For the background, see: We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. This post is a continuation of that one.
First item: the NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, asked me to contribute to an experiment that is unfolding at his latest post: The Media, Civil Liberties and Security in Post-9/11 America. The experiment is: “Instead of doing the normal ombudsman thing of getting an internal response and pronouncing judgment, I am throwing open the discussion to everyone. I will moderate the discussion, weigh in periodically and republish some of the insightful comments.”
Well, alright! We’re down for that.
At issue is this NPR report on counter-terrorism procedures at the Mall of America in Minnesota, which has its own police force. Working with the Center for Investigative Reporting, NPR discovered some extreme tactics that appeared to have ensnared completely innocent people, like the guy making a videotape of the wonders of the Mall of America for family members who are from another country. The impression given was of massive overkill, and a kind of institutional paranoia.
More than any story in NPR’s prodigious coverage related to the 9/11 anniversary, the mall series divided listeners, who responded by the score. The two-part series, titled “Under Suspicion,” was either hailed for exposing violations of civil liberties or condemned for undermining the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts.
The question the ombudsman wanted to raise was this:
How far should NPR go in giving its own context and conclusions on what the consequences of its investigation might mean for our civil liberties versus our protection against terrorist attacks?… After 20 minutes, I was left with the strong impression that the mall force was poorly trained, over-zealous and probably not needed. But you may have come away with other impressions. At no point, did the journalists provide a bottom-line assessment of what their investigation meant.
But should they? Here’s the question again:
One reason we love NPR so much is that, as in “Under Suspicion,” it uses a technique called “storytelling” to explain or evoke complicated subjects through the stories and voices of real people. An alternative is to put us all to sleep with the droning analysis of a reporter. But does that mean that at no point should the story try to make bottom-line sense of it all for listeners? Is this taking “we report, you decide” to false limits? I am not suggesting that the reporters give opinion, but should they turn the corner on their own investigation and themselves analyze what it means?
I think it’s important that our big national news organizations have ombudsman, a human portal for complaints and questions. I think it’s shameful that CNN and Fox News–both highly profitable companies–do not. So if the NPR ombudsman asks me to contribute to an experiment he’s running (the email I got read, “I’d like to invite you to weigh in…”) that is a request I take pretty seriously.
Here is what I sent back to him. It has been posted at the NPR site:
I read Edward Schumacher-Matos’s post carefully. I listened to the NPR report. And I think I understand the question you are asking. So here is my reply.
Mister ombudsman, I have a wish for NPR. The wish is that it will someday permit its reporters in comparable situations to level with their listeners by saying: “Having investigated this and talked to a lot of people, having done the reporting and thought about it a lot, I would like to share with you some of the conclusions I have come to. I do not present them as facts. For they are not facts. Nor do they represent the position of NPR. As you know, NPR doesn’t take positions. Rather, these are my own takeaways, an NPR reporter’s “key lessons learned,” the conclusions I feel most strongly about, because they came through so powerfully in my reporting. Here, then, is what I think I know about this story, after thoroughly investigating it. You are welcome–indeed, you are encouraged–to argue with me. And I could be wrong. But fair warning: I have reasons for saying what I am about to say….”
Frankly, NPR is not at this point yet. Realistically, it cannot do what I ask. But someday it may see the benefit in my suggestion. I know this is hard to hear, and I mean no offense to the hard working people there when I say it, but NPR is right now too weak to permit its reporters this kind of interpretive freedom. It is too afraid of criticism. It has been spooked by the bias police. It sees not coming to conclusions as… well, as some kind of virtue, but this is a mistake. Not coming to a conclusion is a virtue only when you have not done the reporting to support those conclusions. When you have done the reporting, withholding your conclusions is a kind of bias in itself.
In a way, what it says to the listeners is: you can’t handle the truth. And that is not the way to build trust or earn respect.
Second item: I’ve been trying to tell NPR that a lot of people are onto “he said, she said” journalism; they understand how lame it is. Among them is Andrew Donohue, the editor of Voice of San Diego, which is one of the best born-on-the-web news sites to have emerged in the last few years. In reply to my exchange with NPR he agreed to send me Voice of San Diego’s “new reporter orientation” guidelines. They’re not an ethics code, exactly– more of an “expectations code.” As you’ll see, the guidelines explicitly warn new reporters away from the “he said, she said” approach.
I think the entire document is intelligent and forward-thinking. It corrects for many of the defects in mainstream journalism, and tries to inspire Voice of San Diego reporters to do better. NPR could learn a lot from it. (For example: “We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.”) This is the first time it has been published. (VOSD just won a General Excellence Award from the Online News Association.)
Voice of San Diego: New Reporter Guidelines.
We only do something if we can do it better than anyone or if no one else is doing it.
* We must add value. We must be unique.
Three things to remember for each story:
* Not just what is happening, but what it means
There is no such thing as objectivity.
* There is such thing as fairness.
* But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
* We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
* We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.
Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.
* We don’t have a dogmatic or ideological bent. But we do believe San Diego can and will do better.
* We can have better infrastructure, a healthier environment, a better education system, a responsive, efficient and transparent government, a better understanding of our neighborhoods’ challenges, a thriving economy and an ever-improving quality of life. If anything, this is our bias.
Be the expert.
* Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.
* No “he said, she said.”
* The day we write a headline that says: “Proposal has pros, cons” is the day we start dying.
* There is no such thing as 50/50 balance. There is a truth and we work our damndest to get there.
* Sometimes two viewpoints don’t deserve 50/50 treatment.
* Most of the time there aren’t two sides to something, anyways. There are 17. Who’s not being represented? If they’re not speaking up, how can you represent them?
* We don’t just “put things out there.” We’re not “only asking the question.”
* We don’t ask questions with our stories. We answer them.
* We don’t write question headlines, unless they’re so damn good that we can’t resist:
* We don’t do this: “Did City Official Take Bribe?”
* Or, to cite a recent example: “Did Wikileaks Hack Servers?”
* We’d maybe do this: “How Did a City Official Ended Up With Millions in Donations?”
* We’re not someone’s goddamn transcription service.
* They can relay their own news. In a world where leaders are able to communicate directly with their constituents very easily, we have to a.) make sense of what they say and b) find out the things they don’t want to say. It’s the only way to effectively use our limited resources.
Tell the truth.
* This means not being mealy mouthed and not being bias-bullied.
* Stand up to bias bullies. Tell them why you did something. Let them challenge you on it.
* If someone calls you biased, don’t be scared. Don’t dismiss it either. Reflect on it and answer with conviction.
* Don’t go quote-hunting for something you know to be true and can say yourself. Don’t hide your opinion in the last quote of a story.
* Take a stand when you know something to be true or wrong.
Care about your beat more than anyone else.
* It is your way to make San Diego a better place to live.
Focus on big problems
* David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has a quote that can be paraphrased this way: Journalism is good at solving small problems or taking small bites of a big problem. It’s not good at solving big problems.
* It’s easy as a journalist to take a stand against a six-figure salary. It’s easy to take a stand against an expensive meal on an expense report.
* Why do we take stands on those things and why are we afraid to take stands on bigger issues?
If you can’t find a good answer any of these three questions, drop the story:
* Why did I choose this story?
* Why will people care? (Not why should they care, but why will they care.)
* Why will people remember this story?
* It’s not your job to have everything on your beat. It’s your job to have the best things.
* Don’t worry about getting scooped. Worry about not consistently making an impact.
* Love the title of this Columbia Journalism Review story: “The Hamster Wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere.”
* A quote: “The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.”
* Another: “You say, ‘Why not have it?’ I say, ‘Because it isn’t free.’ The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.”
* We are a small group with limited resource. Everything we do must [pay off for the users.] * We can learn a lot from sports journalism. (That’s for a different day.) But here’s one great quote to always keep in mind from sportsjournalism.org: “Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.”
Avoid the news voice whenever possible.
* Sometimes it’s necessary.
* But you should never write a story [the way] you think journalists are supposed to write it. Write like you would if you were trying to get your friends interested in an email. Lighten up. Be creative. Have fun. Be conversational.
Bring us in the implications, not the event.
* So it’s not “Booze Ban Voted Through Council Committee.”
* It’s “Booze Ban Has One Final Hurdle Left.”
Don’t be boring. People don’t spend their free time on boring things.
* That’s it.
Don’t tell me stories about “critics” or “some”
* I don’t have a clue who “critics” or “some” are. But they managed to be the most quoted people on the planet.
* I need to know who they are for that viewpoint to carry any validity.
* And I need to know what, if any, financial stake they have in the issue. Honestly. (Just a sample of headlines in the news in a five-minute search this fall: “Some say Escondido police union’s flier crosses the line…” “Some say new constitution would solve state’s woes…” “Critics say Washing Oily Birds Is Wasteful…” “Observers Say Time Right for Santander IPO…”
* I’ve read stories that use blanket “critics” in different spots to describe people on the opposite ends of the arguments. It was so confusing.
Have fun! Be creative! Push the envelope!
* You don’t do this for the money. So let’s have some fun.
* Try something that’s never been tried before. Or try something that someone else did somewhere else. Don’t do a story just to do it. Or because it’s an interesting exercise.
* Think about what will impact people or policy makers. What will they want to read or what will force them to make a change?
* Be a student of today’s great journalistic innovations.
* Be a leader of today’s great journalistic innovations.
(Jay again…) Awesome, isn’t it?
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
I did a radio interview about “he said, she said” at NPR with Amanda Marcotte.
There’s a Metafilter thread about this post. It’s pretty good.
Former Vice President for News and Information at NPR, Bruce Drake, says in the comments:
Apropos of the “wish” you had for NPR in the second paragraph of your response to the ombudsman.
I have very mixed feelings about it, although with the reservations somewhat outweighing what I see are the plusses.
The main plus is that it would be pretty interesting radio (and, probably, the same goes for print).
My reservations are that this could be very confusing for news consumers, and especially so in the format of radio.
This is not to underestimate the intelligence or curiosity of listeners (“Hey, I’d like to know what that reporter REALLY thought”), but I could see where it could come across as sounding like editorializing and fuzzing the line around the perception of the reporter’s role to people who are not as immersed in or as careful listeners as someone like you.
There’s more. Read the rest.
A former ombudsman for NPR, Jeffrey Dvorkin, says in the comments:
The public’s view of the “he said/she said” dilemma is more about the increasing frustration over the limits of balance. Journalists often feel constrained by “ethical standards” and “guidelines” imposed from above, while management worries that lobbyists and advocates will condemn any attempt at contextualization as examples of liberal bias. A better approach is for news organizations to spend more time (and money) on doing as complete a job of reporting as possible. This includes allowing and encouraging reasonable and fair conclusions. What the public wants (and needs) is journalism that feels confident enough in its own abilities to serve the audience as citizens first and as consumers of media, second. To do anything less is to capitulate to self-censorship. Which is just what the political critics of journalism want.
The NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, replies to me:
In many ways, your wish is my wish. Stories that are long form, extensively researched and comprehensively sourced should come with conclusions – a clear progression of lessons (as you call them) rooted in the hard work of reporting. But what do we tell our audience when an investigation doesn’t reach a strong or sweeping conclusion? Few do.
You say that NPR has been scared away from conclusions. I have only been on the job three months, but haven’t found cowardism. I could be mistaken, but what I have found so far is a belief in using compelling and fair storytelling that over the course of a report conveys the facts and competing interpretations through the voices of people interviewed, and only limited voiceover. This allows listeners to draw their own conclusions, though I agree that sometimes listeners are left confused over how to weigh the competing points of view and who to believe. We need a reporter we trust to guide us with his or her own context and analysis, too.
The Mall of America story I cite, however, is a perfect example of an investigative that gives us what seems to be an important insight into abuses of civil liberty in the name of counter-terrorism, but still is only a limited insight.
No major conclusions can be drawn. My point was that it was this summation that should have been given. This said, the very investigation and lengthy report reflects that NPR was not shy from tackling a politically sensitive subject. I hope it never is.
Washington Post chat with writer and humorist Gene Weingarten:
ON THE OTHER HAND
Hi Gene, Just came across this critique of “he said, she said” reporting. It seems to be in line with what you’ve talked about in the past, although your description of it, “On the other hand, Mr. Hitler contends….” is much more colorful.
GENE WEINGARTEN :
Yeah, Rosen’s talking about the same thing. It’s basically a straw man type of writing, involving phony moral equivalencies. It’s cowardly: It lets you avoid finding the truth.
Peter Segal, the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell me, comments on “he said, she said” and the production of innocence at NPR.
So: this is a pretty pointed critique of my friends, but I found it interesting, in that it discusses one of the big underlying questions of contemporary journalism: when do you owe your audience not just the facts, but the truth? And how do you determine what that is?