We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR

Apparently, NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. It's not about editorializing. Or taking sides. It's failing to do the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims.

15 Sep 2011 8:03 pm 83 Comments

First I’m going to tell you what happened; then I’m going to comment on it.

I set my clock radio to NPR because I am a fan and loyal listener. A week ago I woke to this report about new rules for licensing abortion clinics in Kansas. The report stood out for me as an exquisite example of that dubious genre known as “he said, she said” journalism, which I’ve been complaining about for some time.  My 2009 essay on it attempts to explain the persistence of this form; it also gives a definition:

“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

In last week’s NPR report, the dispute was about the new requirements for abortion clinics in Kansas. These rules were an attempt to drive the few remaining clinics out of business, said abortion providers and their defenders. Nope, just common sense policies for protecting women’s health, said opponents of abortion. I didn’t think that leaving it there was good enough, so I sent a complaint to the NPR ombudsman. Then I turned it into a post at my Tumblr blog, including the audio clip so readers could hear for themselves:

My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.

According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do!  And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.

It is obvious to me that there’s something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination.  ”He said, she said” does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks. That’s putting your needs—for political refuge—ahead of mine as a listener. I don’t appreciate it. It makes me trust you less. And one more thing, a little lesson in realism. They’re going to attack you anyway, and crow in triumph when your CEO is forced out by those attacks. Ultimately there is no refuge, so you might as well do good journalism.

A short time after this was posted, Edward Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombud, said he would soon have a reply. He also said that he doubted the abortion report was “the lowest form of journalism.” But I didn’t say “lowest.” I said the “he said, she said” genre is one of the lowest. Sounds trivial, but I don’t think it is.

Yesterday his column went online. Lowest Form of Journalism or Constructive and Fair?  He thought I had over-reacted, and he got the reporter involved to comment, as well. For which I am grateful: thanks, NPR, for being so responsive. On Twitter, Greg Collard, a news director for an NPR affiliate, said the same thing: “Your criticism was way over the top for that piece.”

Was it? Let’s dig in. I think in many ways NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. For example:

We forwarded Rosen’s criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:

“I’ve covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.

“It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering. So, I don’t do that, with abortion or other issues.”

Take a position on the issue? No, Kathy. This is not what I’m saying: at all. Lohr tried to change my criticism into something she knew how to respond to. Thus, our exchange went something like this.

Me: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who’s right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?

Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don’t understand is: That’s not my job!

I do understand how you define your job. What I’m asking for is more reporting, not editorializing or picking a side.

For example: Opponents of abortion in Kansas say the regulations are just common sense. NPR could compare the proposed regulations for abortion to other procedures that are performed at clinics in that state: do the regulations for, say, colonoscopies specify that storage areas for “janitorial supplies and equipment” must be at least 50 square feet per procedure room? Or is that kind of requirement unique to the state’s proposed rules for abortion? I don’t know the answer, but NPR could try to find out. And if it’s not NPR’s job to find out, who’s job is it?

The ombudsman gave another example of the same point: It’s not about editorializing, it’s doing the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims. Abortion opponents have submitted to Kansas courts 2,500 pages of evidence arguing that abortion clinics nationwide are unsafe. Edward Schumacher-Matos:

I would like to see NPR directly tackle the claims of operating room safety, instead of leaving the matter only to the courts. Such claims are apparently hard to measure, even though the Kansas abortion opponents say they have 2,500 pages of documentation supporting their claims… Such a report, however, requires a lengthy investigation. Who knows? It might find that there are indeed safety problems in some abortion clinics. A report earlier this year by Lohr found sordid conditions in a Philadelphia clinic, for example. Or the investigation might find that might find that the 2,500 pages of “proof” contain little of substance and that the safety requirements are silly.

Exactly. And is that editorializing? No. It’s evaluating the evidence. Reporting! You know– journalism! But when you don’t have time to do that… or you lack the knowledge required… or you’re fearful of the criticism that might follow (or all three at once) what do busy journalists tend to do? They fall back on “he said, she said.” It’s understandable. But it is not admirable.

And when challenged on it, NPR journalists do not say: sorry, we didn’t have time to figure out who’s right. They say things like: “It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering,” which is a non-sequitur. Or they say what the NPR ombudsman did:

Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment. If that was his concern, the public health experts felt it was sufficiently communicated. His criticism, however, does demonstrate that NPR’s reporting comes under attack from both the right and the left.

In other words: we get hit from both sides, which suggests that our reporting is straight down the middle. Our critics are ideologically motivated, but we are not ideological, and that is probably why they find us deficient.

I think this is lame. You can judge for yourself, but I say there was nothing particularly “left” in my post criticizing NPR for relying on he said, she said. True, I have no sympathy for abortion opponents in Kansas, but I also don’t know–and didn’t claim to know–what an honest attempt to investigate these clashing truth claims would find. Maybe the Kansas regulations do have a public health justification, and some basis in common sense. I doubt it, but without investigating myself, how do I know? Isn’t this why we need journalists willing to dig into the matter? Isn’t this why we need NPR?

A subtler, but more interesting problem came with this passage from the NPR ombudsman:

Lohr’s piece made clear that politics were at least as big a driver here as patient safety. By happenstance, this past weekend I was with a group of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, most of them women who favor abortion rights. Some of them had heard the NPR report and had no complaints with it. They felt it was an everyday story presented in a straightforward way.

Weird! “Lohr’s piece made clear that politics were at least as big a driver here as patient safety.” No, it did not, Mr. Ombudsman. What Lohr’s piece said is: some think politics is the big driver here, but others claim that public health and common sense are behind the regulations. Nothing clear about it. In fact, it’s the opposite of clear. It says: we have no idea who’s right. You figure it out!

But when Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri President and CEO Peter Brownlie says on NPR that the regulations are “riddled with requirements which do nothing to improve the safety and health of women,” that kind of quote sends a coded message to, say, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (most of them women who favor abortion rights.) The coded message is: NPR is including in its report what you guys think these rules are really about. The logic here is representation of recognized interest groups, not clarification of the actual dispute, or verification of the actual facts.

Thus, NPR is saying to its listeners: Pro-choice? Your side is heard. These regulations are trying to drive abortion providers out of business. Pro-life? Squawk not, we got you covered. These rules are just common sense, public health measures. But it would be great if there were no more abortions in Kansas! I have written about this pattern, too. I call it the production of innocence.

The unstated message of which is: don’t complain. Your views are in there.  Which is why I wrote: ”He said, she said does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks.” If I’m correct, then interest groups are likely to be satisfied with this kind of treatment, but a huge portion of the audience is going to feel confused, stranded between warring camps, or poorly informed.

John McQuaid, formerly a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, picked up on this dynamic. Over Twitter he wrote, “NPR’s ombud basically says: for the truth, read between the lines.” Which is strange, he said, because it assumes “a level of subject matter or journalistic expertise most people don’t have.” Let me say it again: He said, she said is not about serving listeners. Rather it protects journalists from complaints that the most vocal interest groups are likely to raise. Thus:

The Atlanta-based Lohr, a go-to reporter for NPR on abortion issues, in NPR, is respected by both sides in the contentious abortion debate as fair.

See what I mean? He said, she said is a kind of three-way pact among journalists and the two most obvious sides in a predictable dispute. Groups on the left get their quotes. Groups on the right get corresponding quotes. The journalists at NPR get protection. It’s the listeners who get screwed.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen to this story, which aired September 15. “During a House hearing Wednesday, Republicans attacked the administration’s decision to fund Solyndra. Democrats defended the loan program and accused Republicans of trying to twist the story for political gain.” Republicans attacked. Democrats defended. And NPR has no idea who’s right, or what’s up.

I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. Do you?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Minnesota Public Radio had me on the air to discuss “he said, she said journalism” with former NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard and the editor of Voice of San Diego, Andrew Donahue. It was a very good discussion, as these things go. The host was Kerri Miller. Listen here.

A former Vice President for News and Information at NPR, Bruce Drake, says in the comments:

Speaking in general, if he-said-she-said reporting is one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, then the resort to the “We get attacked by both sides” is the lowest form of justification or defense when a piece of reporting is questioned.

A former ombudsman for NPR, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in the comments:

Senior managers have been known to publicly rebuff the pressures and defend the journalism. But not often enough. And there is a downside to public funding and local station influence. When the pressures are too intense, NPR has articulated a less than robust defense of its own journalism, fearing a loss of support. This happened regularly during the Palestinian Intifada. Public broadcasting remains vulnerable in that regard. NPR journalists want to do the right thing. But sometimes that instinct to do journalism with an edge, as one listener told me is his preference, is replaced with mere balance, much to the detriment of the listeners.

Kelley Griffin, a News Director at an NPR affiliate, in the comments:

[A simple thing to look for is] outside verification. Has the Kansas state health board set restrictions on square footage or storage for any other outpatient procedure? Has the state collected any complaints over the years that point to safety problems related to these aspects of the procedure? How will the state determine that the proposed regulations are medically necessary (or whatever their health board’s charter requires). I know the state wouldn’t talk because of the lawsuit – a stance that drives me crazy – but I would certainly have my reporter press them to give background and history of the agency that relates to the issue at hand, even if they won’t talk about the issue at hand.

I think while journalists are afraid of expressing opinions, the idea of giving a story more context shouldn’t be scary at all, and that’s all we’re talking about here. Keep asking questions: How do you know that? What’s your proof? How much exactly will it cost you? How do you know that?

Precisely. And NPR’s answer to that is: “Sorry, we can’t take sides.” As I said, it’s a non-sequitur.

The NPR ombudsman returns to the subject. (On Twitter he says: “To celebrity NYU jorno prof @jayrosen_nyu from lowly Columbia J visit prof, I still disagree! Good lesson, wrong story.”)

The problem is that the NPR abortion story out of Kansas that Rosen cites remains the wrong example. It was a simple daily story that did a sufficiently good job in pulling together the facts on what happened, with analytical commentary from different sides.

Is more needed? Of course. That’s why you have follow-up stories. Instant, conclusive analysis in a three-minute report on the safety of clinics in Kansas that perform abortions is almost humanly impossible without being glib, sarcastic, cynical, biased, or all the above. You didn’t have to listen between the lines to know that abortion politics is a major factor in the Kansas deliberations – whatever the truth is on safety. Listeners aren’t stupid. They know they got a straight report, no matter their own biases, and that the question of safety remains just that: a question to be reported further.

I wrote a follow-up to this post: If “he said, she said” journalism is irretrievably lame, what’s better? (Sep. 23, 2011) Bruce Drake and Jeffrey Dvorkin appear in the comments there, too.

An Australian journalist comments on the “he said, she said” genre.

It is the antithesis of everything I learned as a young reporter, way back then. I was told that the job of a journalist was to test daily assertions for their veracity. For a modicum of truth – as far as one was able to ascertain.

In the past this may have taken hours, days or weeks. It was important that any utterance was tested by a journalist and, if printed, worth the paper it was written on.

Instead, the scenario in the modern 24 hour newsroom is: crazy deadline; few staff, many juniors; press release; phone quote, email, twitter; quick edit; bish-bosh-bash, news bulletin assembled; web site amended; out it goes.

Forget it. It’s done. Let’s wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Steve Buttry responds to this post at his site.

While I have called for updating some of the details in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I love the direct, elegant wording of its first principle: Seek Truth and Report It. “He said, she said” reporting shrugs off this responsibility. In fact, it presents lies equally with the truth, which is hardly different from lying.

Terry Mattingly, the editor of Get Religion (a site about press coverage of religion) reacts:

As someone who has followed debates about abortion coverage (and media-bias research linked to it) for 30-plus years, here’s the bottom line on this skirmish.

Yes, opponents of legalized abortion hope that these regulations make life more difficult for abortion providers.

However, yes, it has been shown that hellish conditions exist in some abortion facilities, conditions that risk the lives of women. The question is whether these abuses are so widespread that state action, via these regulations, is justified. Does anyone doubt that NPR will need to quote experts on both sides during that debate? Does anyone expect conflict to vanish on the interpretation of the evidence gathered during that debate?

Mattingly also said I was being somewhat unfair by focusing on a single story when a news organization’s priorities are seen in the pattern of coverage over time. My reply to that.

Terry Heaton in the comments with a different critique of “he said, she said” reporting. “Today’s journalists simply don’t know how to present an argument and instead allow those with skin in the game to do it for them.”  In other words, it’s a kind of outsourcing.

Nifty dismissal of this kind of critique by a New York Times reporter… in 140 characters.

Harris Meyer says he consistently complains about “he said, she said” reporting and never gets a reply from the NPR ombudsman.

The Quest For Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism (PressThink, February 2010) is a different post about journalists’ refusal to exert a factual check. In this one, the “text” is provided by the New York Times.

This takes 15 minutes to watch. My video essay on Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and “he said, she said.”


Building Froggietown: A Parent’s 9/11 Story

This is something I wrote when the shock of September 11th, 2001 was still... there. I am reprinting it today to mark the ten year anniversary of that event. Peace.

11 Sep 2011 10:20 am 4 Comments

In Manhattan, Sep. 25, 2001

My colleagues and I held a teach-in last week for journalism students at NYU. An intellectual vigil, if you will. For the first time since I became a professor, I saw in the faces of students how much they needed us. Events had made them vulnerable to knowledge they hoped we had. Of course we needed them too. Their hoping most of all.

Too young, I never went to a campus teach-in during the 60s. But I read of them, and why they happened. When events got too big, you couldn’t teach about anything else. Here was that event again. So we got a room, collected the faculty, printed our posters and went forward into cultural memory. “Sixities don’t fail me,” I remember thinking, yet only for a moment.

In one of the first comments, a young woman said she wondered if she has what it takes to be a reporter. All she wanted to do on September 11th was stay in bed and hide. Because she couldn’t bring herself to head for Ground Zero, she began to ask: could I ever be a real journalist?

Of all forms of courage a good journalist needs, the willingness to place yourself in danger has a small part. I’m grateful there will always be reporters and photographers who do that; and when a correspondent is hurt or killed trying to cover the news, the story is of heroic sacrifice. Most of the time, for most in the press, intellectual courage is most demanded.


Why Political Coverage is Broken

My keynote address at New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology. (Melbourne, Australia, August 26, 2011.)

26 Aug 2011 3:21 am 66 Comments

This talk had its origins in my appearance about a year ago on the ABC’s Lateline with Leigh Sales. We were discussing election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event. Every day journalists can ask, “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?”  A perspective that appeals to political reporters, I said, because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”

I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?”  Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.


“CNN Leaves it There” is Now Officially a Problem at CNN

You can't have a "he said, she said" brand and yet stand out as the only real news network. There are signs that the new boss at CNN understands this.

3 Jul 2011 11:05 am 21 Comments

Shocking developments in a story I have been following for a long time. It’s the CNN Leaves it There problem, which is illustrated to comic perfection in this Jon Stewart clip.

Watch it:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook


The problem is this: CNN thinks of itself as the “straight down the middle” network, the non-partisan alternative, the one that isn’t Left and isn’t Right. But defining itself as “not MSNBC” and “not Fox” begs the question of what CNN actually is. To the people who run it, the answer is obvious: real journalism! That’s what CNN is. Or as they used to say, “the news is the star.”

Right. But too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism? No. But it is tantalizingly close to the opposite of real journalism. Repeat it enough, and this pattern threatens to become the network’s brand, which is exactly what Stewart was pointing out.


From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism.

"We're not as far along as we should be. I'd give us a C-minus." My talk to the Personal Democracy Forum, June 7, 2011. You can watch it here.

7 Jun 2011 12:36 pm 22 Comments

I address you today in a mood of frustration. For in the development of pro-am journalism, we are not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.

By “pro-am” I mean exactly that: a hybrid form in which pro journalists and their users work together in the production of high quality editorial goods.

My plan of attack: First, I am going to explain this miserable grade, the C-minus. Then I will identify the progress we have made. And I will close with what we need to do to move ahead.

It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset. Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.

And so when I talk to journalists about the Internet I try to get them to picture something that they had long ago naturalized: the arrangement of the audience in space under conditions of mass media. At the deepest roots of their thinking they had accepted an image of the people “out there” as connected up to big media, but disconnected or atomized from one another, as well silent and inert, and powerless to make media.

Today of course all these things have changed: people are connected “across” to each other, as effectively as they are connected “up” to big media. This I call The Great Horizontal. People can talk back to the news system and make their own media. That’s a power shift. Most people in journalism are far enough along in confronting these changes to accept that social media is here to stay, that blogging is a normal and useful activity, that amateurs have a part to play in the news system.


What I Think I Know About Journalism

Next month I will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years, an occasion that has led me to reflect on what I have tried to profess in that time.

26 Apr 2011 1:42 am 71 Comments

Or, to put it another way, what I think I know about journalism.

It comes down to these four ideas.

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

Shall we take them in order?