As a lawyer and as a college professor I have, over the years, spent some time dealing with academic experts. I have served as an expert witness in court and I have sat on panels of experts at various public programs. During the 12 years I served as a dean here in Kansas and at Syracuse I also had the chance to appear on television a number of times as an expert, what these days goes by the epithet of a "talking head." Once I even made it on to PBS (as part of a show on the history of Supreme Court nominations).
Thus it has been with no little interest that I have watched the various experts who have filled television screens in this country and abroad during the past few weeks. And, I confess, I am feeling somewhat disconcerted, if not downright disappointed in the way these experts have been behaving and in the way TV news reporters have been dealing with them.
I have been a news "junkie" for years. I read several newspapers every day and I usually begin my day at around 5 a.m. with a dose of CNN and MSNBC as well as the local channels. I also usually try to watch a few minutes of BBC and Deutsche Welle news on the satellite. I also listen to NPR when I'm in the car. I figure that a good cross-section of print, radio, and television news will produce a somewhat objective set of information on the days events. Thus, over the past several weeks I have found my life filled with listening to, reading about, and watching dozens of experts on the progress of the war in Afghanistan and the progress of and dangers incident to the anthrax investigation in the United States.
When someone serves as an expert witness in court, the first thing that lawyers on both sides will do is examine the experts expertise by asking questions about the expert's training and experience. Only after what is often hours of such cross-questioning does the expert actually have a chance to give an opinion. Of course, whatever the expert says is subject to questioning on both sides so that the jury will be able to make an informed judgement about what and whom to believe.
When academics appear on panels as experts either at professional or public meetings there are not such stringent controls, but there are controls. First, the academics are rarely paid for their comments and even more rarely rewarded for being outrageous or provocative. Second, most panels attempt to provide a balance of opinions and the audience is usually justified in believing that they have heard a variety of opinions from across the spectrum on any one issue.
In both cases, legal and academic expert "testimony" there is care taken to ensure objectivity and balance. Would were this the case as regards the "talking heads" of the past weeks. One begins to wonder, first of all, what criteria the various news organizations use to pick their experts. Usually the only information given for academics and scientific professionals is current affiliation and, occasionally, the title of their latest relevant book. No attempt is made to give the public enough information to evaluate how expert any particular expert of the moment is. With military experts, we are usually only told their rank and that they are retired.
I have noticed several other things which I find disquieting. First, experts seem to come and go and I can't quite figure out what the basis for this is. One day, a particular channel will feature a physician from one hospital and the next day he will be replaced by another physician from another hospital. One channel will offer a retired army major for two days while another will offer a retired general.
How do we decide which one knows more? Is the general more of an expert because he achieved a higher rank? Or is the major a better bet because he once spent time in Afghanistan? Or are both to be forgotten when a new lieutenant colonel comes on the scene? I've also been quite bothered by what appears to be a trend to assign expert status to anyone who has written anything on a subject, regardless of academic or professional credentials and regardless of whether the book or article was any good. How are we to know who to believe?
Finally, I find myself particularly disturbed by the increasing reliance of reporters on other reporters to be experts. There are some science reporters, like Gina Kolata of the New York Times whom I believe to be superbly knowledgeable about their subjects. They have academic and professional credentials in science and they have worked for years in the field. But I think that many reporters who report on an area are not experts at all and, often, have little experience in the field. I find it hard to believe that the average reporter ought to be second guessing either the head of the CDC or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Millions of Americans depend upon the media to provide accurate and reliable information, particularly in times of crisis. The United States has rarely faced a period so fraught with uncertainty and worry during the past half century as it faces today. The opportunity for the media to act responsibly and to present good information is here.
The media can seize this opportunity and do its job well and win the trust and respect of the American people. Or it can simply continue to criticize government spokespersons for inconsistency and incompetence while itself presenting half-qualified so-called experts who serve only to further muddle already complex and confused issues. I hope that it chooses the right path for it does not one of the lasting victims of the terrorist attacks will be the credibility of the American press.
Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University School of Law.