A complex world where we have just about any information we want at our fingertips isn’t a world that’s limited by the answers. It’s limited by our ability to ask the right questions. That may sound like more sophistry from a wannabe mystic, in case you’re getting tired of my schtick. But if journalism is about connecting people to their world it seems that the ways it is changing are directly related to the size of the world that people have the ability to connect to. That might best be handled by changing the entire approach to news.
For me, this all started with an innocent question. I asked the twtterverse what it takes for someone to get onto teevee. It started as a curiosity, but I had a purpose. There are, after all, bobbing heads who seem to make a living dispensing bits of wisdom like so much Pez in the various forms of media. Could I possibly join that class?
In no time at all, I was tweeted by extremely nice person who is a producer at a TV station. In a flurry of messages, he was able to give me some great advice. Twitter can be a wonderful place to meet people if you ask the right questions, and this was no exception. This was a great conversation where a very kind person answered every question I had. I was very glad to meet someone so warm and “into” in his craft.
Then, he concluded with something that told me I didn’t ask the right question. I was told that I have to pitch myself as an “expert” on a topic, explaining why and how I was qualified. Ug.
I thought about what I could possibly say I was an expert in. I have a degree in Chemical Engineering, so those sorts of topics would be an easy sell. I have a lot of experience as a community organizer and as a writer, too, so I could push something together on some of those topics. Things like this rattled around in my head for a few hours until the obvious hit me squarely over the head:
I don’t believe that “experts” are what is needed in the world. I can’t pitch myself as an “expert” on anything without feeling I’ve done something morally wrong.
That may sound extreme, but … Hell, it is extreme. I admit it, my Taoism is getting the better of me here. But isn’t the role of news media to provide us with context, not a series of expert opinions? Isn’t it more valuable to give people the background that allows them to ask the right questions and the sense of wonder and curiosity that drives them to find the answers for themselves?
If you look at political commentators who “make it” in this field, they are rarely telling you just how things are – they are providing frames for how they want people to see things given their own bent. The same goes for experts in technical fields, who are most successful when they can provide analogies that stick in the viewers’ heads long after the program is over. The topic at hand is always one thing but the context of it, or why people need to care, is another.
My expertise, if I have one, is all about context. What I write about here is how things are connected in this world, person to person and person to idea. Ultimately, it’s all about people and how they can have the information and control that they need to be good citizens of a Democratic Republic with an active free market. I happen to think that this is not only extremely valuable, but it’s often terribly missing.
It would be presumptuous and rude for me to tell someone how to do their job, especially someone as kind as my twitter acquaintance. I haven’t re-joined the conversation with him partly for that reason, but also because I had to think it through for a while. My bringing it up here in anonymous and cowardly way is my rejoinder, partly because I’d like to know what you think about it.
It seems to me that this is at the heart of how journalism, particularly on television, is changing. It’s only relevant to the extent that it empowers people to ask the right questions by giving them the perspectives that allow them to see their world a little bit differently, not tell them “The way it is” any longer. That may be a bigger change than it appears on the surface.