When quoting both sides and leaving it there is the riskier call

Aug.
19
If the weight of the evidence allows you to make a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you’re behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious thing.

It’s my job to notice when a piece of standard brand pressthink “flips” around and no longer works as intended. I have one.

For a very long time, the logic behind “he said, she said” journalism, and “get both sides,” as well as, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave it there” was that operating this way would reduce risk to a news publisher’s reputation. (See my 2009 post.) When you have both sides speaking in your account, you’re protecting yourself against charges of favoring one or the other. By not “choosing” a side — by not deciding who’s right — you’re safer.

You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?

Increasingly that is not right. More and more — but not always — the “no position” position is the chancier move, especially when disputes turn on factual questions and checkable claims. A newsroom that goes with “he said, she said” when a call can be made is engaged in reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face. That wasn’t true ten years ago. But it is now.

Let me illustrate. On August 4, the New York Times ran this story: Reagan Book Sets Off Debate. It’s about Rick Perlstein’s new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” Much of the story talked about accusations of plagiarism aimed at Perlstein by Republican operative and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. The Times used the classic “he said, she said” form. Shirley and his lawyer make accusations. Perlstein and his publisher defend themselves. The Times stays in the middle:

Mr. Perlstein, 44, suggested that the attack on his book is partly motivated by conservatives’ discomfort with his portrayal of Reagan. Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter.

But Mr. Shirley and his lawyer contend that Mr. Perlstein paraphrased original research without properly giving credit. “The rephrasing of words without proper attribution is still plagiarism,” Mr. Shirley said in an interview.

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice, even though it still feels like normal practice and, as I said, the safer choice.

The risk the Times was taking was exposed the following week. After receiving complaints from readers, the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took a closer look. “We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story,” said deputy media editor Bill Brink. “We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context.”

The most responsible way possible? In Brink’s mind, maybe. But that’s the problem! “The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had,” Sullivan wrote.

And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.

The readers are ahead of the editors. The old standard isn’t good enough. But that news hasn’t reached the middle managers in newsrooms who grew accustomed to reducing risk by leaving it there. Climate change is probably the most famous (and most serious) example of the shift I’m talking about. Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing.

Last month, the Telegraph in the UK reported that 200 senior managers at the BBC had to be re-trained not to insert “false balance” into stories like climate change, where a call could be made. “The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.” That’s a form of distortion, practiced by the BBC against itself. But instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. Still distortion, but it looks more innocent.

Editors have to be on the lookout for those points. They’re dangerous, as I’ve been telling the New York Times for… oh, about five years.

12 Comments

  1. Steven Whitaker says:

    This sounds like an excuse for journalist to insert their own biases into stories, something they are regularly accused of already. Everyone has their own collection of supporting “facts” and journalist are no less prone to confirmation bias than anyone else. Who gets to decide when the “facts” favor one side of the other? The idea that journalist should have a directive to basically influence a readers opinion is both disconcerting and, in my opinion, one of the reasons that “Big Media” will continue to fail. It is a signal of the massive disconnect between the old guard in media and the new population of news consumers, and it will certainly *not* build trust with the ever growing masses of more educated readers.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      But “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know…” will build trust?

      • G Cookies says:

        The NYT has used that formula for over 100 years. It has built the trust of its readers to a remarkable extent. So I think the answer to your question, Jay, is yes.

        And the way to look at it isn’t “here’s an accusation, here’s a denial, we don’t know.” It’s “here are the facts, decide for yourself.”

        Most readers appreciate that.

        • J Miller says:

          But the problem is that journalists aren’t giving us all the facts. They’re simply quoting this source, and then quoting this contradictory source, and leaving it there. That’s not giving us the facts.

          Take David Icke’s conspiracy theories, for example. Should reporters give us “both sides” of foreign policy news by including Icke’s perspective? If not, then there is no reason to give us “both sides” on the entirely settled question of climate change.

          • G Cookies says:

            I don’t know why you think that making all reporters opinion journalists would mean more facts. If anything, it would mean less. Articles usually have word counts, so more opinion means less space for facts. Plus the writer would be less likely to give space to facts that don’t back up his or her conclusion.

            Fox News is probably the ultimate view from somewhere news organization. Do you really believe it gives you all the facts?

            On the other side of the spectrum, take Glenn Greenwald. He has specifically said that he is hoarding info Snowden gave him so he could release when it will make a bigger splash. He keeps telling us he has these huge bombshells, but his agenda comes before informing the reader.

            In GG’s book he admits he didn’t write about Snowden’s manifesto because it would make him look bad. In other words, he suppressed information in service of his agenda. A more scrupulous reporter would be a little less concerned with acting as Snowden’s PR counselor.

            To your second point, if someone says the sky is green and it’s blue, of course the reporter should point that out. But the reader can figure out that person is crazy without the reporter hitting them on the head with it.

            There is a place for opinion journalism, clearly. But it really is the height of arrogance, and symptomatic of an out-of date elitist attitude, to think only a reporter can form the right conclusion from a certain set if facts. The trend now is to empower the readers, and let them form and give their own opinions, not to treat them like idiots who need to be told what to think.

            The most popular info site is Wikipedia. That is written with a neutral point if view. Think how that would be far less useful if it offered opinions instead of straight facts.

            What you and Jay are endorsing is “take” journalism, where a reporter always put some spin on the news, regarding of how much value that opinion actually adds. That will soon fall out of favor, I predict, as readers seek to be educated rather than lectured to.

  2. Dean Wright says:

    Well said, Jay–especially the point about steering the debate toward the phony midpoint. Readers ARE ahead of most editors on “he said, she said” journalism. I’m frustrated with those who tell journalists to avoid activism and to “keep themselves out of the story” but see no problem with inserting material that a journalist knows to be questionable in the name of “telling both sides.”

  3. Lex says:

    The “we don’t know” approach to provable/disprovable factual assertions is already blowing up at my local daily, not only w/r/t news stories but also w/r/t letters to the editor, which the paper frequently publishes even when they contain demonstrably untrue factual assertions.

    I’m not sure who screwed up and allowed Ms. Sullivan to be ombudsman at the Times, but clearly she’s causing them far more trouble than they ever intended for her to do. Good on her.

  4. Tim Schmoyer says:

    Here is an accusation and denial reported by the NYT with all the ‘he said/she said’ ‘critics say/supporters say’ hallmarks:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/16/us/gov-rick-perry-of-texas-is-indicted-over-veto-of-funds-for-das-office.html

    Here’s a NYT opinion piece that concludes the “sides” are not equal.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/19/opinion/is-gov-perrys-bad-judgment-really-a-crime.html

    How is this different from the example Jay provided other than the NYT editorial board and ombud didn’t call out the false balance of this reporter’s article?

  5. Sarah says:

    The thing is, if they don’t go with the he said/she said “balanced approach”, I fear with the way the news treats certain topics, it would lean to the governments side of the issue. Which while right in some issues, like gun issues, habitually sides with the military industrial complex. I think we all know which issue I mean.

    He said/she said is almost the lesser of two evils.

  6. rapier says:

    No doubt he said she said is a pernicious reality but it is false narratives in the end which do the most damage.

    Whitewater, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, currently Ukraine coverage and everything to do with Federal Reserve and central bank actions are total failures. Failures not of the said she said variety because there is no she said. It’s just he said and what he says represents 10% of the whole story and so with no she said half of that 10%.

    Essentially I am speaking of the NY Times because they create and set the limits of the narrative in big stories. The current Ukraine/Putin narrative is actually far worse than Whitewater or Iraq 2002. Reading their coverage will provide you with no information at all and in fact there can be no other conclusion than it is an active disinformation campaign.

    He said she said is often disinformation as well of a more subtle kind.

  7. KlineW says:

    > “…people at the New York Times still don’t get it. ”

    Who are these “people”, more specifically ?

    Why don’t they get it yet in year 2014 ?

    What would likely help them get it ?

  8. Paul Evans says:

    It appears Mr. Rosen’s point is going over most of your heads. Journalist should be seeking the truth, regardless of political bias etc. He said, she said does not allow for that. You’re allowing both sides of the debate to have their say, and one could be speaking complete untruths. Not too long ago, a CNN anchor allowed a representative of the Catholic church to state that all gay men were pedophiles. The other side not only was not allowed to respond, but the anchor ended the segment at that moment. Imagine if that were in print. It’s garbage journalism – it’s not journalism.