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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.

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. klewso

    Elections/government are decided on “perception”.
    “We” don’t vote for sport?

  2. David Coady

    Don’t know what you’re getting at Klewso. The idea that journalists of any kind should try to report the truth to the best of their ability shouldn’t be controversial, and it’s an indictment of the establishment media that it is. Neither the NYT nor any other establishment media outlet will report the easily verified fact that Romney (or any other establishment politician) lied (or said something untrue). And this isn’t because their attached to some high-minded principle of balance, but because they want to retain access and are afraid of being thought of as biased. In other words their venal and gutless.

  3. David Coady

    Sorry, “they’re venal and gutless”

  4. Lyn Gain

    ‘He said, she said’ is exactly the issue that I wrote to the SMH Readers Editor about a few months ago: “In today’s Herald (P.7), Matt Wade reports claims by the NSW Treasurer uncritically, that the carbon tax will cost NSW hundreds of millions of dollars, despite the fact that the Herald itself had already exposed this claim as untrue in earlier articles. Perhaps you might consider encouraging the Herald to work towards a new policy – when government spokespeople (state or federal, whatever brand) make a claim that reporters know to be false, rather than just perpetuating this misinformation to further mislead the uninitiated, journalists could be encouraged to provide a critical balancing sentence or phrase.” Judy Prisk said that this was the sort of issue she had hoped she would be working on, but I noted that her brief appeared to allow her just to bring it to the attention of the individual journalist, rather than make any broader contribution to SMH policy. I think Jackol’s got a good idea here.

  5. Dogs breakfast

    Lyn and David bring up good points. Too often though I am left wondering if the journalist covering the issue actually knows as much about it as I do.

    So often, obvious questions are not asked. “In what way will the carbon tax cost jobs? Whose jobs? Will there be no jobs created by the carbon tax? Were the purveyors of this information the “Coal Forever, Wind Power Never Association? Do you think their ‘study may have been a little ‘conflicted’?”

    Politicians get away with making up absolute rubbish, but they aren’t challenged at the time, when it is important. They don’t care if there is an article by Ross Gittins a week later debunking their stupidity, they have already got 3 front page leads plus photos in the Daily Telegraph. Journalists need to ask the questions publicly, at the time, based on a sound scepticism.

    So whent he pollies come out with rubbish factoids (which if you are in the business you should be recognising straight away) you should be challenging them there and then.

    But it’s all to hard, and journalists would have to be genuinely intelligent rather than just opinionated and/or telegenic.

    Tony Abbott’s entire strategy has been based on saying crap that gets the salivating dogs of the press barking their headlines and columns, only to recant 3 days later when someone points out the obvious, i.e. that would be bad policy!

    I’m a little disappointed, if that isn’t too harsh.

  6. A. N. Onymus

    I think all of Jackol’s ideas were good — in fact I’d say they were all excellent. Can we get you in a position to implement them, Jackol?

  7. Edward James

    Lazy work product like this which I found in the smelly on line and commented on twice now ! Why is it when this days old Andrew Clennell and Steve Lewis Telegraph exclusive by line
    makes it clear to many readers MP Craig Thomson has told them he wont make a decision about running until the police investigation is finished. And the same story tells readers “when his endorsement to run again for the seat of Dobell in a fortnight is looking very doubtful” Are the readers being told? Craig Thomson knows something about when the Police investigation will end, or are the political journalist Clennell and Lewis just not doing their jobs properly?

    While the bought and paid for journalist may not actually be told what and how to think and what to write, they all no doubt value their pay packet. I sometimes wonder are they really as deaf dumb and blind as so many of our politicians. I often reflect on the expression the old premier JBP from Queensland often used, feed the chook’s. Being told by some journalist out side the CWA Hall at Woy Woy during the Federal Labor preselection process between Belinda Neal and Deborah ONiell. That my years of published stories with photos and naming names, identifying abuse of power and systemic corruption are libelous / defamatory is sad because these professionals know their opinion is nothing until a court confirms what till that time is alleged. It is strange that my allegations have been outstanding and unchallenged by named AG’s, Premiers and Party leaders I am not alone in understanding media and political allsorts are team players when they identify someone who is trying to expose them and get rid of them for the lies they promulgate. What surprises me is only one elected rep in over ten years has stood up in sitting council and asked how is it possible for Mr James to regularly identify our Mayor and Deputy Mayor as liars in print in the Peninsula News and nothing is done about? Edward James 0243419140

  8. Jean

    I liked the bit early in the article about a newspaper editor complaining about being “misinterpreted”.

    Folks, get real.

    Newspapers are for training puppies to pee somewhere appropriate.
    Radio is for making noise to wake you up when your alarm goes off.
    TV is, as Noel Coward said, for appearing on, not for watching.
    And the internet is for whackers, ratbags and whingers to make sweeping statements on in the misguided belief that people will be affected by what they write 🙂

  9. David Hand

    I think this issue is wrapped up with the tendency the media has for editorialising within its news coverage.

    For example news headlines like “inflation fears as dollar falls!” one day and “unemployment fears as dollar rises!” the next, contain within them a strong editorial bias that passes for objective news in 2011.

    It is one of my grizzles about the global warming debate, that objective facts are so hard to distill from the cacophany of voices all shouting things that can mostly not be checked. Most of the trouble is caused by people making guesses about what might happen in the future and then stating it as a received scientific fact merely because the projection is logical and based on factual history. I say that as someone who is convinced about the fact of AGW.

    I think the heart of the problem is that the 24 hour news cycle has led the news media into a culture where the story is everything and the facts can look after themselves. In time, as their reputation falls, a better model will emerge.

  10. Edward James

    I think many journalist see their career path tied to politics. They know being able to hang words on a line in a way which attracts and influences readers. Is a skill which can be marketed to shonky politicians who have become comfortable mishandling the truth when dealing with their constituents. The type of media we are being served up has a lot to do with time poor citizens not interested in overtly rejecting the lies, and the people who are often paid to promulgate them, including journalist who have moved on and joined the dark side with our taxpayer funded political allsorts. I often pay to name and shame politicians in my local paper. I believe people are too frightened to stand up and be identified rejecting the crap we are served up as “good governance” by the full spectrum of our elected representatives at all three levels Local, State and Federal Government. I have come back to respect and subscribe to because I have faith in it as an excellent soapbox for people willing to be public trust journalist. is certainly much more effective for influencing change than standing for years outside the NSW Parliament in Macquarie Street Sydney for up to eighteen hours a day. I believe, we the peoples do have the power to shake the base of politics. We are beginning to understand our politicians are themselves a noisy minority. Which have become comfortable with their expectation based on experience we will continue to accept them and their taxpayer funded minions, many hired away from print media. Lying and disrespecting us. Edward James