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Jan 13, 2012

NYT debate: what would it cost to end he-said-she-said journalism?

The New York Times has raised the issue of he-said-she-said journalism. It should be discussed here, too, but it's more complicated than media critics think.

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The New York Times’ public editor caused an online storm overnight when he asked readers whether the paper should become a “truth vigilante”. Putting aside the loaded headline, Arthur Brisbane raised whether Times reporters should challenge facts asserted by people they are covering. He gave two examples — the first about Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas claiming to have “misunderstood” his financial disclosure obligations, the second about Mitt Romney’s contention that Barack Obama has “apologised for America”, which he has never done.

Brisbane’s point was that op-ed columnists have the freedom to challenge such assertions, and that the Times has been running a sidebar to presidential nomination stories that fact-checks claims by candidates, but such analysis was not currently part of the straight reportage of the Times, and he wanted to know whether it should be.

The furious reaction from a lot of readers (see the comments) seemed partly misdirected — Brisbane was not asking if the Times should fact-check at all, but whether it should form a core component of straight reporting (he later complained about this misinterpretation). Media critic and academic Jay Rosen, a long-time faultfinder of what he calls “the view from nowhere”, quickly weighed in to paint Brisbane as “naive” for ignoring what he claimed had been a long-term shift away from “truth telling” as the No.1 media priority. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent gave a more nuanced reaction suggesting that, at the very least, newspapers shouldn’t be in effect co-conspirators in lies.

This morning, the Times’ executive editor joined the debate, suggesting the paper was already engaged in extensive fact-checking. Clearly, many of her readers don’t agree.

Brisbane’s question raises issues every bit as relevant to Australia, and particularly to political journalism, as they are to the US media industry.

Our own media industry, and particularly the press, isn’t faring as poorly as its US counterpart. But it has a major trust deficit with the community. All forms of commercial media went backwards in terms of levels of trust in 2011. “A lot” or “some” trust in the most trusted form of commercial media, newspapers, fell below 50%. Only the ABC maintained or strengthened its already-high levels of trust.

Like in the US, there is incessant criticism of “he-said-she-said” journalism (aka Rosen’s “view from nowhere”) here, where accurate reportage of politicians’ talking points, and balance through the inclusion of “both sides of the debate”, is equated with quality journalism, when there is no effort made to inform readers of whether statements may be accurate, or whether the “balance” sought reflects reality (see the climate change “debate”, most obviously). The uncritical recycling of press releases, churnalism, is its close cousin.

None of this is obviously a problem for an outlet such as The Daily Telegraph, where journalists simply invent or grotesquely misrepresent stories for the purposes of the paper’s campaign against Labor and the Greens. But for the rest of the media, which claims to prize not merely professional integrity but quality journalism, it is. It’s not necessarily as simple as it might appear to be. After all, the ABC is so highly-trusted despite being probably the most visible home of he-said-she-said reportage as well as quality television and radio journalism.

But it’s merely to state the bleeding obvious that he-said-she-said is deeply embedded in our journalistic culture. It even shapes the way media advisers do their work. I found myself blacklisted by a Coalition press adviser, with whom I’d hitherto had perfectly good relations, because I refused to run his shadow minister’s claim that Julia Gillard had made a particular statement without evidence. When he produced the “evidence”, it was nothing of the sort and I told him as much. This prompted him to declare that I was only a “Canberra blogger” anyway and that he wouldn’t deal with me any more. Touché.

While such thin skins aren’t necessarily surprising among media advisers charged with defending their bosses, he clearly expected that his shadow minister’s statement would be run unquestioned — it was worthy of reporting merely because it was asserted, even if it wasn’t true, and it wasn’t my job to insist on evidence before running it.

The complicating factor when criticising he-said-she-said, however, is resources. Should a radio reporter, rushing to air coverage of a press conference, instead devote an hour to researching every claim made by the politician at the microphone? More to the point, what would her producer say? What about an audience now accustomed to instantaneous coverage of everything? In an era of ever-more constrained media resources, time spent fact-checking is now at a premium. People love to bag journalists, especially on social media, and it’s frequently merited, but what’s missed is that journalists are placed under ever greater pressure from editors and producers to meet ever faster deadlines, in an ever greater number of formats, with fewer and fewer resources.

I asked Stephen Feneley, a veteran journalist since moved into media consulting who continues to cast a critical eye over journalism on Twitter, for his take.

“The ‘he said, she said’ approach to journalism, where errors of fact go unchecked, where politicians are allowed to get away with either rehashing old news or shifting position on policy, is done under the cover of objectivity when what it really amounts to is lack of rigour,” he said. “To be fair to individual journalists, the tightening of newsroom budgets leaves less time for research and critical thinking. Most reporters are reduced to following the bouncing balls instead of identifying the forces that made the balls bounce. Many journalists would like to focus on the how and the why, but that costs money, so there’s little enthusiasm on the part of their editors & the owners of their mastheads to support that kind of scrutiny.

“The how and the why of journalism is left more and more to the oped writers, who unburdened by any obligation to make an objective assessment of the facts, or to even bother with the facts, can commit to the keyboard whatever crosses their feeble minds.”

The key objection raised by Brisbane in his original piece relates to selectivity: which facts does a journalist rebut, particularly if they’re time or resource-constrained? What if you rebut some facts but not others, rebut one politician’s claims but not the equally glaring nonsense of their opponent? “Even if journalists did have the time to be more critical, you would never overcome the issue of truth being selective,” said Feneley. “Individual scribes will each have their own take on what facts need correcting. But at least that’s better than no scrutiny at all.”

There’s also the simple reality now that fact-checking is occurring anyway. Rare is the false claim by a politician or spinner now that won’t be picked up and torn apart online. But fact-checking on a little-trafficked blog, or on Twitter, won’t match fact-checking in the originating report, particularly when that will be viewed far more widely in the community than online-only material. Greater dialogue between journalists and social media participants, making stories more of an online conversation and less about authoritative pronouncements, partly addresses the resourcing issue, but alters the role of mainstream media journalists in a way many are uncomfortable with.

Nonetheless, given the community’s very clear trust issues with commercial media, the debate Brisbane initiated deserves to be had here as well.

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