Journalism and Legible Expertise

Why is it hard to make expertise legible for media consumption?

I heard from a journalist yesterday after writing yesterday's post on WebMD. They've been trying to write a coronavirus article worthy of Zvi or any of the other illegibly smart people writing on the pandemic. Apparently the bottleneck is sources.

In most journalistic settings, you can't just write "here's what I think". You have to write "here's what my source, a recognized expert, said when I interviewed them". And the experts are pretty sparing with their interviews for contrarian stories.

The way my correspondent described it: sources don't usually get to approve the way they're quoted in an article, or to see it before it gets published. So they're really cagey about saying anything that might get misinterpreted. Maybe their real opinion is that X is a hard question, there are good points on both sides, but overall they think it probably isn't true. But if a reporter wants to write "X Is Dumb And All Epidemiologists Are Idiots For Believing It", they can slice and dice your interview until your cautiously-skeptical-of-X statement sounds like you're backing them up. So experts end up paranoid about saying potentially-controversial-sounding things to reporters. And since reporters can't write without sources, it's hard for them to write anything controversial about epidemiology.

Since experts always worry their position will get stripped of nuance, the ones who give interviews at all try to err on whatever side, after getting stripped of nuance, will be least likely to sound like “Experts are dumb, health advice is meaningless, you might as well go eat bats”. That usually means saying vaguely reassuring prosocial things which, when stripped of nuance, still sound like vaguely reassuring prosocial things. Any expert who says something other than that is putting their reputation at risk. Not in a subtle way, either - if this goes wrong, it goes wrong on the front page of the newspaper!

I think this is broadly in keeping with it being easier to produce illegible knowledge (an expert posting on Twitter that they think the Johnson & Johnson vaccine needs to be approved faster, or a random person looking at the evidence and deciding this) than legible knowledge (that same fact making it onto the front page of a newspaper). Probably one solution is for reporters to make their sources feel more comfortable, but my understanding is most reporters already put a lot of work into cultivating sources, there are only a few bad apples, but sources don't know who those are and generally stay shy.

The person who talked to me about this seems pretty trustworthy, so if any of you are legibly-expert epidemiologists, have some good but under-reported COVID opinions, and are willing to grant interviews about them, send me an email at scott@slatestarcodex.com and I'll pass your information on.