The continuum of expertise

Over the weekend I stumbled upon two phrases, new to me, which I instantly loved – “monitorial citizenship” and “temporary experts”. And I thought they both say something important about the role of expertise in journalism as a whole and in science journalism in particular.
Temporary Experts
If you are a very regular and careful reader of my blog, you may remember that I totally adore the student journalists now in charge of UNC’s Daily Tarheel – they ‘get it’! I follow them on various online places, read some articles online, occasionally pick a hard copy of the paper from the news-stand. So I saw, on Facebook, this video they made of themselves and their own trials and tribulations in the newsroom:

Yes, young and new, occasionally making mistakes, but taking journalism seriously, working hard, thinking outside the box, and having fun at the same time. I would not be surprised if some of them did something like this every now and then – that’s what journalism is about, right?
But what really made me stop and think is what Kelly Poe says in the video, starting at minute 2:18: “you become sorta like a temporary expert on whatever you are reporting on”.
This is actually incredibly insightful and self-aware. On any given topic, most people know nothing.
A very few people are true experts – they spent years studying, reading, discussing, doing their own research, getting smackdowns from colleagues and serious talk-to’s from mentors, passing difficult tests and rites of passage, having proposals shredded to pieces, grants not funded then revised then funded, manuscripts gone through five rounds of peer-review, and other horrors that turn a lay person, over an extended period of time, into an expert.
What a diligent reporter becomes, through studying, learning, reading, digging through documents and interviewing experts is exactly what Kelly just named – a temporary expert. You are aware you are not a real expert, but you are also aware that your work put you up there into the top percentile of people in regards to understanding that topic for the moment – you may know less about it than 1% of the people who are true experts, but much more about it than the remaining 99% of the people. And if you keep covering the same topic for years, you eventually become an expert in a way.
Unfortunately, many journalists are not as self-aware, and are perfectly explained by The Dunning-Kruger effect – less you know about something, more confident you are about your expertise, or, “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. This explains why TV weather forecasters, chosen for good looks and quickly trained to read National Weather Service computer models, spout off on climate science as if they knew anything about it. This explains why someone like Chris Matthews thinks he knows something about the way U.S. Congress works or about Afghani culture.
As a citizen of Chapel Hill, but not in any way connected to the UNC campus (or in any way interested in local sports), when I pick up a copy of Daily Tarheel, I tend to focus on articles about the town. Kelly Poe happens to be the summer editor of the City section, so I have read a bunch of her articles recently and all are well written and, as far as I know, well researched and factually correct.
But what happens to such bright young journalists when they get jobs in newsrooms of big papers, with all the tight deadlines and stress and not sufficient time to do thorough research? Do they pick up from their elders there something from the newsroom culture, some bad habits, some short-cuts they deem acceptable?
Or do they, because this is what they learned at forward-thinking outfits like Daily Tarheel, operate with the knowledge that My Readers Know More Than I Do (phrase by Dan Gillmor)? Opening up a two-way conversation with readers, some of whom may be experts on the topic, or just serendipitously in possession of important information or a handy link. When Kelly was writing a story about hair salons collecting hair to send to the Gulf for the oil clean-up, I just happened to have a factoid and a couple of useful related links handy. I sent them to Kelly (on Twitter or Facebook, I forgot which one, but nothing like an off-putting and formal “Contact Us” page) and she appreciated it. She may continue operating in this way in the future, when deadlines get tighter, despite the newsroom culture that allows for much more slack (and thus errors, or a form of writing that minimizes potential for errors by being indecisive). Or she may strengthen those skills even more by going through a program like Studio 20 first. And hopefully the same can be said of many other young journalists just coming up, if they are lucky to attend good j-schools and cut their teeth by doing journalism there.
Which brings me to the second phrase of the weekend:
Monitorial Citizenship
I first saw the term in this excellent article by another young journalist, Alice Bell. In it, she credits the origin of the term to Michael Shudson, in Chapter 4 in this book. Alice explains:

Bring on the bloggers, do. Some of them are very clever. But you have to admit that they are also a bit weird. Even those without much formal training have expertise built up over time and devotion to their cause. The weirdness of bloggers’ skills and knowledge is what makes them valuable, but it also betrays what a limited section of the public they are. Sociologist Michael Shudson has a useful term, “monitorial citizenship” (like pencil monitors in school), where different citizens can keep an eye on different parts of information fed to us. This is not a technocracy, ruled by experts; citizens still check, but neither does it expect everyone to be able to know about and contribute to everything.

Generalist know a little bit of everything, but nothing very well. Expert knows one thing, but knows it really well. And for each area of life, there will be a small group of experts available online to ask questions of.
In other words, there are two kinds of experts. One kind is pretty reclusive – they do their work, do not spend much time online, and they are so immersed in their worlds it is difficult for them to fathom how far above everyone else their expertise is. In interviews, they assume that people know things that to them seem so basic, but are not. They may have trouble explaining things in a language accessible to lay audience. The interviewing journalist will have trouble making sense out of that as well. The overall experience may be quite negative and the resulting article is probably going to be bad.
But there is the other kind of expert – the kind that spends a lot of time communicating their expertise, online or offline. This includes expert bloggers as well. They usually “go direct“, i.e., communicate directly to the lay audiences. But they are also the best sources of information and expertise for the “temporary experts”, the journalists writing stories about the topic for an even more lay audience than the usual blog readership. The journalist can come to the blogger, or the blogger can come to the journalist, and they can much more easily understand each other and bridge across the levels of expertise, resulting in a much better understanding by the journalist, and a much better final article coming out of such a collaboration. Such a collaboration requires the reporter to understand what is true expertise, requires the reporter to become a ‘temporary expert’ and also requires the expert to understand that the reporter is, or is becoming, a ‘temporary expert’ and needs help in that process, not automatic dismissal.


10 responses to “The continuum of expertise

  1. Really really nice piece Bora. Loved it. I’m also really glad you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect – I’ve said before that part of good journalism is the ability to take criticism and learn from it. The very nature of becoming a “temporary expert” every time you write a new piece means that you will always have the potential to screw up. Fortunately, the internet puts you in direct contact with the top percentile of people who are true experts and who can school you if you make a mistake. And we writers should be thankful for that, not resentful.

  2. The bulk of journalists seem to me to have no grounding in the sciences, or even basic mathematics.
    I’ve read four online reports based on the 13 May 2010 ‘Science’ article, “A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry” by Douglas L Theobald, and they all tangled with the number on page 220, where the author writes, “Therefore, UCA is at least [Here they give 10 with the exponent 2,860] times more probable than the closest competing hypothesis.” All of them failed to understand that what they heard was an exponent, and they all thought that the number was a probability. Who doesn’t know that probability is constrained to the closed interval [0,1]?
    I don’t have the reference here, but in reporting on a study done on rats that investigated the ability of magnesium-levo-threonate to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and its effects on two kinds of memory, all the newsies got out of it was that magnesium is good for memory, so eat your leafy green vegetables.
    My guess is that management’s drive for ‘product’ won’t allow time to draft the article, email it to the source for comments and correction, before the final rewrite.
    This is sad.

  3. And here is a fascinating interview with Dunning of the Dunning-Krieger effect.

  4. Elia Ben-Ari

    Interesting post, Bora. The “temporary expert” concept is right on. I had never heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so I thank you for introducing me to that concept. It describes/explains some people I have known and worked with!

  5. Blough Mee (China)

    Uh dude.. Chris Matthews actually worked on capitol hill, for the great Tip O’Neil as I recall. He is expert on the workings of our government – much more-so than the empty-headed people serving in congress and the senate (on both sides of the aisle) and more-so than most twisted pundits.
    So what exactly is an expert? A professor who has spent his/her days in academia studying something but never actually doing it? A workman who spent 30 yrs in the trenches but doesn’t know anything about theory or management?
    I’m an expert in a couple of fields – and I’m also a journalist. I’ve learned as much if not more researching and writing about the nuances of my profession as I did in school, or in 25 years of actual practice. So I don’t buy the “temporary expert” argument. If someone understands the body of information about a topic and can convey it to others with authority – they’re an expert. Very few people remain at the pinnacle of their expertise, because very few stay in that zone of research on the cutting edge. The surgeon who stopped operating in 1965 is no much less of an expert on surgery than the journalist who has been researching surgical advances for the past 2-3 years.

  6. This is not an expert – that’s Matthews The Dillettante.

  7. “A professor who has spent his/her days in academia studying something but never actually doing it?”
    Erm, scientists, in academia, do. Research means doing. It is not armchair musing – it’s doing. Most people outside of that world have no space, funding, expertise, infrastructure, equipment, workforce, etc. to actually do science. People outside of academic (or industrial or governmental or military) labs, no matter how much they read, are just outside observers. No matter how much they get to know, and become experts to some degree, they are not practitioners, and will never have the nuanced mastery of the field that practitioners in academia have accumulated over years doing experiments in the lab. Thus, professor in the academia IS the 30ys workman in the trenches AND the theorist AND the lab manager.
    As I mentioned above (and in the link under that very statement), some journalists, especially those given the space and time to pursue a single topic for years, become experts in a way. But they are rare. Most journalists have to file half a million stories per day on tight deadlines and on gazillions different topics and have no time to study any of those topics. They have to make shortcuts and use formulaic formats that have been honed over the years exactly in such a way to protect the reporter from his/her own ignorance: a non-commital HeSaidSheSaid, a quote from here, a quote from there, a pinch of human interests, done, next story….
    In such a world, a journalist who, like Kelly, spends time digging and studying for a story in order to understand it as best as possible as a layperson can, is most definitely a ‘temporary expert’.
    Also, watch the video in my next post above…

  8. Ah, you might love or hate Harry Collins, who was inspiration behind the skills point in my CiF post. Personally, I like some of his points, think others are a bit nuts. Some of his writing can be a bit dense – he seems to like inventing jargon – but usefully most of his writings are online, and there’s even a stab at an index of his key concepts. Worth a look anyway.
    He’s a bit of a controversial figure though – I’ll try to expand a bit when I get to finishing the “PS” blogpost to my Guardian piece.

  9. p.s. some more links in my blogpost

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