Soft vapidity of low expectations

Many states of mind ago, I wanted to be a film reviewer for a newspaper or magazine. I believed that my background in film (B.A. and M.A. in film studies) would be considered an asset. I was, of course, naive.

All that mattered was a background in journalism. Most film reviewers did not have any special expertise in film, but became film reviewers after working their way up the newspaper chain. Some do have a great amount of expertise. Many more do not.

We have very low expectations of journalists, it seems. They do not have to have any expertise in what they write about. They just have to be willing to call experts and quote them. But they are not equipped (and more perniciously, don't seem to feel as if they have to become equipped) to actually evaluate what experts are saying. (For the record, I'm a big fan of preserving split infinitives. But I digress.)

One sees this in writing on science and medicine, in articles about, say, the vaccine debate that present what each "side" has to say. But, unable to assess what makes one of these sides worth taking, each side is merely taken at its word.

One sees this in political writing. Why do journalists make a horse race out of the health care debate? Do Wolf Blitzer and Gloria Borger or any member of the best political team on television ever actually evince knowledge of the intricacies of policy? It took Nate Silver and his blog to really analyze poll results and do the delegate math during the recent presidential election. No political reporter was doing it in such detail. The only truly detailed work I've seen on health care is Jonathan Cohn. So what do reproters with no expertise even have to say? All they can say is what they think someone with no knowledge of any of this will think (and how nice for them that they may consult their own response to guide them in this). Something that we'll all know anyway in a few days when poll results are in. They talk about the horse race, because that's all they can talk about.

Obviously, there are major exceptions. In the three areas I feel qualified to assess someone's knowledge, i.e., film, philosophy, cognitive science, I can say that, for example, William Saletan is reasonably well-informed in applied ethics, Jonah Lehrer knows cog sci, and Manohla Dargis knows film. Among others.

But the exceptions serve to highlight the main problem: they didn't need this expertise to get their jobs. Plenty of people have similar jobs without this knowledge.

Perhaps their profession would not be in such peril if they were not mere amanuenses, but critical thinkers able to relate and evaluate information.

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear! The amateurs who know the topic always beat out the 'professional' journalists for accuracy and insight. OTOH, there are times in which it makes sense to have a determined sleuth go in and ask inconvenient questions, and journalists used to do this sort of thing. A pity it so rare nowadays.