Dave Winer, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, would say no one. He has argued that experts and amateurs with expert-level knowledge should go directly to readers rather than relying on journalists as mediators. He calls it “Sources Go Direct.” (So direct that Winer dislikes being quoted by journalists, as an expert or otherwise.) “The sources who no longer trust the journos, or aren’t being called by them . . . are going direct,” he has written. “This is what replaces journalism.” I see Winer’s logic. If people want expert opinions on film, they might well look to the Internet Movie Database’s flock of amateur reviewers. These IMDBers are true film buffs. Their often expansive, obsessive reviews should be part of a new definition of expertise, a place beyond the ordered (and American-centered) ornamental gardens of New Yorker reviews.
I spoke to some people who are trying to make sense of this dilemma—call them experts on expertise or institutional authorities on the end of institutionalized authority—and they were helpful, as experts often are. Most of these people were interested in making more space for a kind of expert-journalist who improves upon our previous incarnation as jolly generalist. (For an insightful essay on the need for journalists to report their way toward their own expertise, click through to Brent Cunningham’s “Re-thinking Objectivity” from the CJR archives and fork over the $1.99 to download it.)
I imagined that many of the up-to-the-minute digital journo types I knew would cast a cold eye on experts and the need for journalists as intermediaries, choosing Web-enabled amateurs over the authorities that have so damaged themselves in the last decade—the experts championing failing wars, for instance. Nicco Mele, who once ran Howard Dean’s Internet campaign and is a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, sounded happy when he said that “classic institutions are fading as arbiters of expert reputations” and Google, Twitter, and Facebook are taking their place.
But Dave Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, had a more complicated take. A Web community may revolt against traditional experts and anoint its own, based on a different criterion of expertise, he says. But this Web community can be even more capricious in how long a person gets to be a community expert. It can “redact a positive opinion of you. It’s sort of like getting fired,” says Cohn.
I expected Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It and a professor at Harvard Law School (Harvard expert, natch!), to be another specialist who might support specialists going direct. But Zittrain also expressed a concern over the unsorted expertise on the Web. That problem is the “epistemological paralysis,” as he put it, or the entropy that sets in when we aren’t guided by filtering voices on the Web—what others have called “filter failure.” One unsatisfactory cure to this problem is the emergence of filtering voices that only speak to the most fragmented audiences—“getting silo-ed,” as Chris Mooney, the science blogger and co-author of Unscientific America, put it, or “broken into little partisan herds.”
“A reader wants some trusted source to break it down for her: a domain expert with a blog and a Rolodex, who happens to be eager to draw upon further experts,” says Zittrain. “Cacophony cries out for intermediaries, to hold politicians accountable or to give readers the sense of an environment that they can’t personally see or touch.”
When journalists are generalists, they rely, often uncritically, on outside experts for specialized thinking. They are famously able to immerse themselves in a fresh subject and report back. But they carry with them their ignorance of the area’s debates and politics. Hyper-specialization of most subject areas has made this guileless, mediating journalistic model somewhat uncomfortable.
But maybe journalists can get better at locating experts. “Journalists have to understand the difference between expertise and authority, and to question the categories,” says Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and author of Cognitive Surplus. He offers a dark example: “A lawyer knows just as much the day after he is disbarred as the day before, but his authoritative status has changed. Journalists need to separate credential-based expertise from actual authority.” Journalists might “try for a richer set of calculations” about authority, Shirky suggests.
By abandoning the assumption that gold-plated credentials equal expertise, the press might even change history. Could journalists have helped to take down, say, Bernie Madoff, before the feds did if they had questioned the sec’s experts more? Shirky wonders.