In Canada’s increasingly lean newsrooms, it’s no secret that experts directories have become a frequently used tool — or crutch, depending on one’s point of view. Whether a journalist is looking to write a meaty folo or localize a wire piece, the lists are often the first stop in the hurried quest for authoritative comment. Use of experts at think tanks, universities, nonprofits and advocacy organizations across the country have become, if not a guilty pleasure, then a kind of guilty convenience for many journalists, from reporters to columnists to editorial writers.
The lists, in one form or another, have been around for decades, but their use, according to media relations experts, is beginning to snowball.
During a second-year magazine writing class last month, discussion turned to the need for expert sources for some types of short- and long-form journalism. Several students were perplexed by the daunting prospect of finding them. I referred the class to three university experts directories — specifically, I showed them the University of Waterloo’s experts database, Wilfrid Laurier University’s experts search and the University of Toronto’s Blue Book Online.
One student’s jaw literally dropped open.
“Where have you been all my life?” he asked, gazing at the Blue Book’s index page. Then, turning to me, he added: “Why weren’t we told about these in first year?”
The partial answer, of course, is that most of a novice journalist’s orientation to the vocation concerns itself with basics: the art of writing concisely, the importance of style, grammar and sentence structure, the craft of interviewing and the development of a knack for telling different types of stories.
The rest of the answer lies in the fact that the lists come laden with their own sets of biases and agendas. Using them appropriately requires a little more forethought, skill and political acuity than casting a line into a pond teeming with eager wide-mouth bass.
Professional communicators, though, are convinced of their effectiveness.
“If the directory is working, reporters will be bypassing our office and going directly to our experts,” he writes. “Our office probably gets several dozen experts calls a day. . . . In terms of media monitoring, a very rough guesstimate [is] . . . that we get roughly 15 UBC mentions a day, and probably 70 per cent of them are expert commentary.”
Schmidt adds he’s one of the directory’s most avid users. With several thousand faculty members to deal with, he leans on it heavily to direct journalists.
University of Toronto media relations officer April Kemick “conservatively” estimates the online Blue Book generates 20,000 inquiries a year. The university’s media relations office deals with about 20 calls from journalists each day, which, Kemick writes, “represent a fraction of the inquiries that go to our experts since many reporters would contact the experts directly.”
And here’s a sobering thought: One university communicator confided that media relations offices are quickly learning to “capitalize” on the thinning of newsroom ranks and the growing shortage, for those who remain, of research time by offering to do some of the chasing of people, facts and figures on behalf of journalists — “which we’re happy to do.”
Finding the right expert for the right piece can lend depth and authority to reportage. But there are hazards to using those oh-so-convenient databases of willing, even eager, talking heads. Journalistic amber caution lights should be flashing as we reach into directories or databases for our stories for a number of reasons:
The most effective antidote here is that journalists must be careful to record in their notes and cite in their work what relevance or connection their sources have to the stories they’re reporting. Reporters should press their sources for specific linkages to the story — and then evaluate their usefulness.
Larry Cornies is a professor of journalism at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. He is a former editor of the London Free Press and currrent Tools for Reporters editor at J-Source.
(Photo by Mai Le. Reprinted under Creative Commons license)