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Dr. Katie Searles

558. How come political experts in the news tend to be white and male?​

When it comes to the kind of political experts normally reference in print publications or appearing on news broadcasts, what kind of person comes to mind?

Not surprisingly, the experts usually summoned by journalists are white men, but Katie Searles, an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University wanted to know why that was the case. 

“This is one of the choices journalists have a lot of control of,” Searles says of the person a report calls on for an expert opinion. “Typically we think about it, and this is still a grossly simplified way to think about it, we start with thinking about a journalist that has a story they think is well suited for an expert source. … You identify (some experts) based on, depending on the kind of outlet you’re at, whether they’re local, from a university nearby, maybe you already know them, maybe they tweet a lot, maybe when you Google them they came up first, maybe you just email a bunch of people and they’re the one that responds first.”

The person who answers the call or is selected to provide their knowledge and analysis, matters to the story and to the people who read or watch that particular bit of news, because “the person that gets selected gets to speak for experts on that subject. That matters because, despite what we may think, much of the science is not settled,” Searles said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty particularly in politics. Political science is not a discipline that’s marked by certainty and consensus. Who gets to speak for expertise in politics matters a lot.” 

Searles and some of her colleagues — eminently qualified women who are themselves experts in political science or political psychology — got to talking at a conference about why they weren’t being called upon by reporters. Inspired by a mix of curiosity and determination, they created a website called Women Also Know Stuff, where women experts could list their contact information and areas of expertise, creating a new resource for journalists to utilize as needed. 

But the calls didn’t come flooding in, Searles says. After the website published, the women who added their names to the list felt more seen and heard, but nothing else was changing. 

“Like any academic, I started asking questions. Why is this happening? What is it that journalists are looking for? Where in the decision-making process is the breakdown such that it seems to be that, if you have an option that’s a woman, that’s accessible, that’s on this website and the contact information is right there, why would you go with this other person and not the woman? I wanted to understand.” 

To get to the bottom of how reporters choose their expert sources, Seares and co-authors Yanna Krupnikov, John Barry Ryand and Hillary Style, spent the last few years researching their new book, Constructing Political Expertise in News

Among the key findings: A majority of experts cited in the New York Times, 54 percent, are white men; eliminating racial background, that goes up to 60 percent of expert sources are men. 

Searles and her colleagues then went to journalists and asked them what was motivating this selection?

“Journalists are more likely to think the woman researcher, conducting research on women, is newsworthy,” Searles says. “When we drill down on that, we find that it’s not that journalists thought women were more newsworthy, it’s that they don’t think the men are newsworthy. We followed that up with a conjoined analysis, an experiment where you randomize attributes of a profile of a person and ask to pick between. … What we find is, even when we do this fancy experiment that’s supposed to uncover or help prevent people from responding in a way that’s more virtue signaling than true, we still see journalists are more likely to want the non-white female expert source. So then we’re left with a picture of expert sources in the news that’s white and male and a preference in experimental studies from journalists that’s not that.”  

Dr. Katie Searles, an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, recently co-authored “Constructing Political Expertise in the News” with Yanna Krupnikov, John Barry Ryand and Hillary Style. The book takes a look at, among other things, what types of political experts are most likely to be on a journalist’s “roster of expert sources.”

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