Whether you’re a designer, analyst or journalist, you’ve probably had to work with data or subjects that you don’t quite understand. Collateralized debt obligations? Standard deviations? Mesothelioma? You can’t know everything, right? And when you do have to work with a subject you don’t know well, don’t be too ambitious (chances are, you can’t learn it all within your deadline) — or too shy.
Ask an expert.
It’s tempting to think that data’s cold hard numbers hold all the answers. They don’t. Different fields obtain, gauge and use data differently. Therefore, it’s easy to overlook nuances that may make perfect sense in a field with which you are not familiar. It’s not necessarily intuitive, for example, that the U.S. fiscal year begins in October, not January, nor that seasonal jobs account for huge, but regular, spikes and drop-offs in employment. Plenty of experts await ready to help — or at least willing to prevent you from making horrendous errors regarding their respective fields. Avoid easy mistakes and save yourself and your readers time by talking to those who know better. “Unless if you’re a longtime beat reporter, chances are you are writing a story about something where you don’t have a great deal of expertise,” says Maurice Tamman, a Thomson Reuters news editor and data journalist, who was formerly a database editor and reporter at The Wall Street Journal. He also teaches investigative techniques at Columbia Journalism School. “The question is, ‘How do you educate yourself?’ Well, you go to the people who know the subject and you talk to them endlessly about it,” Tamman says. Expert input can prevent huge and embarrassing mistakes. For example, when going through Medicare claims data, Tamman found what he thought were fraudulent instances of multiple hip replacements. Fortunately, a humbling call to an expert revealed that these weren’t separate hip replacements but, rather, instances or care following the initial replacement.
Swallowing your pride and asking for help isn’t easy, but it is important.
“There is this assumption that ignorance is equated to either weakness or lack of intelligence or somehow not being up to the task assigned,” Tamman says. “And you’ll get that attitude, there’s no doubt. They’ll say, ‘What’re you doing? I’ve been studying this for 20 years and you think you can come in and write about this now?’ Well yeah, I think I can, but first I’m going to pick your brain and figure out how to learn what I need to know in order to tell the story.” Depending on the subject matter, experts can be academics, authors, non-profits, government officials, hobbyists or even other journalists. Some have a vested interest in the data — others don’t. Find and talk to both types, if you can. There are numerous avenues for finding experts, and each subject has its own path. As a general rule of thumb, be sure to always give credit where credit is due — if you’ve talked to an expert, say so. Transparency benefits the readers, the experts and yourself. Five quick tips to get you started:
- Google. These days finding experts often starts with Google, and that’s perfectly OK — as long as you never end there. Look for reliable, non-spam sources, including government institutions, nonprofits, trade groups and other organizations affiliated with the field.
- Pick up the phone. Phone numbers are frequently available online, so why not call? People often respond more quickly to phone calls than emails, and often can provide specific answers that could otherwise take hours of internet searching.
- Find a professor or an author who has published work on the subject. Often, these people are happy to discuss their work and can provide insight into your subject from an academic angle.
- Read publications and articles on the subject. If journalists have written about your subject before, they’ve probably contacted numerous experts, some of whom are likely quoted in the article. Additionally, journalists frequently become experts themselves. Contact them. Be careful, however, not to simply include the same voices over and over again, creating a vacuum of information on the subject.
- Ask around. When you do get in touch and speak with an expert, always conclude the conversation with a heartfelt Thank You — and ask if there are any other people they can recommend for you to interview.
One expert source often leads to another: talk to many, especially ones who don’t necessarily agree with you. “Let them poke holes in your analysis early and often,” Tamman says. Better that the experts do it early on than your readers or viewers when it’s too late. Rani Molla is digital media master’s student at Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.