Comprehensive coverage

Required: Expertise

True, our health reporter is not a doctor, and the science reporter probably didn't study astrophysics at the Technion. Still, after years of coverage, they've learned something. What exactly?

Journalists at Milan Fashion Week. Illustration:
Journalists at Milan Fashion Week. Illustration:

Journalists do not always come with expertise in their field of coverage, but over the years some of them become quite experts in the field. But what is that expertise? What are journalists supposed to know as part of their work? And how does a new journalist learn our field of coverage? A comprehensive and ambitious study conducted these days at Ben Gurion University of the Negev with the support of the National Science Foundation, attempts to answer these questions empirically.

"Communication tools are knowledge management bodies," explains Prof. Zvi Reich, head of the Department of Communication and a former journalist. Accordingly, the most important questions we can ask ourselves about communication are questions about knowledge. To what extent do journalists know what they are talking about? How do they rely on documents and evidence? And what do they do in conflict situations? In recent years, I am becoming more and more convinced that the most important questions about journalistic knowledge are actually questions about expertise. why? Because we have expectations of knowledge mainly from journalists who repeatedly cover the same topics, and are supposed to gain expertise about them. But what is that expertise, and how do we go about investigating it?"

To answer these questions, Prof. Reich consulted with experts on expertise - world-renowned psychologists and sociologists on the subject - hoping to find methods for researching expertise, which would be applicable and fruitful in the journalistic context. Since he did not find existing methods, he developed an innovative and pioneering research system.

"Our study is the first in the world to empirically examine issues of journalistic expertise, focusing on articles from three leading areas of coverage: military, economics and politics. The research is conducted by three doctoral students, each of whom asks a different question: Leary Blum asks what is the existing expertise of those journalists and how is it structured. Oded Jackman asks what expertise is expected of these reporters, and Tal Mashali asks how new journalists acquire the beginnings of their expertise during the first two years in the field. Three doctoral theses, each with its own research methods, where the subjects are the senior reporters and commentators in Israel, including editors-in-chief."

As part of the first study, conducted under the leadership of doctoral student Leary Blum, military, economic and political journalists are given a deck of cards, with each card showing the title and subtitle of a news story they recently published. After the researchers make sure that the journalists remember their own news and their production processes, they are asked to sort the cards according to degree of difficulty. In the first round according to the scope of the military or economic knowledge required to cover the news and in the second round according to the journalistic difficulty in obtaining the information. In this way, two arrangements are obtained with a clear hierarchy of complexities ("news sorting").

Leaving the comfort zone

"Basically, we make the journalist get out of his comfort zone and look at his own news from a bird's eye view. Here he is asked to generalize about patterns of thinking and coverage, which are anchored in specific cases", says Prof. Reich. "It is important to take the journalists out of their comfort zone, to enable reflection and expression of 'hidden knowledge', which is the most important knowledge that experts have, but it is very difficult for them to be aware of it and to express it, since it undergoes automation over the years. Without it we would be getting pre-prepared recitations, especially when it comes to description experts like journalists. With our method, the work and thinking processes are exposed, and the results are fascinating and surprising - sometimes even to the journalists themselves."

If the first study deals with existing knowledge, the second study - led by doctoral student Oded Jackman - tries to answer the question of the desired knowledge. He does this through anonymous "Delphi" panels, in which journalists and experts try to reach a consensus together on the question of the desired expertise of journalists in their field.

"For example, we ask the military reporters and experts, if there was a school for military reporters and commentators, what would the curriculum look like? What are the subjects that every military reporter must study, and what is the weight of each subject - how much is international law, and how much is air force and intelligence? We are very curious to find out if there will be a disagreement between the journalists and the experts, and if so - will the experts push for more knowledge, while the journalists will say that it is possible to manage with less - and in which areas will they agree on more or less knowledge.

The third study, led by doctoral student Tal Meshali, deals with the question of the development of expertise in the first and critical stages of the employment of journalists. "Our ambition is that if the editor informs the reporter that he is getting a coverage area, the second phone call the reporter will receive is from doctoral student Tal Mashali, who will try to recruit him for research," laughs Prof. Reich. "Tal has been following the new reporters for two years, when every two weeks they are asked to answer one question on WhatsApp: tell about a success, a failure, a new insight or a significant meeting. Once every six months, an in-depth interview is also added. Fortunately, Tal is an artist in human relations, so the reporters see her as a true friend, who is interested in their development - and they share her in the process."

Life itself:

"I leave with a question," says Prof. Reich. "When I was 16 years old, the rabbis of the yeshiva explained to us that it is customary to eat a pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah because it contains exactly XNUMX grams of seeds as opposed to XNUMX grams of mitzvah. I took a knife, a grenade, and two friends from the class who served as witnesses, and we sat down to count grain by grain. Luckily for us, a sample of one pomegranate was enough to disprove this theory. I took this skepticism with me later in my work as a journalist in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and now in academia. A few years ago I even published the skepticism guide for journalists with the students of Dr. Yigal Godler called "The Skeptic in the Newsroom". Since that grenade, questions of truth, knowledge and facts have occupied me, and they are becoming more and more important than ever to the producers of knowledge and its consumers in a time of deceptive reality."

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