Uncloak the “Experts”

Column by Lisa Graves

News outlets rely on sources of authority to back up their leads and to convey the opinions of “experts” about events of the day. But all too often, the public is given no reliable information to determine whether those sources are trustworthy.

Scarcely a day goes by without outlets quoting “government sources,” whether back East at the White House or down at the sheriff’s office. Those unnamed sources voice criticism without any way for the public to hold them accountable for their claims. The phenomenon becomes even more nettlesome when reporters cite dubious sources to achieve balance in a story in an effort to prove journalistic neutrality they’ve been trained to display.

Corporate interests invested a great deal of time and money creating or fueling so- called experts to mouth what a company or industry wants to be policy. The tobacco industry pioneered this public relations tactic, known as the “third party technique.” They created what are known as “front groups,” represented by doctors or other experts, who lied to the American people by claiming that cigarettes did not cause cancer, and even that they were good for you.

Nowadays, corporations and CEO-funded charities bankroll “think tanks” or “policy institutes” on state and federal levels, which publish findings that support legislation and public policies that the corporations and their leaders want to become law. Such groups publish claims that are not subject to scientific rigor or peer review, unlike research from a university. They deploy PR departments or firms to pitch quotes from their staff to inexperienced reporters. Their funding gives them a real bias, regardless of the rhetoric they deploy.

What can be done about this problem?

Describing a group in ideological terms, such as “conservative” or “liberal,” isn’t good enough. It merely confirms the political predispositions of the audience and doesn’t illuminate the sources’ pecuniary motives, which are cloaked in politics.

It would be far more informative to note who funds the groups in the first place. Even though the Internal Revenue Service does not require disclosure of major funders, the media could insist in the name of helping audiences assess the expert’s bias. If the group refuses to name the biggest sources of their funding, the media should either make that clear in news stories or not cite the group.

This would be a change that would genuinely help inform the public and assess “expert” claims repeated by news outlets as if they were credible and impartial, instead of deepening the partisan divide.

Lisa Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes PRWatch.org, ALECexposed.org, and SourceWatch.org. Graves previously served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice under both John Ashcroft and Janet Reno and in other posts.