Who Is an Expert? Broadening the Definition Strengthens Journalism

Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research are working with local Brazil nut harvesters in Peru to study the impact of selective logging on Brazil nut production. In this photo, Serapio Condori Daza, a Brazil nut harvester, is packing Brazil nuts. CIFOR scientists are in the background.

 

In December of 2020, the last of the cables suspending the already compromised radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico snapped, sending decades of data crashing down. Most journalists covering the catastrophic collapse of this iconic telescope focused on interviewing researchers about the scientific loss.

But when Mónica Feliú Mójer, director of communications and editor-in-chief for CienciaPR, a nonprofit science advocacy organization in Puerto Rico, spoke to a local student and watched a documentary he produced about the community of Arecibo that surrounds the observatory, she uncovered a new perspective on the impact of the collapse. Being close to the observatory had given the community a source of jobs and tourism revenue, as well as safety, Feliú Mójer says. For example, if a natural disaster disrupted the water supply to the community, and thus the observatory, local authorities would respond quickly. Now, Arecibo had lost some of this security—an especially dangerous prospect during hurricane season.

It wasn’t until Feliú Mójer had this conversation that she thought, “Oh, my God, I had not thought about this. This community also economically depends a lot on the observatory,” she says. Learning from the expertise of local community members helped Feliú Mójer better understand what happens when scientific infrastructure is embedded in a community—something she would not have grasped from talking just with astronomers.

It’s part of a science writer’s job to interview experts to track scientific trends, put findings into a broader context, and unravel complex topics. But as part of that responsibility, journalists must also think critically about what it means to have expertise and what kinds of experts are the most relevant for each story. Typically, writers prioritize the input of traditional experts such as doctors or scientists. But doing so may leave out other qualified sources who could bring an important perspective to a given story.

“There are types of expertise that do not come from getting an academic degree,” says Maddie Sofia, former co-host of the National Public Radio show Short Wave. Seeking out experts, such as people who bring a local frame of reference to certain issues or graduate students doing the daily work of science, can uncover new angles in your story. Broadening the idea of who constitutes an expert can also help writers deepen their understanding of a topic and craft richer stories that bring in a variety of perspectives, Sofia says. And, importantly, expanding the definition of expertise to include underrepresented or often overlooked voices will help journalists diversify their stories.

Journalists can start adding to their repertoire of nontraditional experts by looking locally to on-the-ground community members, including members of Indigenous groups and people directly affected by environmental issues, such as wildfires or water contamination. They can also make a point of interviewing early-career scientists as well as often overlooked professionals, such as nurses and social workers. And they can learn from the expertise that comes with lived experience when talking to sources with health conditions or disabilities that are relevant to their stories.

 

Seek Out Local Experts

In Indigenous communities, people have gathered knowledge systematically over generations by interacting with their environment.

Sometimes, expertise can come from people who don’t have formal academic training but whose local perspective about an area can be invaluable to a reporter. For example, in Indigenous communities, people have gathered knowledge systematically over generations by interacting with their environment. Similar to scientific researchers acquiring new data with each study, these experts observe and track ecosystems to gather what they need while protecting their environment.

Feliú Mójer has encountered such experts in marginalized communities in Puerto Rico, where elders working the land pass on systematically acquired agricultural knowledge. “They don’t call it science because they don’t come from an academic background,” she says. “[They] don’t have that formal training and don’t [subscribe] to that Western, predominantly white, definition of what an expert is.” But they indeed have scientific expertise, she says.

Some media outlets make a point of including Indigenous and other local experts in their stories. For example, the editorial board of The Conversation, which publishes expert-written articles on policy, science, and health, expanded its definition of expertise in September 2020 to include not only academic experts but also keepers of what they term “Indigenous knowledge.”

At outlets where such policies aren’t in place, it’s up to reporters and editors to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous and other local sources with their own form of expertise. Journalists covering climate change, for example, might especially benefit from interviewing experts from Indigenous groups, who have a long history of living on particular landscapes and understand firsthand the effects of climate change, says Rosalyn La Pier, an ethnobotanist at the University of Montana and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis. “People are increasingly turning to Indigenous people in those places as experts on the land,” she says. Native Americans living in California, for example, can be prime experts on the spread of wildfires. For other environmental stories, such as those covering waning biodiversity in certain regions, journalists can learn from the expertise of hunters and fishermen who have lived and worked in those areas the longest.

Sources within the communities affected by problems you’re reporting on can also be a valuable source of expertise. For example, citizens-turned-activists in Flint, Michigan, were a driving force in exposing the city’s water crisis. Seeking out on-the-ground experts like these will help journalists make sure they aren’t missing angles they should be covering. “It’s important for us to question how we’re framing our stories,” says Feliú Mójer. “Is there an alternative?”

Journalists searching for sources with expertise specific to a local issue can try reading through online advocacy forums or posts on Facebook groups. They can also try searching through diverse-source databases or Twitter lists using relevant keywords. And professional and community associations, such as the Native American Journalists Association or the Indigenous Environmental Network, can help journalists find the right sources within Indigenous groups.

Craft questions in your source callouts carefully, says Adriana Gallardo, an engagement reporter at ProPublica. “I do my homework to ask the best possible set of questions that only someone who has experienced [a certain issue] would know how to answer,” she says. Sometimes these questions can be sensitive, asking people to recount episodes of personal injustice or trauma, and so extra care is needed. But asking the right questions will help you identify sources who are at the center of an issue you’re investigating.

Tracking down these additional sources of expertise is only part of the equation. Journalists should be careful in how they reach out and interview members of these groups to avoid being exploitative or appearing condescending. “You need to recognize your biases and the things that you don’t know,” says Feliú Mójer. Don’t assume you know more than your potential source because of your educational background, she says. Following relevant media guides and doing background research on the cultural protocols of the community you’re seeking out are some ways to ensure your reporting is respectful and sensitive.

 

Turn to Overlooked Professionals

Journalists tend to overlook professionals who have subject-matter expertise but who play a supportive role to traditional experts such as doctors or senior scientists.

For example, health-care workers such as nurses, dieticians, paramedics, and pharmacists tend to have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in hospitals and clinics as well as within their communities. Yet they aren’t often interviewed for health stories, says Barbara Glickstein, a public health nurse and health reporter. In a 2018 study, she and colleagues combed through 365 media articles and found that in those stories, only 2 percent of quotes were from nurses (and when nurses were quoted, it was almost always with reference to the profession itself). Further, nurses were left out of health-policy stories entirely. “We should not be invisible,” Glickstein says.

Nurses might be especially equipped to lend expertise to stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have often seen the disease up close in its complexity and often devastating unpredictability. “I have had multiple conversations with reporters who said that nurses brought a frame to the story and a path that [they] would not have taken had [they] not spoken to that nurse,” Glickstein says.

When reaching out to scientists, journalists can consider interviewing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, instead of relying only on the input of researchers who lead their own labs.

There are hundreds of professional medical organizations, such as the Association of Public Health Nurses, the Community Paramedicine Association, and the National Community Pharmacists Association, that can point journalists toward these types of experts. Or journalists can search for sources via relevant hashtags on Twitter, such as #Nursing, #TwitteRx, #MedTwitter, #firstresponders, or something more specialized like #HospiceNursing.

Medical staff aren’t the only professionals whose expertise is often ignored in science and health stories.

Social workers, for example, can weigh in on issues involving mental health, stress, and trauma—topics for which journalists tend to interview psychiatrists and psychologists. (This database of experts organized by the National Association of Social Workers is categorized by subfields within social work, such as “Health Care and Wellness” and “Child and Youth Development.”)

When reaching out to scientists, journalists can consider interviewing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, instead of relying only on the input of researchers who lead their own labs. Many researchers who are otherwise considered “early-career” may have years of experience practicing science. When I was a graduate student myself, I often felt frustrated when I was left out of media coverage of projects that I took a lead role in developing, conducting, and troubleshooting for years. As Sofia notes, “So many of [these sources] are physically doing the science.” Adding these perspectives can help journalists pull back the curtain on the process of science. What’s more, as science itself continues to struggle with a diversity problem in its higher levels, including the voices of junior scientists may help journalists achieve greater representation of often marginalized communities in their stories.

To find early-career expert sources, science journalists can make a habit of asking lead researchers they interview who in the lab did the day-to-day work of the study they’re covering. (Often, this person is the first author on a paper while the principal investigator is the last, though this isn’t always the case.)

Some outlets’ style guides might prioritize quoting lab leaders over graduate students and postdocs—something a journalist could consider gently pushing back on. And even if you’re required to leave the big-picture, quote-yielding questions for the boss, you can still interview more junior sources to gather important nuts-and-bolts details and context surrounding the research you’re reporting on.

 

Recognize Lived Experience as Expertise

Another form of expertise can stem from a person’s individual experience. Journalists covering health and medicine beats, for example, might gain invaluable intel about topics such as cancer or chronic autoimmune diseases by interviewing people who live with these conditions on a daily basis. Similarly, when covering research on disabilities or developmental conditions such as autism, journalists should make sure to reach out to members of these communities. “When something affects you personally, you automatically become a semi-expert in navigating that, by choice or not,” Gallardo says.

To gauge whether a source’s lived experience crosses over into expertise, journalists can ask them questions about points of conflict in their story or how the health-care system, or other political systems that have affected them, may need to change.

Too often, journalists turn to such sources only for a compelling lede or for colorful quotes, Gallardo notes. “It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, this [circumstance or trauma] happened to them. We can plug them into the story machine,’” she says. But a person’s expertise on their own condition may do more than add a relatable human element; it can reveal angles or insights that move a story in an important direction that interviews with academic experts may not uncover.

Gallardo encountered this type of expertise when working on a project for ProPublica covering the stories of sexual assault survivors in Alaska, where sexual assault occurs at nearly four times the national average. She and her team interviewed dozens of survivors to form a combined narrative of the experience of sexual violence and why the situation hasn’t gotten any better in Alaska. But those sources were important for more than just emotionally impactful quotes about the trauma they had experienced. Gallardo invited them to share their expertise on policy oversights, such as a lack of access to forensic exams, that added to their trauma.

To gauge whether a source’s lived experience crosses over into expertise, journalists can ask them questions about points of conflict in their story or how the health-care system, or other political systems that have affected them, may need to change. Whether a journalist includes a source as a minor character or as a narrative-driving expert may also depend on how much the source is willing to share about their experience and how involved they are in making decisions about their own care, as well as the scope and length of the story assignment. Feature stories naturally allow more space to explore the expertise born of lived experience than quick-turnaround news stories do.

Of course, lived experience, just like academic credentials, is only one form of expertise, and journalists should couple patient sources’ perspectives with comments from additional sources, such as doctors, nurses, scientists, pharmacists, social workers, or others whose professional expertise is relevant to the piece. But the key to crafting a fully informed, well-rounded story is to balance diverse forms of expertise. “We do have the credentialed experts who have spent their lives understanding this thing, and then we also have the person that stumbled into it because of circumstance,” Gallardo says. “I don’t think there’s a hierarchy—I just think that we often ignore the half that is the identifiable human experience.”

 

 

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez, PhD, is a freelance science writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 2020, she earned a doctorate in chemical biology from the University of Michigan and worked as a AAAS Mass Media fellow producing and writing stories for Science Friday. Currently, she works with SciShow, the YouTube science show, editing and writing scripts. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ScienceBey.

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