Is There A Bias In Expertise? Or Is The Problem Just In Silencing Discussion?
from the asking-the-wrong-questions dept
Jay Rosen points us to a worthwhile read by Lane Wallace in The Atlantic, concerning “the bias of veteran journalists.” The basic concept is that veteran journalists think they know so much about a story that they have an angle going into the story, and only ask questions to support that story. It is not claiming that this is a political bias — which is the usual charge thrown out at reporters — but that the bias is in the fact that they think they know the story before they really know the story. As an example, she points to her own recent experience on a certain piece of technology:
A few weeks ago, I attended the public launch of a company’s product that had, until that point, been kept tightly under wraps. The product involved a breakthrough approach and new technology that had the potential of having a revolutionary impact on its industry, as well on consumers around the world. Unlike most of the journalists covering the event, I was not an expert on that particular industry. It wasn’t my normal “beat.” The reason I was there was because I’d been interviewing the company’s CEO over the previous several months for a book project. But that also meant that while I wasn’t an expert about the industry in general, I was in the odd position of knowing more about the company’s “secret” product than any other journalist in the room.
It was an eye-opening experience. A lot of major news outlets and publications were represented at the press conference following the announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to be clarified.
But the reporters’ questions weren’t geared toward getting a better understanding of those points. They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from the questions that were being asked, I realized–because I had so much more information on the subject–that the reporters were missing a couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren’t being asked because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back up what they already thought was the story.
Fascinating stuff. She then backs this up by pointing to a recent study on “experts” and how they tend to be worse at predicting things, often because they’re so certain of the outcome that they miss key elements of why something is different, or why what they expect won’t happen. That is, they approach the scenario with a knowing viewpoint, and therefore don’t understand why it’s a big deal. This leads her to quote an anecdotal claim by a friend who’s an editor, saying that new beat reporters ask the best questions, because they don’t assume they already know the answers to stuff.
I’ll admit, after reading the column, my first thought was total agreement. It makes a lot of sense, right? And it certainly fits in well with Rosen’s concept of the Church of the Savvy, which involves reporters who are more focused on using their soap box to make people think that they’re connected to the inside and “savvy” with how everything works, that they focus more on describing the process, rather than reporting the facts (and debunking the non-facts). I tend to agree with that general sentiment, and this concept of “expert bias” initially felt right as well. In a different arena we see it all the time — when we present stories about the economic impacts of copyright law or patent law, we often get lawyers who stop by to insist that this is ridiculous — and we should trust them because they’re the expert lawyers, in spite of the actual evidence.
And, no, I’m not claiming I’m above this kind of bias either. Everyone falls into this kind of trap at some point as well — assuming you know more about a story than you really do. If you’re crafting a story, you have a general model of “what the world looks like” and you certainly build your story based on that. But no one has a perfect crystal ball. No one can understand what variables will really be key in the future. No one can always get it right. At the very least, I try to learn from my own mistakes, and look back at why I was wrong (though, of course, no one gets that process right all the time either!).
Still, even after nodding my head through Wallace’s column, after thinking about it a bit, I’m no longer sure I really believe it makes sense. Go back to her opening anecdote. In that case, she’s actually as guilty as the reporters she’s mocking. The reason she thinks they’re missing the story is because she does think she’s an expert: because of her time with the company, she felt she was more of an expert about that “secret” product, than those who knew the industry. And so she got upset that they didn’t follow her pre-conceived storyline. Really, it’s a bit of a kettle/pot scenario. What if those other reporters, who knew the industry, actually were right — because they knew the wider industry and the wider impact of this product, rather than only getting the one side of the story from PR people over an “insider” session (savvy!).
On top of that, I’m not convinced about the “cub reporters ask better questions” claim either. I’ve been to plenty of press events, where those reporters don’t ask any questions at all — because they’re not comfortable enough to do so — and I’ve also been to events where clearly unknowledgeable reporters ask really bad questions — or are more open to being “fed” press releases as stories, because it’s nicely packaged up for those who don’t know how to ask the hard questions.
So where does that leave us? Yes, there is a problem in the bias of expertise, where people are so sure of their opinion going in that they may miss some underlying key point. But I don’t think that means that you want want naive folks covering a story either. What’s needed is that convergence of voices. It’s the discussion that comes out after all of this which presents the real value. It’s one of the reasons why we tend to value the discussions on this site so much. If I say something stupid, people will call me on it, and there’s a good discussion in the comments — from which we all get to learn.
In thinking about it some more, it seems that the real issue is not the fact that one person has too much or too little expertise in a particular subject. It’s that the whole spectrum is valuable — and that spectrum comes out in discussion, not in positioning a single person as being the only person who can report on/talk about a particular subject. The problem comes in the idea that any particular situation involves “the word from on high,” rather than the starting point for discussion.