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Why The Media Should Hire More Scientists

In this strange new world, journalism needs more experts within its ranks

Experts at work? The BBC newsroom — © Steve Bowbrick, CC BY 2.0

Everyone who has not spent the last year in a cave will have noticed that the world has radically changed. The US and many European nations have witnessed the uncanny rise of right-wing populism. Lurking beneath the surface for a long time, many movements with little regard for morals and decency finally made successful grabs for power. Just as most of us, journalism too, sleepwalked into these times of political and social turbulence. Outlets around the world were caught off guard by the triumphs of a nostalgic-nationalist (Br)exit-campaign and a spoilt reality-TV misogynist.

But the media was not only unprepared for the new kids on the block, journalism was also dumbstruck by the very means with which these bullies fought their political battles. Several months on we still know relatively little about the effectiveness of automated bots, the spread of misinformation through social networks, and the leaks of compromising documents. We can guess that they must have played at least some role in deciding the political outcomes of 2016, the problem is that we have a fairly limited knowledge of how big a role exactly.

Two types of articles filled the void our information- and explanation-hungry personas suddenly saw themselves confronted with: an onslaught of alarmist pieces on the one hand — ‘technology is evil’, Facebook, Google, [Insert Company here] brought us here, etc. — and belittling articles on the other hand. With some distance, we can now legitimately ask: Have these articles actually helped anyone? Or did they muddy the water even further, culminating in a state of utter obfuscation? Personally, I tend towards the latter. But there is hope.

What the media really needs is not only proper funding, it’s the right people

The solution is as simple as it is radical. Major news outlets should hire more experts with masters and PhDs in disciplines like computer science, physics, statistics and mathematics. Forget about internships and tons of writing experience and instead focus on talented individuals with a track record in the ‘hard sciences’. Such a move might be an unappetising prospect for many who aspire to make it in the trade but in the age of Cambridge Analytica, political bots savaging the Internet and algorithms spreading misinformation on an unprecedented scale, traditional skills simply won’t cut the mustard when it comes to reporting on these issues. Radical upheavals sometimes need drastic measures in response.

A new age needs new measures — © Norman James/Toronto History, CC BY 2.0

While this may sound counterintuitive at first, the rationale behind my argument is pretty straightforward. Even for the scientists involved in research on topics such as voter manipulation, staying on top of the latest developments, let alone writing about them, can be a challenge. How could a journalist who has done a degree in English or Politics (no offence meant) ever hope to obtain a decent understanding of the myriad subtleties that matter in this context? No amount of reading could ever get you there. In the end, it is no surprise that people like John Naughton, Zeynep Tufekci, or Hannah Fry write so adeptly about the Internet, computers or data science; after all, they have spent years researching and trying to understand them.

To turn a journalist into a genuine expert in, for instance, machine learning is next to impossible. Teaching the respective scientist how to write insightful and understandable articles is not. I am not saying that it’s an easy task. Writing concise and engaging pieces for a general audience does not come naturally to everyone. Even for people who have a knack for words, this process can be arduous and painful. It’s a skill which takes considerable amounts of time and energy to acquire. And yet, it’s easier to pick up than the intricacies of algorithms or network science — and if all else fails there are still editors who can polish a piece. One issue is, of course, payment. Scientists with the particular skill-sets described above can easily command salaries which are at least double the amount of what they would get paid in journalism. However, this predicament does not change the basic argument: experts are urgently needed, now more than ever before.

Picking the right battles

In many western democracies, the media are currently slightly reminiscent of someone trying to catch a glass of water with a sieve. Put under enormous pressure by shrinking revenues and haunted by a decline in their pivotal asset — their audiences’ trust — many seem to wonder how to regain their long-held position as reliable information sources. In times when spin-doctors, populist agitators and lunatics disguised as politicians are all actively trying to erode the very foundations on which many news outlets are based, while simultaneously many people find it increasingly hard to make sense of a (seemingly) more complex world, the question what the media could and should do to address these challenges looms large.

To turn a journalist into a genuine expert in machine learning is next to impossible. Teaching the respective scientist how to write insightful articles is not.

Picking the right battles will be key in this quest. Stopping the spread of misinformation (aka ‘Fake News’) is incredibly difficult and the media can impossibly plug this and other holes on their own. However, one thing that won’t change regardless of the storm within which journalism currently finds itself is the need for accurate, rigorous and informative reporting. It is here, where the industry should focus its attention. Especially when topics at the intersection of society, technology and politics are concerned — cyber security, big data analytics, surveillance, discrediting leaks, to name just a few — it is vital that the public thoroughly understands their implications. ProPublica has already acted on such insights and is currently searching for a data science adviser to support their team — a step in the right direction which gives cause for hope that others will follow suit.

Scientists and journalists, unite!

The media certainly cannot (and should not) force people to educate themselves about these issues. Likewise, ignorance or indifference will always be hard to overcome and it’s not primarily the media’s job to fix these problems (if they can be fixed at all). It’s also true that expertise has been getting a bad reputation lately, not least thanks to politicians like Michael Gove who declared during the Brexit campaign that people ‘have had enough of experts.’ In this climate it might seem unwise to hire even more of them.

But in our daily lives we entrust nearly everything to experts— dentists, accountants, mechanics — so why shouldn’t we do the same when it comes to journalism? Eventually, bringing in more scientists might not win back those whose trust the media has already lost. What it can do, however, is to help those who feel overwhelmed to make sense of the latest socio-technological developments — by contributing facts, figures and opinion from individuals who have a profound understanding of what they are talking about, experts who can not only put things into context but who are able to paint a bigger picture. With this in mind, this comment is not only a plea for journalism to fill its ranks with more scientists, it is also a clarion call for scientists to take up their pens and get involved. Now, more than ever before, journalism needs the best of both worlds.


Felix Simon is a journalist and graduate in Film- and Media Studies of Goethe-University Frankfurt. He currently studies Social Science of the Internet at the University of Oxford and works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He writes for the “Feuilleton” of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (F.A.Z.) as well as the online-edition of “Die Welt”. On “Mediumhe writes about various topics. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.

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