Home > Uncategorized > A background in books – The portrayal of experts in the media

A background in books – The portrayal of experts in the media

"Expert" complete with bookcase AND model globe

"Expert" complete with bookcase AND model globe

The insistence on bookcase backgrounds behind talking heads in news reports is a strange but revealing quirk.

An expert from an official organisation is easily contextualised by his suit and tie, glass table, and artificial pot plant, a doctor by his framed qualifications, officers by their uniforms, scientists by lab-coats, and even farmers, out-standing in their fields… the old ones are the best.

But people with only their reading and expertise to back them up always seem to appear with their own bookcase looming in the background.

You can imagine the reporter and his team arriving at the office or home of the eager authority on the latest story.

“Ok here?” – The hapless expert asks from his dusty sofa.

“Er, not quite”  – The reporter says hastily glancing about the place. “We need some kind of establishing background, something that explains to the viewer who you are… you see, sofas are for victims, the elderly, families, good news stories and terminally ill people requiring life-saving treatment from the NHS… we need something a bit more intellectual.”

“Ok, what about my office?”

“Has it got a bookcase?”

Picture the crew eyeing up the domestic library trying to find the best section to frame.  Is there a rearrangement of the literature?  Are more relevant and intellectual titles moved into shot usurping well-worn Dan Brown novels?  Or does the expert prep his shelves in advance?

In much the same way as I would be if I was somehow party to this awkward scene, I always find myself distracted by the books in the literary background of the talking head.  I tilt my head at the screen and squint at the brightly lit titles with nosey intrigue.  William Carlos Williams, good choice, but how does this inform your comments on the Burmese elections?  Marx? That doesn’t seem to have had much of an influence on your views on the current state of UK banking…

There is obviously something beyond my bookishness that drives this nosey behaviour.  A bookcase is a strangely intimate yet exhibitionist feature to a home that reveals more about a person than any decorations or furniture ever could.  Peter Sandico, a bookcase blogger firmly stakes this claim:

“I’m a firm believer that the books you have are a reflection of your personality. Never mind that you don’t get to read them, just the fact that you bought them and keep them in your bookshelf say a lot about who you are (or who you want to be).”

He offers a peculiar service, a sort of online literary equivalent to rifling through your drawers:  “Let’s try a little experiment, shall we? Email me a picture of your bookshelf at peter.sandico@gmail.com, and I’ll post it here with my insight on your character. I’ll be waiting!”

Fortunately my current student bookshelf wouldn’t reveal much more than that I’m studying journalism and have very little time for “reflecting my personality”.

But does the viewer really interpret a sense of credibility from a shelf of un-creased books?

NBC’s “Meet the Press” cardboard backdrop of dry-looking hardback volumes gives a strange and arguably misplaced impression of trustworthiness and reason.

NBC's Meet The Press with its faux bookcase backdrop

NBC's Meet The Press with its faux bookcase backdrop

If there’s one good thing about kindles and i-pads perhaps it will be enforced discretion in display, although no doubt there is already a Facebook app allowing its user to proudly display their impressive digital collection of teenage vampire novels, celebrity chef cook books and mind-numbing auto-biographies.

The revealing nature of the bookcase backdrop may be helpful in discerning the person behind the “expert” comments, it provides a figurative as well as literal intellectual background.  But apart from being somewhat of a distraction to the actual content, the exhibitionist element points towards something we should be wary of, and that is how experts are portrayed in the media and moreover, who decides who is or is not worthy of the esteemed title of “expert”.

The government decided to ignore “expert” advice from Professor David Nutt and dismissed him to the level of non-government expert, but it is interesting to see the media, rightly or wrongly, paying even more attention to his research and analysis since then.

Professor David Nutt complete with microscope and pharmaceutical backdrop

Professor David Nutt complete with microscope and pharmaceutical backdrop

There can be little doubt that scientists and experts offer the most reliable information and advice and should be greatly involved in decision-making, but making decisions requires subjective value-judgements – judgements that are best made with appropriate knowledge but also beyond the false objectivity implied by a background of books and expertise.  An expert, however scientific in their work, can never be objective in their conclusions or advice.

What we really need is an official expert on bookcases to systematically check the libraries of all purported experts (á la Peter Sindico) and tell us if indeed they are worth listening to. Mind you, who will check this expert’s own reading?

An appalling statistic came out last year stating that 65% of Britons had at some point lied about the books they have read, so it looks like some experts have got a few book spines to break in if they want to give their backdrop a more reliable look.

In the meantime, a descriptive caption will probably suffice until an officially certified expert backdrop can be introduced.  Something along the lines of  “EXPERT –> ” would subtly suffice, that way perhaps we will be able to deduce more clearly between opinionated vox pops and those whom the media wish to put on the pedestal of expertise.

Expert complete with officially certified backdrop
Expert complete with officially certified backdrop
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