of academics, particularly in the humanities, are committed to the vindication of their ideological biases. The author surely knows this but is appealing to the myth journalists and academics believe about themselves. Perhaps such flattery will work, but more likely will elicit a chuckle from the disillusioned reader.

  10. should have the power to stop really bad policies made by themselves?

  11. A recent piece in the Guardian by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich supplies a case in point. … Reich is a smart guy, but he is not an expert on the pardon power. The Guardian must not have taken the time—it would not have required much—to have an expert review Reich’s piece for glaring technical errors. If they had, they’d have known that Reich got it wrong.

    I am a near daily reader of the Guardian on line. Glaring technical errors about American law are so frequent that I find it impossible to believe that there is not a policy of willing blindness on the part of the editors. They are certainly told often enough about the errors by the handful of commenters who care about such things, and yet more glaring errors are piled upon others.

    The Guardian is simply not going to invest time and resources on having experts review their online articles and opinion pieces, so long as glaring errors support its editorial biases.

    By publishing Reich’s piece unvetted and shooting an error out into the world, the Guardian made the world a dumber place. I sincerely doubt that Reich or the Guardian had that as their goal.

    The author may be right about Reich, but he does not know the Guardian very well at all.

  12. While journalists and academics have different audiences and operate at different paces, they share an underlying commitment to getting things right.

    Putting aside for a moment the question of whether there is no law professor in the US who is dishonest in his life and in his work, I think most of us would unwilling to accept such a statement regarding journalists without some significant caveats and qualifications.

    There is no reason to believe that journalists possess traits of honesty, integrity, forthrightness and candor in excess of Americans who perform other kinds of work. (And if there have been any studies solicited and paid for by a newspaper, school of journalism or association of journalists that suggests otherwise, we should be very skeptical.)

    There are no pre-admission examinations for character before entering a journalism school, and notwithstanding a standardized criminal background check, the lying jackal who has not yet been caught out will find smooth sailing ahead, through graduation and into a job with a major news corporation.

    Exposure to censure from one’s editors and, less importantly, one’s peers, is the only thing that keeps journalists pointed more or less in the direction of (your personal notion of journalistic integrity here), and if one’s editors and peers are not particularly censorious, or if they are not bothered by occasional lapses of judgment in a good cause, or if they’ve been known to “make stuff up” themselves from time to time, then the path of righteousness will inevitably wander drunkenly away from the straight and narrow.

    As an example, I give you Bloomberg News, where the editors have recently instructed their journalists not to do any investigation of Democratic nominees for the presidency - only Trump. Where, one wonders, is the “underlying commitment to getting things right” of those Bloomberg journalists who have not yet resigned in protest and are still working there?

    Admittedly, we live in an age where trust in our fellow men is becoming harder to maintain, but there never has been a time in American history where journalists stood upon a hallowed pedestal of goodness and decency. It has always been a grubby business, always recognized by the public as a grubby business, and it’s greatest reason for existing at all has never been to bring the light of truth to the people, but to sell advertising space.

    Truth, or a facsimile thereof, is merely bait, and it doesn’t have to be good bait - it can smell very badly - so long as it exposes one’s eyes to the ads.

  13. The whole idea of lawyers stooping to be academics is a strange concept. Some Australian barristers whose practices are not flourishing may teach a course or two at university, as adjucts, to make ends meet, but the prosperous lawyers are all in private practice where the money is.

    Anyway, we need to see a good bit of old-fashioned lawyering as it is done in the Old Bailey:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z91zKX6b-w
  14. The author’s intentions are good but he makes a few assumptions that aren’t true. The biggest assumption he makes is that journalists are concerned with telling the truth or “getting it right.” I see zero evidence of that. I mean, maybe that’s how they imagine themselves, but in practice journalists are far more concerned with a) getting clicks and b) confirming the narrative their owners want. This is underscored by the fact that when they get it wrong, often blatantly and egregiously wrong, generally nothing happens to them at all. They simply move on to the next eye candy.

    Thus, the cost of getting it wrong is close to nil, whereas the cost of getting it right is time and losing one’s job. if ‘getting it right’ runs afoul of the narrative the owners buy into, then the journalist risks losing his/her entire career. (Imagine a journalist who wants to fairly and scientifically examine gender and sex.) For journalists who want their hard-to-get jobs, they have to ignore narratives that don’t conform to what their owners want (who their owners are is debatable. Surely the news owners. But it seems the media is either owned or in partnership/revolving door with various political and/or political organizations as well).

    For instance, the NYT admitted outright last year that the rapid rise in anti-semitic attacks in Brooklyn was going to go unreported by them, because the attacks weren’t committed by white supremacists but rather by African Americans, so therefore there was ‘no narrative.’ They said this outright.

    The other assumption he makes is that this is unique to his field. It is not. If you know anything about any topic, it’s almost always painful to read about it in the media.

    At least the media makes an attempt to contact an authority in his field. As a teacher, I regularly read articles filled with outright falsehoods and descriptions that bear no relation to reality, spouted by people who have zero expertise in the field. (Some fields are held in implicit contempt so ‘experts’ are not needed). Many times, the opinions read as marketing pamphlets for tech companies or publication companies or investors, as opposed to actual news and accurate information.

    The final assumption is that journalism wants to correct itself. What it wants is to fire as many people as possible and make the most money as possible. Accurate journalism costs money (time, expertise). Whereas chasing after Tweets costs nothing and generates sometimes far more clicks than a well thought out and researched and nuanced article. And a “journalist” with a large Twitter following - which is easily acquired if you are an SJW warrior, the more extreme the better - particularly a young cheap one, is the best journalist as readers are embedded in their Tweets. Nuanced argument doesn’t generate clicks the same way a blatantly slanted article does, due to human nature and confirmation bias. Media has discovered it gets far more readers when it caters to the extremes, caters to the narrative, caters to base emotions like fear and anger. So it chases that. Helpfully explaining to them how they might be more accurate is an exercise in futility. I suspect we will increasingly be getting our actual news from long podcasts, online sites, and citizen-journalists. With some exceptions, the MSM is carving out for itself a role as unpaid marketing departments for political parties and/or dogmatic ideologies. That isn’t journalism as it’s always been defined; it’s more like a propaganda arm of the state or the church or both, not concerned with 'getting it right," unless by “it” one means “the story or dogma.”

  15. A journalist’s purpose: make money to pay for rent and groceries
    A media outlet’s purpose: make money to keep the business going and so the owner can pay rent and buy groceries
    A journalist’s business model: Write stories the media outlet is likely to buy
    A media outlet’s business model: Get as many people as possible to pay attention to stories so that they will also come in contact with advertising for the inclusion of which the media outlet can charge money.
    The story’s purpose: Entice readers to give attention to it so that the media outlet can track this attention via subscriptions or click counts and charge advertisers more money as the attention increases.

    If there is any good information to be had it is purely incidental and driven by some lone idealists desire to actually sell a good product not just what the audience is likely to buy. Sadly, most people only want to know what confirms their bias or takes them out of their comfort zone just enough to give them the illusion of broadmindedness.

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