Accuracy in Media

Mashable commits an entirely too common modern journalistic sin – bringing on lobbyists and claiming they’re the experts.

Lobbyists may know a lot about the subject, but they are partial — as opposed to experts who are supposed to be, at least in the common language, to be impartial and disinterested. They give us their expertise to illuminate, not at all what lobbyists do which is to argue their own case. 

The example here at Mashable is about the “Stopping the Grinch Bots Act” which may or may not be a sensible piece of legislation. The idea is that “bots” buy up scarce supplies of whatever it is online – concert tickets, limited-edition sneakers, this year’s must-have holiday presents – and that this should be banned in order to give the everyday guy a chance. Maybe that is a good idea. 

But the headline is “Politicians want to ban bot-fueled online shopping. Experts agree.” and we hear from several politicians. Well, that’s fair enough, proposed legislation, politicians, OK. But who are the experts? “John Breyault, the vice president of public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the consumer advocacy-focused National Consumers League, “ Well, no, that’s not an expert. That’s a lobbyist. 

He might well be a lobbyist on the side of the angels and all that but a consumer advocacy campaigner commenting upon legislation concerning consumer advocacy? He might even know the subject inside out but he’s still not what we’d normally describe as an “expert” with that implied impartiality.

Mashable gets some 9 million visits a month, it’s just outside the top 100 of computing sites. It’s a significant source of news for the younger generations and they are owed better than this.

The distinction between someone who is pushing a particular idea or policy – a lobbyist for it even if they don’t meet the formal legal standard for such – is different and distinct from an expert. At least they are in the common language in general use and that’s the line that’s being crossed. It’s entirely common in modern media to do so as well which is why the practice needs to be curbed. 

We need to insist that the media retreat back to the older definition of an expert as someone who doesn’t have skin in the game being discussed. Not what is being done here, describing as an expert someone who is actually fully invested in the proposal.  




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