He said. She said. Expert said.
That’s the formula most news reporters seem to use these days. Two opposing groups or individuals express their viewpoints, and the expert effectively breaks the tie with their “independent” opinion. In this formula, the expert witness wields a lot of influence with readers/viewers/listeners.
Which raises the stakes on this question: what type of expert should reporters be using? Consider the pros and cons of their options:
• THE EGGHEAD. This is someone who studies the issue for a living in a post-secondary institution or think tank. Pros: These folks theoretically have no dog in the fight and actually review the facts and ponder before they pontificate. Cons: In the relative isolation of the Ivory Tower, do they really know enough about streeet reality to be the best observers?
• THE RETIREE. This is someone who used to be employed in the relevant sector. Pros: They are street savvy and generally have unmatched insight into the issue at hand. Cons: Their knowledge is often dated, and they often have hidden agendas stemming from their past or current lives (i.e. Saying X will help or impress their old pals and/or new clients.).
• THE SWITCH-HITTER. This is someone who swings from both sides of the plate, sometimes pleasing Group A and sometimes pleasing opposing Group Z. Pros: They are unpredictable, and therefore more interesting, and perhaps truly objective. Cons: Is their switch-hitting driven by objectivity, contrarianism, spinelessness or a multiple personality disorder?
• THE PUBLIC INTEREST GROUPIE.. This is someone representing what are loosely termed “public interest groups.” Pros: They aspire to represent the broad public interest, rather than narrow public interests. Cons: “Public interest” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders often disagree.
• THE QUOTABLE NOTABLE. This is someone who may have other qualifications to serve as expert, but their primary attraction for reporters is that they give spicey quotes to make stories more entertaining. Pros: Their viewpoints are clear, memorable and often entertaining. Cons: Is the response driven by truth-seeking, or the need to be adorable in the limelight?
These labels apply to all areas of news coverage and all sectors, but examples from politics may help illustrate the point. An example of The Egghead in political news coverage is the University of Minnesota’s Larry Jacobs. An example of The Retiree is former state GOP Chair Chris Georgacas. A switch-hitter is a Citizens League official or maverick Democrat-turned-Independent Tim Penny. A Public Interest Groupie is someone such as Common Cause’s David Schultz. A quotable notable might be a provocative blogger, such as one of the Powerline principals.
So, Crowd, I leave it to you: If you were a reporter, what type of expert would you view as most and least valid to use in your stories? It’s not easy being them, is it? (These specific examples are illustrative only. I’m asking about profiles rather than specific individuals.)