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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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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24 thoughts on “NYT debate: what would it cost to end he-said-she-said journalism?

  1. Jackol

    First: I think it has already been discussed to death here and elsewhere that the whole notion of traditional Newspaper or even radio/TV journalists being “first” at breaking news is already laughable. Breaking news is well and truly in the social media sphere hours before any of the traditional media can “break” a story. If this is going to continue to be the case (and it is), then anyone calling themselves a serious journalist should simply abandon the apparent high value placed on being “first” to break a story.

    If you’re not going to be first, and you aren’t, then what do you bring to the table? Traditional bread and butter journalism – checking facts, providing context, getting alternative/independent viewpoints. Accept the fact that your report is a few hours behind the “breaking wave” on social media and learn to value the quality of your work. When people want to know what really happened, they should be able to get it from what you, as a journalist, have compiled.

    More importantly, as Bernard Keane briefly visits above, quality journalistic outlets are outlets of record. People will quote and reference this work as a way of backing up their arguments etc. What you publish matters, and it matters that it is accurate, in context, not distorted, etc.

    Secondly: the question of constraint on time to fact check everything – first, as described above, that time constraint should not be the driving force, but secondly perhaps there can be some simple code of conduct that any statements taken from politicians or other vested interests where the contents have not been checked are simply labelled as such. ie:

    Julia Gillard responded that as far as she was concerned, the moon was made of green cheese. This assertion has not been checked in the course of putting this report together.

    Or some recognized shorthand for the above (sic?).

    This would mean that the statements provided are published/recorded in a timely manner, but anyone following up on the article will understand that it was published uncritically and what would otherwise be checked material was left unchecked for the purposes of timeliness.

  2. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Thank you for covering this, Bernard. Just pausing on one paragraph:

    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.

    I think it’s in the public interest for people to know the name of this “press advisor”, would it not? It sounds like his job is to get his shadow minister’s lies in the news. But I guess that would be …. unprofessional.

  3. Joel

    It seems to me that if a politician/spokesperson is busily spreading falsehoods or lies, that should be a story (the fact that they are lying, not the lies, I should say). Many politicians have their own blogs, twitter feeds, newsletters etc, and if I want to read whatever they’re spreading about, I can read those. Independent news sources are only useful if they do actually add some value – such as by fact checking, adding context, and so forth.

  4. Space Kidette


    I love the way the 24hr news cycle is blamed for the lack of rigour in fact checking!

    Greg Jericho, coined it yesterday in his Drum article. “You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts”. If the rigour in fact checking is not there, you may as well go to your local library, pull out any random fiction title and call it news.

    The harsh reality is what we have now is not news and more often than not it doesn’t rate as news worthy. ‘News’ today doesn’t relate even the basic facts of an event any more, just the juicy, salacious, ad-selling innuendo and lies, as the steak has been thrown under the bus in haste to chase the more rewarding sizzle.

    Let’s be honest, the news today is nothing more than press release regurgitation until such time as at least the basic facts are comfirmed and related it should not be shown the light of day and given that the average peep can confirm basic facts, historical references and see the pressers for themselves, all in under five minutes, there is no excuse for journalists not to do the same.

  5. [email protected]

    I believe there lies a solution in another arm of the media and creative arts, plays and movies, but most especially, documentaries.
    As they would never put out into the public realm an unedited and non-factual piece of work, as far as it goes, and in the Post Truth Age that sometimes is not very far at all, however, the best of this work is polished before it is presented, and is the result of a collaborative effort.
    So, would it not be the simplest solution, to reorientate the way news is delivered to the community and set up teams, who work together to get the stories out, to the deadline, and who have defined roles? Ergo, the Press Conference recorder and interrogator, or the Parliamentary reporter; the after-the-event fact checker of the claims made or evidence put up to back up a case put by a politician or lobbyist; the gatherer of opposing viewpoints; plus the writer of the subsequent story, who gets fed the facts & quotes, weighs them up in the balance using their discretion, and then writes the story for the public.
    I’m sure, in time, this could become a well-oiled machine that could work to deadline for the benefit of the community at large. The Op Ed pages would then obviously be left to the opinionated, if you were interested in reading that sort of thing.

  6. david

    Re being blacklisted by a Coalition Press Adviser…name and shame Bernard, name the w–ker, that type needs to be exposed.


    Let’s remind ourselves that the New York Times published the pro-war propaganda of Judith Miller who also regurgitated the WMD’s in Iraq baloney to the gullible public at a time when some real journalism, ie fact checking, could possibly have impacted on the lives of millions, and maybe even saved thousands of them.

    Better late than never, we could say.

    That allowing journalists to create public opinion with distortions of the truth handed to them by governments or ‘authorities’ can clearly have very dire consequences.

  8. klewso

    If they can use the earnest aegis of belonging to the fourth estate, to justify their actions, and can go to lengths to “investigate” the veracity of utterances of members of the party they don’t like (and/or produce “experts” to counter any such claims), to embarrass them, why not for the party they support professionally (in the positive way they write them up) – in the same “interests of truth”?

  9. klewso

    That’s not to mention an agenda and continuing narrative being run by a particular media organisation that could be intent on regime change through it’s influence on voter perceptions of “fitness to govern” – especially if they virtually have “the market place” to themselves?

  10. David Coady

    The idea that political journalism should aspire to “balance” (i.e. reporting what the two sides of the political establishment think and leaving it at that) rather than reporting what the evidence indicates to be true is a blight on the profession. Can you imagine a sports journalist approaching their job that way (i.e. reporting what the two sides think happened rather than what actually happened)? Of course it’s to be expected from an establishment outlet like the New York Times, but it’s a shame to see Crikey buying into that crap.

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