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Thought leadership and media: how journalists choose experts

Interesting study on the topic of thought leadership in the latest issue of ‘Journalism’. In it, Erik Albaek of the University of South Denmark researched the way journalists interact with ‘experts’.

The media logic

Albaek starts with an overview of how the relation between journalists and thought leaders changed in the course of the last decades. Up to the 1960’s, a source’s standing with journalists was determined by his or her political weight – a so called ‘sacerdotal’ and very reactive approach to reporting and journalism. Politicians decided what was important. Journalists then reported it.
Since journalists relied mostly on politicians to set the agenda, and reproduced it, there was no great need for external opinions. Most of the experts interviewed were indeed the ‘hard scientists’: biologists, doctors, physicists.
The success of television (and now: the internet), made it necessary for journalists to adopt a new role: since the ‘news’ itself is distributed too fast for a newspaper to limit itself to reporting news, print journalists reinvented themselves as interpreters and analysts. Journalists needed to explain why something happened, and what it meant, instead of merely presenting it as a fact to readers. It's no wonder then that Albaek reports that most scientists that appear in newspaper articles today are social scientists: people who can explain the world to us.
Also, journalists became aware of the process behind politics, and began to see their role as the watchdogs of democracy. Journalism became more wary of ‘spin’. Albaek calls this the transition of a ‘political logic’ to a ‘media logic’. To this day, it's true that one of the most often heard complaints in political and business circles is that media have too much power to put items on the agenda (or ignore them).
In depth reporting became the norm, and this required a more critical approach to journalism. In came the experts. Between 1961 and 2001, says Albaek, the number of expert quoted in print journalism increased sevenfold (!). A typical news story these days also mentions more experts than it used to.
The role of these experts, Albaek explains, is two dimensional.

The two roles of experts in media

  • 1. The thought leaders serve as ‘compensatory legitimacy’. This means: a journalist has a hypothesis about why happens the way it does, but he can’t very well write himself into the story as an opinion maker. So the journalist then looks for an expert who will give him the quote he searches – as one researcher calls it: “sound bite seeks expert”.
  • 2. But the relationship is more dynamic than that, says Albaek. Although thought leaders generally feel that journalists have a frame in mind before they call the expert, journalists report that they only decide on the ‘frame’ of their article after they called one or more experts. The expert is not merely a tool for the journalist, but also a sparring partner, someone who helps the journalist understand society, and can change the journalists’ outlook on certain things.

The Matthew effect

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance (Matthew, 25:29)

What’s interesting to see is how journalists choose the experts they call. In more than 90 % of the cases, it’s the journalist who initiates the contact – this is based on reporting by both the experts and the journalists. Only a small amount of the contacts is based on a press release by the expert. (Note: this is probably due to the fact that Albaek surveyed scientists, who as a whole are not very PR savvy. I think the numbers would look different had he included experts in different fields.) Still: overwhelmingly, the media set the agenda.
Journalists experts who initiates contact

An even more striking conclusion is the answer to the question: how did the journalist choose the expert? Albaek writes: “When journalists contact researchers, a Matthew effect comes into play: researchers who have been used extensively in the past are simply used further.”

Journalists call experts because they know them, because they’ve seen them quoted elsewhere, or because other researchers or journalists encouraged them to call this or that expert. Only 10 % of the experts was found through internet surfing. Anyone who’s worked as a journalist will intuitively feel that this is because of the way journalists work.
First, by and large, most journalists don’t have time or inclination to go digging for experts online. Journalists love to ‘ask around’: they ask other researchers, their colleagues. This gives them a chance to reconnect with sources. Also, because of the ever tighter deadlines, they prefer to work on bits and pieces of their story instead of secluding themselves with ‘homework’.
Secondly, journalists not only need experts, they need experts that are generally accepted as experts. Journalists don’t like to introduce ‘new’ experts when the old ones are better known. Otherwise, their editor will ask them why they chose expert B over the better known expert A. In other words: star power matters. It’s also the reason why the so called ‘Expert database’ (Expertendatabank) in Belgium has some problems to generate significant impact: journalists by and large don’t use it. Instead, they rely on colleagues and referrals.
For me, this is compelling reason for anyone who wants to be known as an expert to start some kind of content marketing: write a blog, publish whitepapers, or at the very least: provide a running commentary on what happens in your sector on Twitter.
Also, the research shows that in 35 % of the cases, journalists call experts that they won’t quote in the final story. The reasons: because there’s no room for extra quotes, but also: because the researcher says the same thing as anyone else (13 %). In journalism as elsewhere, there’s a premium on original, counterintuitive insights.