Experts lists: a dangerous, guilty convenience

Larry Cornies

 CorniesIn 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.

At the University of British Columbia, public affairs associate director Randy Schmidt says UBC’s experts guide is intended to help reporters get quick and easy access to faculty and staff.

“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.”

Talk to the expertsAnd 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:

  • “Experts” nearly always designate themselves as such. Pressure from public affairs and development offices on faculty to be team players and declare themselves “expert” on one or more subjects — from protozoa to philately — can lead to overstatement of a source’s ability to speak with authority on a given subject. The subtle pressure to promote one’s own institution can sometimes quell the instinct in a source to refer a journalist to other sources with greater or more precise expertise.
  • Faculty at postsecondary institutions are frequently also involved in professional associations, charities, clubs and other organizations. They are encouraged by their institutions to register themselves as experts in those subjects too, even though their expertise may be slight and their interest more personal than professional.
  • Positive news coverage for an agency or institution is the currency of a media relations office’s existence. It attracts donations from philanthropists and alumni; it improves the odds of increased funding from government and grants from research councils. “Positive” can be defined in a variety of ways, including the perception that scholars and experts at a school or agency possess knowledge and authority that aids understanding of issues in the news. Herein resides the expert’s bias.
  • Some university faculty consider dealing with news media and general-interest publications to be, well, a bit tawdry and unpalatable, offering little benefit and unnecessarily risking misquotes or misrepresentation. If it doesn’t add prestige or import to an annual faculty activity report, doesn’t generate a fee or contribute toward tenure, it isn’t worth doing. Consequently, the expert delivered by an online database or media relations office to a breathless, pinched-for-time journalist might be a serviceable voice, but not necessarily the most knowledgeable one.
  • Conversely, some self-declared experts are media hounds. They’ll risk wandering to the very fringes of their expertise on a subject in order to be quoted or build a public profile. University of Western Ontario media relations director Ann Hutchison, who manages UWO’s experts list, says some faculty “very carefully track their own media hits” and make sure their deans are aware of their appearances in print, on the air and online on a regular basis.
  • Journalists know that an accessible source who will provide a great quote or come down decisively on one side or another of an issue is a source worth keeping — and returning to. Over time, reporters develop a tendency to round up the “usual suspects” in the hunt for comment or explanation. “There are many journalists who skip by both the systems and us,” Hutchison says. “Once they’ve done one interview with someone, they’ll just go right back.” The danger in the usual-suspects approach is that it can get too easy, too comfortable, and lead to the amplification of some points of view at the risk of omission of others.

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)