How to Be an Opinion Journalist, Cont.

You simply can't know everything, and you can't always be right. But you can be honest and you can be brave.

I'm working on a story right now that is rooted in the racial wealth gap and New Deal era public policy -- mostly housing policy. One of the problems with writing about racism is that even though the public is shamefully ignorant of its effects and its foundational role in America, academics have produced reams of excellent research on the subject. In my explorations of slavery and the Civil War, I only skimmed the surface, and I know it. (Never read any David Brion Davis. Shameful, I know.) It's the same for public policy and the black/white wealth gap. There is just a ton of great research on the subject. Moreover, the excuse that "academics can't write" doesn't really hold water. A lot of this stuff is really compelling -- but very few people ever read it.

At the end of the day, the writer is charged with sifting through a great deal of information and deciding what to present. He may not have ever taken a basic statistics class. He certainly has not sat through the various symposiums on his subject. If he is doing his job, he is familiar with the important debates (Did racism precede slavery, or did slavery precede racism?) But at the end of the day, he is an amateur, pulling from various sources. And various disciplines.  The sociology bleeds into history and statistics, and the history bleeds into economics and anthropology, and the anthropology bleeds into philosophy, and the philosophy takes you right back into history. And so on.

This is largely a vent. Or rather it's an attempt to distract myself from the tons of academic papers I have currently sitting in my dropbox. There is just so much to know. It really is ridiculous. 

I think our own Yoni Applebaum gave the best advice some years back:

Choose the things about which you genuinely care, and come to know them deeply and well. Form your own judgments, and constantly question them. In other matters, attempt instead to ascertain the consensus of expert judgment. It will be right far more often than not. The only alternative is to form your own judgment upon every question, and I can assure you that you will be correct far less frequently. 

If you encounter an attack upon a conventional piety that troubles you, first assess its source. Has its author taken the time or trouble to know his subject deeply or well? Then, assess its content. Does it seem sophisticated and convincing? If it meets those two tests, ask yourself how much you care to know about the matter. You can always add it to the list of things you wish to know deeply. But if you feel that you simply don't have the time, because of the realities of your life, then bracket your concerns and set them aside. The regnant consensus will do.

Wise words. You simply can't know everything, and you can't always be right. But you can be honest and you can be brave.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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