How the New York Times Uses "Experts"
A Case Study in Ethics and Manipulation
Journalists often need to explain complex concepts. One way that reporters and editors do this is by using “experts” to offer important context.
There’s nothing wrong with using experts to help explain things. There are many issues in the world that matter for our lives, and we can’t possibly have the time or ability to master them all ourselves. And so it’s helpful that there are a lot of people who have accumulated knowledge through study and experience.
But which experts are chosen to present which opinions is also a powerful tool for manipulation.
I’ve been studying the way that the New York Times and other outlets use “experts” to further the three main functions of copaganda: 1) Narrowing our conception of safety to only certain kinds of police-reported crime instead of more important determinants of holistic safety; 2) Creating fear and panic about supposed increases in these narrow crimes; 3) Shaping public discourse to suggest that more punishment—i.e. more police, more prosecutions, and more prisoners, etc.—is a reasonable, the only, or the best response to these problems.
There are several primary ways that the New York Times typically leverage the opinions of supposed crime “experts.”
Reporters often cite “experts” without providing readers meaningful context on who those individuals are or what conflicts of interest they might have, including their connection to police.
The “experts” are often referred to as a group, generating a weird kind of unaccountable anonymity that also serves to suggest some sort of consensus when there isn’t one. (For example, many articles support otherwise unsupported claims by prefacing them with “experts say” or “analysts say.”)
Reporters routinely use “experts” to offer opinions that have no basis in fact or that are false as a way of avoiding providing evidence.
In articles about safety and crime, the Times routinely tilts its “expert” roster toward experts with experience in carceral bureaucracies and away from experts in public health, education, poverty, housing, urban planning, environmental justice, medicine, etc.
More brazenly, the Times also tilts its “expert” roster toward those with pro-incarceration ideologies. These pro-cop "experts” often justify and normalize state violence, and they almost always suggest the need for more resources for the profitable punishment bureaucracy in response to social problems cops and prisons can’t solve.
I’ll highlight a few revealing recent examples from the New York Times to illustrate these concepts.
In September 2021, the New York Times published an article by Neil MacFarquhar on an increase in the national murder rate. MacFarquhar’s article puts forward a number of unfounded hypotheses for a rise in homicides, from bail reform (absurd, contrary to the available evidence, and happened almost nowhere) to reduced policing (absurd, contrary to the available evidence, and no major area significantly reduced its police funding or saw significant reductions in policing in the period).
So, how did MacFarquhar arrive at the point of presenting to millions of readers what amounts to unfounded nonsense and rank speculation? Experts. Every single intelligible place where "expert" opinion is given to readers suggests a huge connection between police or negligible changes in carceral policies and violence prevention. This is a political, anti-science view that is presented by “experts” with no skepticism from the newspaper.
Let’s dig into it. MacFarquhar first introduces the argument that a mythical police “pull back” could have increased murders by asserting that “some experts,” whose names are never revealed, are saying that.
The only expert MacFarquhar cites for this bizarre claim is Peter N. Winograd, a retired law professor and consultant for the Albuquerque Police Department, which has the second highest per capita rate of police shooting people. Winograd elaborates on the anonymous expert claims: saying that “the low morale among police [and] the fact that the police are being less proactive” because police are “legitimately worried about being backed up by their superiors” may be causing a rise in homicides.
Winograd, the “expert,” provides no definition for “low morale” and no evidence of that supposed phenomenon. And if you’re wondering, no evidence is presented that “less proactive” policing causes more murder. Indeed, Winograd offers no explanation of what he means by cops "being less proactive." After all, we're talking about the largest human caging force in modern history that handcuffs, kills, beats, cages, and separates families more than any society in modern history. Amazingly, MacFarquhar and New York Times editors do not even require Winograd to put forward any evidence that police were actually “less proactive” during the relevant period. In fact, police killed more people in 2021 than they did in 2020.1
Another “expert” MacFarquhar relies on is Jeff Asher. Indeed, the New York Times editors allow MacFarquhar to call Asher a “crime analyst based in New Orleans.” This is breathtaking obfuscation. What MacFarquhar does not tell readers is that Asher previously worked for the CIA and then for the New Orleans Police Department. At the time of the article, it also appeared that Asher had a contract with the local District Attorney. While at the NOPD, Asher infamously worked with multi-billion dollar surveillance technology corporation Palantir to deploy a “predictive policing” system that surveilled and targeted young disproportionately Black people to try to “predict” crimes. None of Asher’s biases or conflicts of interest are disclosed by the Times.
But the story is much weirder. Asher himself had just days before written a similar news article for the Times, again with no disclosure of his intelligence, corporate, police, and prosecutor ties. In that news article that Times editors let him publish, Asher (this time allowed to present himself as a journalist with particular expertise on the question of crime) linked the increase in homicides to a “pullback by the police.” The Times told readers only that Asher was “a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics,” hiding his conflicts and allowing him to advertise for his consulting firm. As I wrote at the time:
In this way, the New York Times let a highly controversial figure print opinions that benefit the prison industrial complex while portraying him to unsuspecting readers as a neutral authority. We are told that he is merely a learned person who “analyzes” these issues, perhaps out of the goodness of his heart or a lifelong commitment to intellectual curiosity, rather than at the behest of police and for profit.
What experts does Asher cite to support this baseless claim about a “pullback”? Asher relies exclusively on other unnamed “analysts” to bolster the relationship between supposedly minor changes in policing and the murder rate. Perhaps no one reputable would associate their name publicly with an evidence-free claim. But why did New York Times editors let him publish it? Will we ever know who these phantom “analysts” are?
A couple of months after these episodes, the New York Times hit a new low. The paper published a major article on crime in the Bronx by Ali Watkins with a headline it knew was false, claiming that murders “doubled overnight” in the Bronx. The Times later deleted the false claim in the headline after I wrote a twitter thread explaining the lie:
So where did the lie come from? An “expert” named Peter Moskos, who the Times presented to readers merely as “a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”
Although the Times later altered the headline, it left in Moskos’ quote as applied to caseloads, even though that claim is also false: police detective caseloads did not “double overnight.”
Not even in its edited, corrected article did the Times tell its readers something pretty important: Moskos is a former cop.
Current and former police officers across the country regularly appear in the news media offering the “expert” opinion that police need more money and that police bureaucracies, which are at their highest level of funding ever, are short of funding and staff. Here, the New York Times hid from readers the fact that the person it presented as a supposedly neutral expert professor was a cop.
Then, a few months later, the New York Times published another article doing almost all of the same things, this time by copaganda hall-of-famer German Lopez. The article again referred to some anonymous, unexplained gaggle of “experts” who had declared that there are only three possible explanations for rising murders (none of them supported by science and all of them ignoring the available scientific evidence):
Alec Karakatsanis @equalityAlecTHREAD: One enduring truth you don't hear police mention when they talk about "crime waves" is this: violence is higher in countries that are more unequal, and violence is higher in U.S. states that are more unequal. Structural inequality kills. Let's look at the data:
The article then allowed two pro-police experts to make outrageous claims, including boosting James Comey’s famous “Ferguson Effect”: that civil rights protests lead to more murders. Although the article presented highly dubious, science-denying claims laundered through “experts,” it did something very important: it never told readers that many other experts who study these issues vehemently disagree with the “experts” selected by Lopez. It thus subtly but falsely portrayed the issue as having some sort of expert consensus. As I wrote at the time:
Two months later, Times editors let Lopez do the same thing, this time to argue that “experts” say that “policing stops violence in the short term.” My whole thread at the time is worth reading if you’re interested in premium copaganda:
Then, on April 18, Times editors again let Lopez do the same thing with anonymous “experts,” this time exploiting a tragic shooting on the Brooklyn subway falsely suggest to readers that neutral experts were calling for more police and again relying on Asher (and again calling him only an “analyst”).
Let’s take one final example from the New York Times. In April 2022, the Times published another article by German Lopez about the “perils of drug legalization.” Again, Times editors allow Lopez to start with the same propaganda tactic: feigning a vague consensus of anonymous "experts," but only mentioning what some, invariably pro-policing, experts think. Lopez primarily features Jonathan Caulkins, a notorious, pro-drug war zealot, as a "drug policy expert." Caulkins, who has been prolifically publishing anti-legalization material for many years, is cited by the reporter as a neutral expert, representative of a consensus! Nothing to see here.
The Times allows its cherry-picked "expert" to create a ludicrous straw argument. He says that the people who want to legalize drugs say that we can "legalize and all the problems will go away." What? Who says that?
Framed this way, legalization sounds silly and naive. But the pro-legalization experts aren't actually saying that. They are arguing that policing fails to reduce drug addiction and causes massive collateral damage.
Of course, none of these actual experts with these contrary views are given space in the pages of The New York Times to actually explain to readers their views. Lopez later briefly quotes Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance, an expert on the profound public health consequences of the drug war. Rather than calling her an "expert," the reporter merely says Frederique leads an "advocacy group." And Lopez does not give Frederique any space to actually explain her alternate views.
In this way, which parts of interviews reporters choose to communicate to readers can permit reporters like Lopez to make it seem like he is quoting at least some range of sources without actually exposing readers to the evidence or the real substance of the views of experts who don’t support the pro-incarceration narrative he wants to tell.
When reporters advance the claims of shadily identified or unknown “experts,” readers cannot assess their motivations or credibility. More subtle, but also more dangerous, is the fact that these experts seem to suggest a consensus viewpoint when that may not be the case. Broad claims by “experts” about what causes crime and what’s the best way to address it obscure the robust and serious debate about those social issues among researchers. And it makes it more difficult for the average person to form their own independent views about crime and public safety.
Finally, one more important point. The experts quoted in an article often play a vital role behind the scenes. Reporters who are not subject matter experts often rely on these sources with knowledge to help frame their stories, to help them decide when something is important enough to rise to the level of “news,” and to suggest a list of other people to speak with to write the story. In this way, experts can steer reporters to ideological allies and manipulate how stories are told. The people regularly quoted in the New York Times are playing this role, and there is a social and professional network of such experts consistently recommending each other to reporters.
So, when you read a news article that quotes experts, you should ask yourself a few questions:
Who chose this expert?
How did this particular expert make their way to this journalist?
Who benefits from this particular expert opinion?
Does anything about the expert’s background suggest a conflict of interest?
Does the expert offer a sound basis for their conclusions?
Is this expert frequently chosen by major outlets to present this view?
Does the article suggest that different experts have a difference of opinion on the issue?
Thus, at a minimum, media outlets need to tell readers if a source quoted as a neutral expert on crime has strong ties to the police or companies profiting from police, and inform readers if the source quoted has any financial or professional affiliations that should be disclosed under prevailing academic standards. They should avoid citing anonymous groups of “experts” in a way that prevents accountability for the claims offered and that falsely suggest a consensus. Tell readers which experts you interviewed who you are relying on!
Important institutions like the New York Times must study and catalog the experts they regularly cite. They must confront the pro-police biases in who their reporters are talking to and presenting to readers as knowledgeable experts, and in who is shaping what stories make their way into its pages. Many people's lives depend on it.