No Returning to the Cult of the Expert

    by JD Lasica
    March 19, 2008

    In response to this week’s Newsweek article Revenge of the Experts suggesting the expert is back and user-created content is on the wane, columnist Tom Regan offers this in today’s Christian Science Monitor: Credible Web? It’s where we click most. Expertise is essential online, but the Internet’s real ‘killer app’ is choice. (Jay Rosen and I are quoted in the piece.)

    An expert in the Newsweek article said, the world is "too dangerous a place for faulty information." People can deal with vetting information in two ways: rely solely on experts and authority figures. Or become a fact-checker, treating unverified information with skepticism and consulting multiple sources to get at the truth.


    I’ve seen very little evidence that the sweeping cultural shifts we’ve
    seen in the past half dozen years show any signs of retreating. This is just a bit of wishful thinking on the part of traditional media folks. 

    As Doc Searls likes to say, this is or thinking, when it should be about and thinking.  Experts and amateurs will continue to offer useful, reliable news and information.

    tech-savvy people in particular now typically rely on social networks that they’ve
    fashioned to take cues from their friends on which movies to see,
    books to read or vacation destinations to target. And didn’t Lonely
    Planet Guide successfully explore this terrain for travel and Zagat’s for dining
    back in the ’90s?


    The old guard will forever sniff at the likes of Wikipedia, but young people have learned to trust ourselves rather than
    relying exclusively on a caste of experts. Most of us are experts in one subject or another. The dissolution of information monopolies at the local level spells trouble for
    professional journalists at hundreds of U.S. newspapers that will vanish in the next decade.

    Millions of cell phones now are capable of capturing fairly
    high-quality video. Just this week I learned of a new site, Qik, that
    will let any of these devices stream live video, further speeding the
    obsolescence of professional reporters on the scene of a news event.

    Hardly a day goes by that I
    don’t receive an email from a newspaper reporter asking for job leads
    in the tech startup world. That doesn’t bode well for the cult of the

    To be sure, too many readers are still too credulous about what appears on the Internet. (The latest video hit piece on Barack Obama making the rounds is testament to that.) We need to
    fine-tune our B.S. meters and do a better job in figuring out that not
    all sources are created equal. 

    In the end, Web 3.0 will not be about turning back the clock to the era of elites and experts. It will be about
    making this hyperconnected  global social network more relevant to our lives.

    Tagged: amateurs citizen journalism citizen media citizens media cult of the amateur elites professionals we media

    3 responses to “No Returning to the Cult of the Expert”

    1. The Radical Reference project is a great example of a project that endeavors to make fact-checking cool again[1] by helping activists, young and old, to verify information in a reliable way. The librarians who make Rad Ref go offer great workshops on fact-checking for journalists and for activists. I think we need more projects like this to help community driven media and media makers learn about what it means to verify information reliably.

      As someone who worked for many years as a fact checker for some famous-ish writers, I assure you that temptation to believe just about anything is one that lures lots of very smart people. We’re a gullible lot, humans.

      [1] Was it ever cool?

    2. gail robinson says:

      For years, the traditional press has been as reluctant as Wikipedia to weed out bad information. If a credible person — the prsident, say — said something, traditional media would print it without attempting to establish whether it was right or wrong. Doing otherwise, many believed, ran counter to reporter’s professed “objectivity.”

      Exposing the Swift Boatd allegations would have meant siding with Kerry in the presidential campaign. Reporting (correctly) that, contrary to what Dick Cheney still says, as awful as Saddam Hussein might have been, he did not work with Osama Bin Laden would have been viewed as taking sides. And so on. Interestingly in the interest of being objectiv, news reporters often ended up — as in the Swift Boat example — being terribly unfair.

      Interestingly at the time the cult of the expert is under attackj, the conventional media seems to be more willing to indicate that something is flat out wrong. Witness the reaction to John McCain’s statements on Iran this week. Or the Washington Post noting Hillary Clinton “four Pinicchios” for claiming her plane came under sniper fire when it landed at Tuzla Air Force Base in Bosnia in 1996. And then there’s the New York Times’ repeated statements that people who claim childhood vaccines may cause autism are just wrong.

      While I don’t have first hand knowledge of any of these stories, I think it’s high time newspapers stopped simply parrotting what people in power tell them. Certainly people throughout the political spectrum have abused that for years, with the Bush administration particularly adept at it. Ironically though, the press’ increased skepticism may be a classic case of too little too late.

    3. From my point of view, the key factor in this debate is the value of the information.

      Today, the value and the added value of the information that is presented in the new media is not that the expert (journalist) has exclusive access to the information, but rather how that expert presents that information in the context we are interested in.

      The savvy reader is not the one who relies on the expert to tell him what the world is like, but rather on the expert who can present the right information so that we can investigate further. For example, if I read something about the effects of inflation on employment and a professor or expert is mentioned, the first thing I’d do, if this was something I am interested in, is to Google Scholar the expert or the professor. At a minimum, I expect the expert to have an institutional web site, a blog would be useful to have. And a really top notch expert would probably be in Wikipedia.

      It is not that Google Scholar, or having a website, or a blog or being in Wikipedia is confirmation of one’s hold on the universe but rather, all these information points are easy for me to access and to find out more about the expert, the subject and from there his or her peers etc. etc. It is not that the expert is wise and the reader is dumb, but that the expert is wise and the reader is not stupid. If the expert was not wise, then he or she would soon be found out, and if the reader was stupid it does not matter what he or she was told.

      To put it in another way, if we don’t like expert A, we are only a few clicks away from expert B. Did someone mention reality check?

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