Why Journalists Shouldn't Ignore Academics

Glen McGregor is wrong to say that journalists should stop quoting academics argues Steve Saideman. The two groups can help each other.
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January 4, 2013

 I spent my last couple of columns here at CIC arguing that the gap between the academics and the policy world is perhaps not as wide or deep as some argue, with some responsibility on the side of the policymakers. Now I find that, while I have been away from my desk, some journalists have been seeking to create a bigger divide between academics and the rest of the world. Good thing I mostly missed this, or else I would have gagged on my sherry mai tai. 

It started with Glen McGregor, who argued that one of the rules for journalists (apparently the first that came to mind) should be the following:

No more quoting political scientists:  It’s lazy and signals the reporter couldn’t find any other apparently neutral or objective source to talk. These people work in academics, not politics, so I’m not interested in their opinions on anything but their own research.

 This reminds me of the old Churchill quote about statistics: “Statistics are like a drunk with a lampost: used more for support than illumination.”  Sure, in this case, I would be the lamppost and the journalists would be the drunks, but I will let the journalists fend for themselves.  I am not so thrilled about being a lamppost – providing some insight over a very narrow, fixed piece of terrain and no further.  Based on McGregor’s notion of expertise, I should only be able to comment on the international relations of secession in 1960’s Africa and 1990’s Yugoslavia, on irredentism (countries seeking to annex “lost territories” nearby) in 1990’s Europe, or on NATO in Afghanistan, and little else.  That has been my research over the past 20 years, so perhaps I can only comment on those matters.  As a political scientist, however, I am bred to think that our research has implications beyond the case or numbers at hand – that there are general dynamics of politics, caused by political institutions, relative power, party politics, and other variables that our theories postulate as applying not just to the place I am researching today or researched yesterday, but also to other realms to be considered tomorrow.

For instance, for the first decade of my career, I focused mostly on why countries took specific sides in secessionist conflicts in Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yugoslavia, but I never researched Scotland.  Does this mean I am not a reliable source for some perspective on the new referendum effort?  In the last several years, I have worked on how the democracies managed their militaries in Afghanistan (and a bit on Libya), and have started teaching courses on civil-military relations.  To be clear, I never studied Canada in any way before I moved here 11 years ago, and have only studied it seriously on one set of issues for the past five years.  Does that mean I cannot speak on the F-35 since I am not a defence procurement expert or an expert on military aviation?  If so, CIC should probably find someone else to post here, as my “expertise” is mighty narrow. 

However, if the CIC continues to rely on my ilk (and they should – the other political scientists posting here are very sharp, have much perspective to add, and are hardly the narcissists that I am), it raises questions that Andrew Potter recently addressed in his support for McGregor’s post.  Potter asserts that the academic world is chock full of the most ideologically committed folks – that we are politically biased in the extreme.  The funny thing is that I, as a generalizer of political dynamics, resent this generalization.  The columnists at the CIC, as well as many other academics I see consulted on a regular basis (as opposed to those posting op-eds) are not so partisan.  I have yet to figure out which party here in Canada would get my vote, as I find them all problematic. Anyhow, Potter builds on this bias argument to agree with McGregor that academics should “offer comment to a reporter only when their research puts them in a unique position to inform or clarify the public debate, and serves the needs of the story the reporter is trying to tell.”

Well, sure, that sounds reasonable. But what is that unique position? That one studied a specific country 20 years ago?  Or that one’s expertise comes in varying levels, from knowing everything about a specific place or institution to knowing a great deal about processes that recur to understanding a similar set of dynamics?

Clearly, academics should choose their, ahem, battles carefully. Writing blog posts and submitting op-eds keeps control in their hands, as they can be confident that their relative advantage (expertise in the specific or the generic) can be used well.  The problem is when other forms of media are involved, and editorial control is out of the hands of the academic: when a person on live television or radio asks a question beyond what was agreed to beforehand about matters well beyond one’s expertise, or when a newspaper reporter takes what an academic has said out of the expected context.  Indeed, many academics refrain from any interaction with the media for fear of being pushed too far out of their comfort zone.  I have surely made huge mistakes when I have been put on the spot myself.  I can talk all day about NATO and Syria, but much less so about Syrian domestic dynamics.

But Potter is wrong to think that journalists should not consult the academics when the latter have new, alternative pathways, such as Twitter, blogs, and all the rest.  Why?  Because far fewer people read our tweets and our blogs than read newspapers and watch television news.  The academic reach into the public debate is still quite limited, and not just by the fear of being taken out of context.  While the newer media seem to be quite viral, the reality is that the older media still need to get some perspective from those who study the issues, institutions, and players (specifically or in general), but do not usually have a dog in the fight.

This sounds mighty defensive, of course, but when one is told to shut up and go away, one either addresses the argument or shuts up and goes away.  Given the increased impetus to be “policy-relevant,” to engage in wider “knowledge dissemination,” and to be public-friendly, shutting up and going away is simply not a choice.  Plus, it has never been my strength.