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Summary:

As Jay Rosen argues, the days when it was enough to just give both sides of a story — without providing any additional viewpoints or fact-checking — are over. He said/she said journalism is both an ethical lapse and a failure to understand how the media business itself has changed

For some time now, journalism professor and First Look Media advisor Jay Rosen has been railing against what he calls “he said, she said” journalism — that is, the artificially balanced approach to a story that deliberately avoids drawing a conclusion or stating whether someone is wrong, even when that should be obvious or could be checked. This is arguably an ethical lapse of sorts, but in a recent post Rosen also makes a persuasive case that it’s a business failure as well.

Rosen starts with one recent example, a story in which the New York Times writer Jeremy Peters talked about the pros and cons of voter registration, and summarized the alleged views of both unnamed Democrats (that voter registration primarily serves to keep out the poor) and of unnamed Republicans, who apparently argue that registration cuts down on the serious problem of voter fraud.

As Rosen argues — and as former Reuters blogger Felix Salmon has also noted in a recent post on the topic of false equivalence in journalism — the structure of the Times story cleverly glosses over one of the key facts that it rests on: namely, whether voter fraud is a problem, and therefore a valid justification for voter registration. Is that actually the case? Rosen argues that this is something a reporter should theoretically be confirming or debunking, rather than just repeating:

“Would you happen to know, New York Times, whether fraud at the polls is ‘rife in today’s elections?’ Is that something I should expect you to know, seeing as you are the high-end product in the national news marketplace? Or is Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have no idea a good enough standard?”

Not balance, but false equivalency

We’ve been down this particular road many times, thanks in part to the wave of opinionated commentary that has been unleashed by the web. In many ways, the “he said, she said” debate is a sub-category of the larger debate over whether journalists should be objective or not — or whether transparency and disclosure of a writer’s views are enough to compensate for any conflicts. Rosen has written a lot about this as well, something he calls the “View From Nowhere.”

Desert

First Look, the new venture that is funded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, is one of the most prominent advocates of the opinionated approach to new media, with a structure that involves teams of dedicated journalists with a specific point of view — such as Glenn Greenwald and the rest of the writers behind The Intercept, one of First Look’s initial magazine-style offerings — focusing on a topic and being unabashedly opinionated.

David Weinberger, a researcher with the Berkman Center at Harvard, has argued in the past that objectivity is a construct that might have made sense for journalism and media before the internet came along, because there was no easy way to find either supporting or dissenting commentary, which would allow a reader to verify or challenge the points in a story. As Weinberger put it: “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

He said, she said is no longer enough

But in his post about the downsides of “he said, she said” journalism, Rosen makes an important point, which is that taking this approach to a story — one that Salmon has argued prevails as much because of laziness as anything else — also shows a failure to understand how the media market has evolved. The standard story format that makes opposing statements and does little or nothing to verify or debunk them serves less and less of a purpose in today’s media world.

“Classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a ‘sin’ against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be a high-end product: New York Times reporting.”

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

The “he said, she said” approach might have been enough in a world where newspapers were one of only a few methods for distributing the news — an era when they controlled both the news itself and the platform for getting it to the consumer. But neither of those things are the case any more. Now, newspapers are competing with everything from digital-only news outlets to Twitter and Facebook, and that competition means they have to up their game.

The whole selling point of a new site like Vox or FiveThirtyEight, or even First Look itself (not to mention the NYT’s own site The Upshot), is that they are going to tell you exactly what is true and what is not, rather than taking the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” approach.

To her credit, NYT public editor Margarget Sullivan has written a number of times about the dangers of false equivalence and “he said, she said” journalism. As she put it in one of her posts: “Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.”

The New York Times is at least starting to talk about the challenges it faces from digital-first and more socially-oriented ventures, judging by a recent internal “innovation report” the newspaper put together, which describes how a journalist’s job is no longer over once the story has been filed or published. But there are still many things left unmentioned in that report that arguably require changing, and the “he said, she said” style is one of them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Thinkstock / marcduf

  1. Chip Bayers Monday, May 12, 2014

    “Rosen starts with one recent example, a story in which the New York Times writer Jeremy Peters talked about the pros and cons of voter registration, and summarized the alleged views of both unnamed Democrats (that voter registration primarily serves to keep out the poor) and of unnamed Republicans, who apparently argue that registration cuts down on the serious problem of voter fraud.”

    Speaking of poor journalism: this is a highly inaccurate description of the content in the Times article. The issue under debate (and being subject to false equivalencies in the Times’ reporting) is not “voter registration,” but photo ID requirements being added to the voting process.

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    1. JenniferDawn Tuesday, May 13, 2014

      oh snap!

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  2. Brian Kilgore Monday, May 12, 2014

    False equivalency drives me nuts watching CBC’s Power and Politics, making me shout at the tv and then switch to BBC Canada and watch a Top Gear re-run. If government talking-point mouthpieces — at the cabinet minister level, no less – won’t answer an interviewer’s question, it’s time to stop interviewing them.
    BAK

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  3. stephenstrauss Monday, May 12, 2014

    What is equally significant in showing how many newspapers fundamentally don’t understand the ways the Internet have changed not just the information playing field,are controversial science articles completely bereft of hyperlinkage. The presumption is that readers aren’t really going to be interested in seeing the evidence a journalist used to arrive at a conclusion.
    Wrong, wrong, wrong.
    And if you want a classic example of this Mathew, take a look at this article in your old newspaper, the Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/is-there-such-a-thing-as-too-much-wifi/article18592972/
    It reads like an informational silent film and not an Internet talkie.

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  4. Simple me. I thought interviewers let me know in the code for thanking guests:

    “Thank you for your insight!” (Viewer, he’s right about everything!”

    “Thank you for your opinion.” (Viewer, this guy’s a fool.)

    “Thank you for sharing your feelings.” (Viewer, this poor guy was there, just listen to his halting voice and see those tears!”

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  5. This sounds like an elaborate justification for reporters reverting to their lazy habit of wanting to opine on their stories rather than digging into the facts and making their interviewees justify their points of view. How would a journalist be an arbiter of whether voter fraud is a significant issue unless she had really dug into the facts of how many instances exist of dead people on voter roles or people registered to vote in multiple states or counties; how is she going to determine what constitutes “rife” voter fraud? Her standard of what might be significant may well differ from my standard. And if she does offer her opinion and tells me this is a story about voter fraud, which is not a significant issue, why am I going to read that story – she’s just told me it’s trivial. This is not some sophisticated new journalism; it’s nothing more than a justification for blogging.

    We need more determined, aggressive journalists who push their interviewees to make their case and respond to counterpoints (when’s the last time you saw a reporter really go after someone – it’s far more informative than reading the journalists’ opinion), rather than more journalists who think their job is advocacy. We have long had an outlet for that kind of journalism – it’s called the opinion page.

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  6. The underlying premise of this entire discussion is that journalists are actually capable of determining “the truth” about any given issue. Are they? Well, maybe, but often that’s a difficult challenge for generalist reporters writing about complicated topics. As Adam Gopnik once wrote, “Journalists cultivate the appearance of knowingness.” But journalists, who tend to be liberal-arts majors, may not know squat about complicated scientific, economic, medical or other subjects they are covering. As an English major who once tried to write about nuclear energy, I plead guilty to that. We all try to be quick studies and comprehend the basics, but we know deep down that sometimes we’re just faking it.

    The new emphasis on transparency is healthy, because readers/viewers/listeners can see where reporters are coming from and decide for themselves if the coverage is accurate — or simply “the truth” as seen through the journalists’ various filters. As the old Moynihan quote goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. But what to do when the facts are conflicting and different sides present their own sets of facts to make their case? Look at almost every major “polarizing” issue today and that’s the reality. So can we truly rely on journalists — who may be young, inexperienced, uninformed, biased, arrogant, brash, insecure, full-of-themselves, thin-skinned and clueless all at the same time — to sort things out and bestow truth? That’s a risky path to take.

    The View from Nowhere was always a fraud; the View from Somewhere should be clearly labeled. Transparency is the new objectivity. Accountability is the new road to accuracy. Openness to all points of view and assertions of the facts (with more links!) is the way to earn credibility. That is the TAO of Journalism (http://taoofjournalism.org) and will lead to greater trust. And that’s the truth. Disagree? Engage.

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