As Journalists, Are We Also Experts?

I was discussing the idea of experts–and journalists as experts–with a fellow writer earlier this week. She shared that at her previous job, as a business to business journalist, she and her co-worker were frequently asked for advice from readers.

As magazine writers they naturally were in a position to receive up-to-date industry news and to interview various industry experts on subject matters relevant to their audience. This is true, I think, of almost any journalism job. But did that mean they were qualified to hand out advice?

We’ve Got The Beat

We, as writers, develop a beat–be it a neighborhood or a subject matter–that we tend to write about most frequently. Magazine staff are often assigned a beat, but even many freelancers choose a niche and write the majority of their work for that niche. As such, we grow networks within that field that we can rely on to provide us with quotes and information for our pieces; facts to slide into our writing… data from which we can draw ideas and write our stories.

In a sense, we aggregate all this information and feed it back to our readers so they can learn from a balanced and objective source (at least that’s the idea).We are therefore in a unique position: not only do we do research on our niche, but in many cases we talk to more people with opposing ideas than the idea-holders themselves.

Does Knowledge An Expert Make?

My friend suggested that she was more than comfortable offering advice to readers–for exactly this reason. Her coworker, however, was not. Which begs the question, how do you define an expert?

My friend and her coworker both spent all of their working hours researching the topics their magazine discussed. As writers, they had to. However, they had no first-hand knowledge of the results; they merely aggregated that information, funneling it to their readers through the pages of their magazine.

This difference–being willing or unwilling to offer advice–also came through in the pieces these two women wrote: the coworker’s pieces had quotes to back up any points she made. My friend felt more free to make her own observations and suggestions, drawn from the information presented to her.

Even Experts Sometimes Get It Wrong

In the video embedded here economist Noreena Hertz tells us that a group of adults had their brains scanned in an MRI machine while listening to experts speak. As they listened, the independent decision making parts of their brains switched off–and they listened to whatever the experts said.

Unfortunately, she points out, experts sometimes get things wrong. Doctors misdiagnose 4 times out of 10. If you file your tax returns yourself, instead of paying to have them done for you, you’re statistically more likely to file them correctly. Which is why it’s so important that we, as consumers, keep those independent decision making parts of our brains turned on.

I believe this is even more important for journalists.

Got To Get An Angle

As a freelancer, pitching the story no one else has told is the best way to win an assignment. Every media company wants an exclusive. But more than that, it is by looking at the data and drawing new and accurate conclusions that we provide real value to our readers.

In today’s digital environment everyone is an expert on something; and every expert shares his or her opinion online to anyone and everyone who will listen. But as writers it is our job to research multiple view points, to uncover new ideas and present information in a new light. That, in reality, is what makes us different than every other Jane and Joe online.

But we must also be careful not to stray too far in the other direction. When we leave the facts behind and begin trimming snippets of information for our own purposes or fail to base our pieces on fact at all, we travel into dangerous territory. Our reputation is based on the supposition that we are imparting truth; that our information is reliable. That’s why many news companies require journalists to gather each fact from at least two different sources.

If we stray from that path and instead begin to cover only our own biased opinions, we erode our own value. We mislead. And while some may stay with us, many more will see that we’re full of bullshit and call our bluff. And then they’ll turn elsewhere for their information. Essentially, we’ll have undermined our own worth–made ourselves a commodity.

It’s a Fine Line

Personally, I’ve found that the longer I am in a niche the more comfortable I am writing about a new perspective in a piece. I aim to remain original, but not to stray too far from the facts. Working to achieve that line is a fine balance; I walk it even here, on the blog. Do I share what I, personally, plan to do when I go freelance? Or do I save those topics for a time after I’ve gone freelance, so I can reflect and tell you whether the choices were good ones or not? Do I need that first hand experience? Or is the in depth research I’ve done on the subject matter enough to justify my opinions and ideas?

How do you find a balance?

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