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.

And then there’s the chance that authentic experts (not necessarily credentialed experts) could become journalists of some kind. It’s happening already. Take the flock of professor-bloggers masticating the news on the Foreign Policy Web site or economist bloggers like Tyler Cowen. There are journalists who have become experts via either peer or crowd review—like Laurie Garrett, a reporter who focused on public health and foreign policy until she became a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, or the omnipresent Nate Silver, who combines his knowledge of polls and statistics with a journalistic role as generalist information curator with star-making aplomb. To cheaply paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, journalists can’t all be clever hedgehogs, but perhaps some generalist foxes can start growing some quills.

 

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.