Whom do you believe? The Internet is full of so-called experts in every field. Anyone with a device connected to the net can post his or her shingle and claim to be a know-it-all. Throw in discussion forums, where everyone has the right answer it seems, Facebook and Twitter, and cyberspace is full of expert opinions, many of them contradictory. Who can a reporter trust?
There are a few options out there to provide reliable quotes or explanations from true experts in the field. For example:
- Your local college or university. This is an especially good source for local or regional publications. Michigan residents may not care what a professor at UCLA thinks, but if their office is in Ann Arbor, they may pay attention (unless they’re Michigan State fans, that is). Most colleges have a media office that can help direct a reporter or writer’s question to the appropriate department or expert.
- Cooperative extension. Usually university-affiliated, these offices provide information on a wide variety of topics. Historically, their forte has been agriculture, but today cooperative extension offices may offer information on topics from youth literacy to economic development. Extension officers can also refer you to state or government agencies with expertise in the topic you’re researching.
- Whomever everyone else is quoting. Sometimes you don’t need to uncover experts on your own—you can simply search media archives on the web to see whom other reporters have been citing on particular topics. This is a fine approach on small stories, but important front-page topics and cover stories may require some additional sleuthing to avoid perpetuating one particular opinion or viewpoint. After all, just because someone is quoted often doesn’t mean they’re the most qualified. They may simply be easy to reach, or provide particularly entertaining quotes.
- Websites. Sites such as HARO (helpareporterout.com), ProfNet (prnewswire.com/profnet/), ExpertPages (expertpages.com/, geared toward legal professionals) and Seek or Shout (seekorshout.com/) can provide sources for quotes or expert explanations and testimony. Still, be careful and check qualifications—HARO sells its service to experts (and wanna-be experts) for a monthly fee. A source that’s paying to get his or her name in the news may have an agenda or offer more hype than facts.
- Wikipedia. Yes, Wikipedia is much-maligned because anyone can edit anything in its database at any time. However, Wikipedia is policed by some rather strict moderators who require documentation for statements and who don’t allow articles to stick around that are really advertisements masquerading as encyclopedia entries. For non-controversial, vanilla topics (for example, a list of the kings of England or the current population of Zimbabwe), Wikipedia can be quite useful. Just don’t cite it for current hot topics that may be biased one way or the other (and which may change bias on a minute-by-minute basis).
- Professional trade associations. Sometimes professional trade associations have certification programs, which ensure that members have earned the right to be called an “expert.” If a consultant, for example, has gone through a rigorous training and education program, he or she is likely to be more knowledgeable than others in the field.
Experts don’t have to be hard to find. By using the resources at hand, you can find the information you need quickly and most importantly, accurately.