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Writers: Beware the Influencers’ Echo Chambers
Claims reverberate between self-described experts, and they might even be true
Spend some time listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos, and eventually you come across an influencer or two, the sort of person who seems to know everything about something, or something about everything. They’re well-spoken, smart-sounding, and they have a bajillion followers, which suggests credibility. As a writer, you might be tempted to use one of them as a source in a story.
Writers do a disservice to readers when they lean on influencers as primary sources for their stories. There. I said it. You can do better. Let me explain.
Good storytelling and helpful, original and responsible writing can’t come from repeating for the umpteenth time what’s said by someone with a big megaphone and a lot of followers. It’s been said. It’s been heard. It may or may not be accurate.
The most prominent influencers are often experts at something but present themselves as being expert on a whole bunch of topics. There are a lot of them in the health category, and in fitness (among “fitfluencers,” as they’re called, there’s an especially high percentage of chaff you have to sift through to find some wheat, so be extra careful). Influencers are common in politics, tech and finance, too, of course. These days, you can’t toss a topic around without hitting an influencer.
But here’s what you need to keep in mind whenever you hear these guys (and yes, a preponderance of the loudest among them are men) spout:
A neurosurgeon might know a lot about the brain, but that does not automatically qualify him to give advice on sleep. A sleep expert may or may not offer up the right advice on nutrition, and surely doesn’t know squat about brain surgery. A bodybuilder might have all the answers for weightlifting but be dangerous when giving advice on running. As you might guess, there are an infinite number of combinations here in which someone who knows one thing does not know another. But if there’s money to be made through sponsorships or protein shakes, he just might try to fake it.
He said, he said
Where things get really out of hand is when these influencers invite other influencers onto their shows or channels so they can promote each other’s ideas (and products).
And products. <<< red flag
I’m not going to name names, because I don’t begrudge these people their successes, and for the most part I don’t question their smarts or even their motivations. As a consumer of information, I find some of them super interesting and informative, and the facts and opinions they espouse are often very educational and motivational.
But when influencers routinely interview each other, they create echo chambers that reinforce each others’ views—right or wrong, well-established or shaky. Listen close and you’ll hear a lot of softball questions met with agreeable answers. “That’s right.” “Good question.” “Absolutely!” Instead of a skeptical journalist asking hard questions, two guys who share a common viewpoint are chatting around a virtual bonfire, with nobody to hold them accountable.
Inside these echo chambers, a lot of things get said that are true and even sometimes amazing, yet some things that get repeated over and over are questionable or not yet well-supported by science, and some of it doesn’t apply to each individual even though it may be presented as a universal truth.
Moreover, their accurate claims and good advice can almost always — OK, always always—be sourced via some other expert who is actually an expert in that specific field or topic.
Again, the point of this article is not to pick on influencers. It’s to encourage you, as a writer, to aim higher, in order to better serve your readers.
Quoting influencers is lazy. It’s easy. And it’s a disservice to other scientists and professionals who don’t have a bully pulpit but do have the credentials and the knowledge you’re looking for. The bar—your bar—has to be higher. We writers have to get beyond the easy and do the hard. We have to research, interview, dig deeper, all with our skeptic hats on.
Yes, there are exceptions. If you want to write about some trend an influencer started, or some controversy they ignited, you’ll of course need to name them and perhaps quote them. If you want to debunk some BS they spew, have at it. If they are the expert on a topic you’re writing about—meaning they don’t just have something to say about it, but it’s actually the thing they study and do real science or professional work on—then fine, quote them. But still, don’t make them your primary or only source. Other great sources could use a little ink, after all, and you as a great writer don’t want to be perceived as lazy.
Example: A while back I wrote a long, in-depth feature about longevity. It would have been irresponsible not to mention David Sinclair, a heavyweight influencer and expert on the topic.
Sinclair has a lot of smart things to say, but is hardly the only scientist who knows a lot about longevity. And since some of his views are controversial, he’s a target for a good amount of criticism from other scientists. So I reached out and asked him about those criticisms—not to hand him the megaphone and be the main source in my story, but to be fair to him and his reputation. He responded in a professional manner, and the story was better for it. (Better for the readers—and that’s who we write for.)
I’m not saying you should never write something that’s already been said in a popular podcast, YouTube video or article in Ladies Home Journal, Men’s Health or any other popular publication, I’m saying if that’s your go-to approach to sourcing, then you are contributing to the echo chamber and not turning over any new stones. Writers should always seek to turn over new stones.
While Sinclair and many other influencers do indeed have important and useful things to say, our job as writers is not to repeat their views unchecked, but rather to look into them, to question, to dig deeper, to ask around, to go to the best and most original sources when we can, then to sift it all and present something new and original to the reader, not something we just heard in an echo chamber.
Agree? Disagree? Questions? Add a comment!