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A comment on Glen McGregor's "Toward a Dogme95 of political reporting"


I spent the first 17 years of my adult life in academia. I've spent the last five years in journalism. And if there's one thing that has struck me about the career switch, it is that the only people on earth whose sense of self-importance rivals that of humanities professors, it is journalists. Which is why it was so disheartening when a journalist sat down to write something self-critical about his profession's use of academic sources, the people who were quickest to take offense were professors.

At issue is a blogpost by Glen McGregor, a parliamentary reporter for the Ottawa Citizen. His post, entitled "Toward a Dogme95 of political reporting," is a trim little call for a return to journalism's basics: pick up the phone, work sources, get stories. It asks journalists to stop filing easy stories skimmed from the froth of partisan posturing, social media, and self-styled rent-a-quote "experts." Fine advice, and, in my opinion, largely non-controversial. (Note: While I'm Glen's editor at the Ottawa Citizen, I had no input into his blogpost.)

But it's the first bullet point of Glen's post that seems to have got the most attention:

* 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 caused quite a ruckus in the cosy Canadian politics neighbourhood of the twittersphere. A number of academics -- most of whom are well known to journalists and to readers for their comments, op-eds, blogs and in some cases even their actual research -- took this as raised middle finger to their presence in Canadian journalism. I'm not going to bother going over the he-said/she-said of it all; my view is that this comment of Glen's is entirely critical of journalists, not academics, and is less about telling professors to stay out of journalism than it is about telling reporters to stop relying on professors to pad out their stories and launder their political views. But like most serious misunderstandings, this one does a useful job of shedding some light on the relationship between journalism and academic work, and how technology-driven shifts in our conception of status, influence, and research itself called that relationship into question.


The key thing to understand about journalists is that they are the lowest rank of intellectuals. That is to say: they are members of the intellectual class, but in the status hierarchy of intellectuals, journalists are at the bottom. That is why journalists have traditionally adopted the status cues of the working-class: the drinking and the swearing, the anti-establishment values, and the commitment to the non-professionalization of journalism.

The key thing to understand about academics is that they are the highest rank of intellectuals. That is why they have traditionally adopted the status symbols of the 19th century British leisured class -- the tweeds and the sherry and the learning of obscure languages -- while shunning the sorts of things that are necessary for people for whom status is something to be fought for through interaction with the normal members of society (e.g. proper clothing, minimal standards of hygiene, basic manners.)

Despite inhabiting opposite ends of the intellectual status hierarchy, some journalists always saw some appeal in looking up towards academia (instead of down on the working classes) and some academics saw the appeal of journalism. Professors, after all, have the cachet of smarts. Journalists, on the other hand, can become folk heroes. And so within journalism there was a natural alliance to be found between journalists who wanted to give their stories some intellectual heft by quoting a serious researcher on the story at hand, and researchers who wanted an audience for their ideas beyond the faculty lounge and the conference circuit.

So far so good. In the pre-internet world of publishing, journalism served as a useful instrument for brokering academic research to the masses. Academic publishing is slow and research is hard to grasp even for PhDs, while a newspaper comes out every day and the language of the broadsheet is educated but relatively straightforward. The reporter who could become an "instant expert" in a difficult field of research, or the researcher who had a gift for explaining difficult research in straightforward language, played a valuable role in the realm of public debate.

There is a downside to this though. Journalists work under tight deadlines, and -- like everyone else on Earth -- they will take the easy path over the difficult, when given the choice. Meanwhile, it is tough for the lay reporter to know which experts are the ones to trust, and even then, academics can be difficult to reach (the better ones always seem to be on research leave somewhere other than at their home university.) And so there has always been an interest amongst journalists in academics who are easy to reach and are willing to talk about a very broad range of topics, including those outside their areas of research expertise. This -- and I think this alone -- is the combination of lazy journalism and dial-a-quote academic punditry that Glen McGregor suggests we can do without.


It is hard to see how any journalist, or any academic, could object to this. No serious journalist wants to be seen as lazy, and no serious academic wants to be considered a lightweight. So why, then, did so many people take offense at McGregor's proposal?

I think the problem stems from the shifting place of academics in the popular discussion over the past decade. One of the great benefits of the rise of Web 2.0 was the way blogs gave professors a platform, independent of both mass media and niche publishing, to promote their work and to critically discuss the work of their peers in a forum that was free, public, dynamic, and immediate. And while it had the effect of making it easier for journalists to identify and reach useful sources, the more serious consequence (for journalists) was that it threatened to make them obsolete, by eliminating their role as intellectual middlemen.

The rise of the social web, Facebook and most especially Twitter, has only accelerated this process. The 2011 federal election in Canada was widely referred to as the first "Twitter election," but as I wrote in a blogpost for Canadian Business magazine, it was more accurate to call it the first "economists' election." It was the first election in which a large number of Canadian economists made direct, unmediated, real-time interventions into the debates over policy and the various party platforms.


My suspicion is that many professors interpreted Glen McGregor's manifesto as an attempt at pushing them out of this newly-carved niche in our popular debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet as it progresses, this disintermediation of academic expertise will have a profound impact on how politics and public policy gets debated in this country. It should also have a profound impact on how both journalists and academics do their jobs.

For journalists, it should change their approach to political reporting pretty much along the lines suggested by McGregor.  Thanks to technology, journalists no longer have to play the role of ideas broker between academia and the public. At the same time, there is very little status to be gained by quoting the same stale academic sources in story after story, when more insight can be found coursing through a well-cultivated twitter stream. Finally, it means that reporters should stop trying to launder their political biases through a convenient academic who will say the things the reporter wants to say, but can't, given the conventions of unbiased reporting.

But it should also change the way academics work as well. One of the more poorly-kept secrets of the academic world is that humanities professors and social scientists are the most ideologically committed members of society. People like to complain about journalistic bias, but journalists are in fact far less politically biased than most professors. A great deal of what passes as academic political commentary is little more than partisan opinion-mongering (I reviewed a particularly egregious example for the LRC a few years ago). And so if academics are smart, they'll take Glen McGregor's no-academics pledge as a challenge: to 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.

If there is a big takeaway from "McDogme95" (as Stephen Maher calls it) it is this: It is an opportunity for political journalists to retrench and concentrate their energies on what they are best positioned and best qualified to do: work sources, file ATIP requests, comb through public databases, and break stories that are in the public interest. That in turn creates a space for academics to insert themselves directly into the conversation through their own devices (Twitter, blogs, etc), or through more traditional means such as op-eds or essays. (I can't think of a better example of this than Peter Loewen's recent essay for the Citizen looking at what Stephen Harper is up to.) 

Canadian politics is in need of both better reporting and better contributions by academics. Glen McGregor's manifesto is an excellent first step at articulating the proper division of labour that will take us in that direction.