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Ask an Expert 

For 10 years, a close friend of mine in Austin talked to a shrink once a week via long-distance telephone to New York. She didn't trust her sanity to any psychologist in Texas.

Sometimes you need an outside perspective to help you understand your own problems.

When journalists need to understand a complicated problem they call an "ologist." That's my term for an outside expert. There is always an ologist, whether it is a psychologist, sociologist, meteorologist, anthropologist, hydrologist, criminologist or entomologist. It's the independent professional who can help you understand the intricacies of a problem and put it in perspective. Pat Higgins, who is running this election for Harbor District, has "fish biologist" on the door to his Jacoby Storehouse office. If you have a fish story, he's the guy to call.

In criminal cases, my husband the defense lawyer turns to Dr. Von Schmeisel. No matter what the case is about, there is a Dr. Von Schmeisel out there somewhere. He's the guy who wrote the book on blood splatters or bullet trajectories or body identification. Whatever the subject is, he wrote the book on it.

Von Schmeisel is the expert we need to tell us whether on not District Attorney Paul Gallegos has a conflict of interest that prevents him from deciding whether criminal charges are warranted against Rob Arkley over an altercation at the Avalon restaurant on Sept. 5. In this case, you can probably find Von Schmeisel at Stanford Law School, or Berkeley's Boalt Hall or Hastings College of Law.

I've read story after story now in the Eureka Reporter, the Times-Standard and the North Coast Journal about the incident and what Glass thinks, what Arkley (through spokespeople) thinks and what Gallegos thinks. I think we need someone who has no conflict to tell me what the conflicts are. Must Gallegos pass on prosecuting this case because Arkley gave significant sums of money to his campaign in 2004? Must he bow out because it turns out he was at the event in question? Does his conflict prevent him from handing the case off to his lieutenant, Wes Keat, who probably doesn't party with Arkley? Or is Gallegos just a legal weenie already reelected who doesn't want the headache?

Von Schmeisel is missing not just from this story, but most stories we read about here in Humboldt County. And it is curious because the good doctor is easier to find, care of Google, than ever before. Years ago, to find the guy who wrote the book, you had to track down the public relations person at each college, tell him about your story and the type of expert you needed and he'd find you the person. (There is generally at least one Von Schmeisel at every prestigious university, since those schools don't keep professors unless they write the book.) Okay, pre-Internet, it wasn't all that hard to find him, it just took a now-antiquated device called a phone book and a few calls. I've found mathematicians for stories about the California Lotto, economists for stories about taxes and government spending and forensic accountants for stories on corporate shenanigans.

With Google Scholar and Google Books it is easy to find Von Schmeisel. There's even a service out there for journalists called Profnet, whereby reporters shoot out an e-mail about their story and it goes to every university public relations person and every publicity-seeking Von Schmeisel in the country. It is so nifty that I've heard reporters say they hate using it because it makes finding an expert so easy, and so easily helps them add substance to their stories. It makes them feel cheap. Many journalists are masochists. If the information isn't hard to get, they don't want it.

Others are simply lazy. If it takes hunting up someone outside the area, whose name isn't already on their Palm Pilot, they don't want to bother.

But that does a disservice to the reader. Von Schmeisel will take the journalist's call, but he won't give the reader the time of day. Journalists often forget that they serve the public in a number of ways ,Äì by reporting things readers need to know, by explaining things they need to understand and for talking to people they need to hear from. The reporter serves as the go-between connecting the reader who might be a nobody to the somebody who has the relevant information.

In my investigative reporting class, I emphasize that to do a good investigative story you rarely have to wrest information from people who don't want to give it. Instead, you find hard-to-find people who have information they can offer.You connect different people and different bits of information to get a better understanding of a difficult problem.

Your ologist doesn't necessarily work in the Ivy Leagues or the West Coast equivalent. When I worked out of the Bay Area, I found Von Schmeisel at San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco and Cal State Hayward. Here at Humboldt we've got a number of them. I suspect Bay Area reporters call Dr. Steve Sillett when they need a treeologist, Dr. Steve Steinberg when they need a mapologist and Dr. Micaela Szykman Gunther when then need a wild dogologist.

In a rural county of 130,000 people, 5 hours and worlds away from the Big City, sometimes you need an outsider to help you understand what's going on in your own neighborhood. But you don't need Dr. Von Schmeisel to tell you that.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She is no doctor and has yet to write the book on the subject. But in her basement gathering dust is a screenplay for a B-movie she will one day sell and the first draft of a novel she will one day finish. Anyone needing an expert on neurotic middle-aged women with inflated egos and height insecurities may feel free to e-mail her at [email protected].

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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