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.”
How much of this situation is driven by the journalistic turn taken as television seeped into American discourse as the driver of news? I understand that objectivity saw its way into the equation as a result of multiple, complex factors, but TV reduces discourse to what can be reported in a short period of time, unburdened by the complication of being tied to prior or subsequent reporting which would require time-consuming and repetitive background explanation.
Social media, being interactive and multi-directional, add the troubling wrinkle of feedback for such stories in the form of critique, correction, and lots of flaming. Where TV pushed reporting to the over-simplified surface details of any story, eliminating context or connection, feedback has turned journalists into overly-cautious producers of bland and useless information. There needs to be information, and LOTS of it, thanks to capacity and demand, but none of that information can afford to be complicated for fear that it will be ignored.
So, as a commercial endeavor, journalism needs to appeal broadly, offend as few as possible, and avoid overly-complicated explanations of issues that are actually terribly complex and intertwined. Journalism suffers, but the logic of safety in news means that a bland, homogenous narrative on everything will prevail and keep all the players in business.
As someone retired from journalism, this has been my complaint for so long. I take it back to the first Iraq War when Bush I and the Pentagon would announce something patently false and NPR would not investigate. The president said it and that is enough was their response. That isn’t what journalism is about, it is/was about getting the truth back in the last century when I had far more respect for the profession. One side says the sky is blue, the other says it’s green. Then they leave it at that. I no longer listen to NPR.
I quit listening to NPR news around the time of the Clinton impeachment fiasco. They haven’t gotten any better. I like their musical playlists but in order to listen to that I have to be ready to go to cd when their Nice Polite Republican(NPR, I didn’t coin it) begins. They’re still shills, maybe if they just went to music all the time and only read news headlines?
I made the comment in 2001 after the Florida and supreme court election that it must be in NPR’s contract to say President George W. Bush every 5 minutes….they still suck.
The Solyndra story was even more “he said, she said” than the one on Kansas abortion clinics. NPR made absolutely no attempt to ascertain the facts of the story, they simply relied on Congressional commentary and then they “leave it there”.
I think you nailed it when you point out this is nothing more than shielding NPR from criticism for “bias” from the right, and the Ombudsman’s back-up-behavior response to your criticism tells me you struck a nerve!
I -don’t- think “he said, she said” is good enough anymore, and I suspect the NPR ombudsman agrees, but he’s not allowed to say that because he’s afraid of being smeared as liberally biased.
I’m not interested in Congressional hot air about the news of the day. I want the facts. Please don’t tell me the sun rises in the east, then feel obligated to present the views of the Westward Rising Sun Consortium.
That’s not balance, that’s bullshit.
I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the Solyndra episode but I would feel pretty confident that neither side brought up the fact that the basis for Solyndra getting the loan in the first place was due to GWB trying to please the Walton (Walmart) family who were major investors in Solyndra (see http://www.truth-out.org/phony-solyndra-solar-scandal/1316098873 ) – it just so happened that he ran out of time in office without being able to cram it through and it fell onto Obama’s lap. The Dems don’t have the guts to attack with the truth and the GOP is too busy with their strawmen and red herrings. And I’m damned certain, again without listening to it, that NPR sure as hell didn’t.
So glad you put this on PressThink, so I can copy here the comment I left at NPR. Also, FYI, a new commenter at NPR is actually posting the FACTS about the operating-room issue, worth a look.
Heres my comment to the Ombudsman:
“I would like to see NPR directly tackle the claims of operating room safety…Such a report, however, requires a lengthy investigation.” Isn’t the real lesson here that an investigation is called for? Especially because other states are looking at enacting the same rules.
The piece seemed overly long for what it reported, going back and forth again and again to each side. I can see why Rosen was frustrated! Either add an expert or some other comment on the standard size of operating rooms etc, or at least tell listeners that NPR will look into the issue the story raises.
And, given your sentences quoted above that NPR should look at this issue, why not just say that earlier in this reply, rather than the churlish “Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment”? No, he apparently wanted to know some facts about an important issue raised by the piece that will affect regulations in many states.
I think “he said, she said” is also partly an artifact left over from what the job of reporting used to be. Sixty years ago we needed reporters to tell us what was happening. There was no internet and no 24 hour news, so simply knowing what happened was pretty good. Having the resources to consistently emphasize the nuances of what happened was a luxury media organizations couldn’t afford.
Unfortunately, even though we now have that luxury the job of reporters hasn’t evolved. It’s impossible for NPR to understand the critique because in their minds their job is simply to “report” that there is a disagreement. That’s it. If people understand that abortion and anti-abortion activists in Kansas are fighting, they believe they’ve done their job.
The role of the media should be to educate, but the media believes its role is to inform. That’s an important difference.
Right. Media could be invaluable to us, I mean nothing is more ridiculous than the absurdly polarized “debates” we have in this country, and their total freedom from fact. Facts require consensus after all, but the point is that for each side, the other side is so evil nothing they say can be trusted. Perhaps “neutrality” would be a better word than “objectivity”. We have a neutral media. That is to say, a media not worth listening to.
But determining and presenting the facts behind the controversy *is* taking sides, since so many of these controversies (including this particular one) are between the reality-based community and the faith-based community. If you look closely at the truth, it will nearly always favour the reality-based community.
You’re right about nearly everything you say, but as a logical consequence of it, you should be calling for the press to take sides where the facts clearly indicate that one side is right.
Hi Mike: I don’t think there’s any difference between “take sides where the facts clearly indicate that one side is right” (your phrasing) and “do the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claim” (my phrasing.)
Hold on. What we have here is a proposal of certain means towards an end. The controversy stems from opponents claiming a bad faith motivation, ie that the proposed measures are not really about the stated ends at all.
Journalism *should* be able to investigate and report on the evidence that exists to link the proposal and outcomes. They can do that separately from expressing any *preference* as to the desired outcome – no ideological bias in that!
Mike: I agree overall with your point but I would take issue with the statement that “determining and presenting the facts *is* taking sides.” I think the whole notion of taking sides implies that the person doing the reporting has a personal opinion about the outcome.
Example: I witness a car accident where Car A fails to use a turn signal and is hit immediately by Car B. The police officer shows up and both motorists claim it’s the other’s fault. The officer asks me and I tell him what I saw. I’m not taking sides, I’m providing points of fact. If fault is attributed to Car A, it’s because of his/her actions, not my reporting.
In order to grow beyond he said, she said journalism we can’t shoot the messenger.
Thank you for continuing to press this important issue.
At the heart of this — and why I agree that he said/she said “isn’t good enough anymore” — is the shift from summarized “news” to news in real time. The former was delivered in story form; the latter is delivered in the ongoing drama of the moment. It’s the summarized version of news that needs modification, because “stories” need more than just the facts. Why? Because the facts are already known. In this light, the people formerly known as the audience are free to expect more from the summaries. Moreover, the lameness of he said/she said stands out like a sore thumb.
We must always remember that PR is the flip side of the coin of professional journalism. It may be the flip side, but it’s PART OF THE SAME COIN! He said/she said is more than simply a compromise on the part of journalists; it’s an opportunity for manipulation on the part of special interests represented by the world of PR. How many times is an extreme view presented on the same level as other points of view in the name of he said/she said? This is one of the most important weapons in the PR master’s arsenal.
I always point back to Chris Lasch’s brilliant investigation into the loss of “argument” in journalism in the 20th Century. Today’s journalists simply don’t know how to present an argument and instead allows those with skin in the game to do it for them. And the biggest shock of all is the way purists defend it.
Keep up the great work, Jay. Your voice matters.
I have analyzed “he said, she said” as a means for protecting against criticism. But you’re right: another way to go about it is to say: he said, she said is when journalists outsource the task of argument to organized interests.
For me this post is about NPR saying, “we’re going to change your criticism into something we know how to deal with, and then respond to that… okay?” Uh, no… Not okay.
And in that light, it is interesting to me that the ombudsman is saying (in effect) “I don’t think Rosen is right, because this reporter is respected by both sides as fair, and some public health experts who are reliably pro-choice thought the report was fair too.” But wait: is my criticism that NPR is being unfair to one of the two sides in the abortion dispute? No. But that’s the criticism they expect. So they just react to that.
It’s unfair to the listeners to say, “We have no idea who’s right, so we’re going to outsource the argument to antagonists who agree on nothing. Deal with it.”
For me, this is the key phrase and misunderstanding in one;
“Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment.”
Actually, as a listener, I want critique, not proof.
I wish to understand who is saying/doing things, why they are saying/doing it and WHO benefits. Use the FACTS as support for your critique.
Have I just invented a new industry??
I’m starting to pick this up from several sides and expect more of it, if the debate continues.
E.J. Graff, blogger for the American Prospect, on Twitter: “So every reporter should be investigative? Expensive.”
This is going to be the fall-back response after, “We’re going to change your criticism into something we recognize, would that be okay with you?”
The only piece I would add to your analysis is that the onus is on media organizations to not only dig deeper but to also apply the same rigor to both sides. The audience needs to trust that the journalist has examined both claims equally.
I agree. In the case of the Kansas abortion providers: How difficult is it really to comply with these regulations? Let’s ask a contractor who works on health care facilities to read the regulations and find out what he thinks… For example.
Now is that taking a position? I don’t think so.
Lame? NPR? The same NPR which never accurately covered the story of the New Orleans flood disaster of 2005 and which attempted to censor “enhanced underwriting” announcements of a documentary which did cover that story? The same NPR who, according to one of its own news producers, in the runup to the Iraq War, was “sensitive to the accusations that we were the Bush-bashing network, so we bent over backwards to avoid feeding that charge.” Hence, a new report, pre-war, as gullible as that of the Post and the Times. Only difference; the Post and the Times later apologized.
Harry…I’m not familiar with the documentary and underwriting issue to which you refer, but what was so off the mark about its reporting at the time on Katrina and its immediate aftermath? I remember much powerful about that reporting including a segment in which John Burnett reported from the scene the abysmal conditions at tge superdome while federal officials were saying things were OK, and then Robert Siegel following up with an interview with the head of Homeland Security who was totally and painfully unaware of the conditions affecting thousands on which Burnett had just reported.
Thank you Mr. Rosen.
You did a wonderful job of summing up my decade long complaints about NPR’s reporting and the past two Ombudsmen their defense of the NPR SOP of both “He said, she said” and “Some say” reporting.
Thanks for giving a cogent analysis of what I think has been a long standing problem for NPR. Although I didn’t realize it had a pithy little name attached to it I’ve grown increasingly weary of an approach to reporting that is simply: let the folks on both sides of an issue say whatever they want and then, ostensibly, let the reader/viewer decide who is right…which is, needless to say, silly. As the country descends into a sort of pathetic hooligan-powered soccer match media outlets seem to be increasingly reluctant to do anything beyond letting the faithful cheer their favorite spokesperson while booing the opposing team. In other words this kind of journalism only serves to solidify the tendency toward political polarization that is now crippling the country.
thanks again for your very thoughtful piece;
Schumacher-Matos and Lohr have demonstrated–as many other journalists and media-company officials have done again and again–that either they fail to understand what you are saying or they are wilfully misrepresenting your critique, quite possibly because they believe that doing so provides them political cover. That’s a shame, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
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 question, (vide the line you quote, “His (Jay Rosen’s) criticism, however, does demonstrate that NPR’s reporting(or, forget NPR and just fill-in-the-blank with any news organization) comes under attack from both the right and the left.
It’s stating the obvious to say such a response doesn’t cut it simply because it doesn’t deal with the substance of the criticism of a story’s reporting. Whether it was in dealing with outside critics, or dealing internally with editors to review the piece in question, I hated when that answer was used in response to criticism of any story, whether it was politics (we get flak from conservatives AND liberals) or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (we’re under fire from both sides, so we must be doing something right). “Getting flak from both sides” is not a standard that has value in judging a story’s worth or a news organization; it’s an evasion of responsibility and has no more worth than being a simple statement of the obvious empirical fact that listener/readers/viewers bring their own expertise or agendas or biases to their judgment of a story and in this society will inevitably clash over issues that are controversial. (especially when you add in the fact that on really hot-button issues, much of the “getting it from both sides” is a result of campaigns by activist/advocacy groups who send out alerts to their followers to complain — and many of those who do turn out never to have actually listened to or viewed or read the story in question.
Thanks, Bruce. I hope you don’t mind me telling folks in this thread that Bruce Drake is a former Vice President for News and Information at NPR. So his words have added significance.
The Truth-Seeker’s Lemma:
0 represents “my side of the story”
1 represents “your side of the story”
0101010101010101010101010 …. contains ZERO (useful) information.
One of the ways NPR can serve readers is to use the web to supplement the broadcast and not just post the transcript.
As an established journalist on the issue of abortion, Lorh could publish a curated list of links and resources for readers to examine elements of the issue.
And as an *added* service to readers include links that enable readers to easily connect with organizations on all sides of the issue for additional information or even to actually get involved.
Service. Engagement. Making connections that improve the community. Really just old journalism adapted to digital capabilities.
I think looking at other sources can be valuable, but there’s a problem with it, too. Offering other sources can sometimes be another kind of he-said-she-said reporting, where readers have to read various sources, often trying to read through rhetoric to try to pull out relevant facts.
Undoubtedly, there are some unbiased sources of factual information related to most issues. But what would be best is having a news organization like NPR doing that work. I see a couple significant benefits to having NPR work through the analysis of such sites, rather than simply linking to them. First, NPR’s reporting is clear, succinct and accessible. It’s a good way to access information, especially if one is not an expert. Secondly, NPR’s journalists have the background and awareness of biases to separate fact from rhetoric, so that the story isn’t just he-said-she-said.
I would also like to add my appreciation to Jay Rosen for bringing up this issue. And for all the insightful and interesting comments to his piece, something almost non-existent on the internet.
It was intersting to read this post as just recently I (and many others) contacted Morning Edition regarding another issue and received a similar response. Specifically, the issue was about Steve Inskeep treating Rep. Barney Frank in a dismissive and rude manner during an interview and editorializing during the interview as well. The person responding and the Ombudsman’s report were extremely defensive and suggested that because the interview was short in length, the interviewer was merely trying to collect the most information possible in a brief timespan which only seemed rude. I felt like a small child being patted on the head and told to run along. How brevity equals rudeness, I’m still not sure and the point that I tried to make is that the guests and listeners deserve better and deserve a thoughtful interview with which to form some opinion of the topic under discussion. Not listen to the host browbeating the guest and arguing with them in an attemtp to impress someone. Mostly himself. It’s the reason that we choose NPR over other media sources. Or it used to be anyway.
Your point raises a concern of mine about NPR reporting: the dearth of interviews of our actual elected officials and real news makers; with plenty of time allocated to “analysts” “pundits” “thinktanks” “interest groups” and anyone who’s written a “book”.
BBC and CBC manage to get actual heads of state, policy makers, elected officials, scientists and independent researchers in a given field – so we can hear from the horses mouth.
So the question is … Why …once thay actually deign to give a public platform to one of our representatives… did Bernie Sanders have such a short slot that the had to hurry it along?
Your point is so well taken. I think the reason so many of the “experts” interviewed are people who just happen to be on book tours is that their publicists make it easy to talk to them.
Easier than finding true expert sources.
There is one notable example where reporters actually do go the extra mile: “truth squad”-type analyses of political ads and debates. My former colleagues David Helling in Kansas City and Michael Geeser in Las Vegas did a great service to their viewers.
This reporting takes time and -gasp- research. Many reporters today, because of pressures brought by the current state of media and the economy, don’t have time and can’t do research. So they (dutifully, in their minds) report both sides and forget their responsibility to check facts.
Thank you for posting this. NPR’s coverage of anything that might carry a political aura has become increasingly useless, and their usual ‘we get it from both sides’ defense is lazy and cowardly. I used to listen to them all day long; now I listen only in the car, and only when the worst perpetrators of the ‘he said, she said’ cop-out, Steve Inskeep, Mara Liasson, and the Marketplace crowd, are NOT in evidence.
Good for you calling NPR out on this. As I don’t have to depend on CPB funding I, for one, am quite willing to stick my neck out and say exactly what is going on here. It is dead obvious from any reading of this matter that the Kansas GOP is manufacturing a problem that does not exist and is using a sort of harassment regulation to shut down abortion clinics.
I have a simple question: is that not in itself a legit news story? Would it be immoral or unethical or “biased” to directly frame the story as such is (as the evidence indicates) it is indeed a FACT? And I will add, a fact that easily substantiated by minimal reporting?
This dialogue overlaps with a random idea I had recently. It’s a fantasy about how a modern day political consultant could successfully position his candidate to an extreme posture and simultaneously force the MSM to go easy on the same pol.
Goes something like this: You position your guy (if you think it will work politically) with stances — for the sake of the argument– which are remarkably close to the Klan or even neo-Nazis but you maintain a mainstream facade. Indeed, the closer your guy’s position is to Klan positions, the harder you make it for View From Nowhere MSM reporters to report the truth. Which reporter is going to come out and tell us the plain facts: “Candidate X is taking positions that make him an advocate for neon-nazis.” Holy cow, that would be biased! Saying that an American pol is a Nazi, well, well, that’s just stuff you’d read in a commie rag.
Of course, my fantasy has already partially been borne out. The equivocating by the media (which continues to present day) to not call waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques “torture” — which they are by all international legal standards– is Exhibit A. I wonder if anyone has a transcript ready of any recent interview with Cheney about his book where he is asked directly if he still defends “torture?”
The worst part of this whole Kansas affair is NPR’s mind-numbing response that they must be OK because they are under attack by both left and right. I would hope they could be more creative in defending what are clearly cowardly and archaic reporting standards.
Thank you so much for articulating the point I’ve been trying to make for years and actually giving it a name so I can call it something when I talk about it.
The he said, she said journalism is the reason so many people in this country are misinformed. “Mainstream” Journalism has failed the citizens of this country when it comes to politics.
Every political show whether it be meet the press or something on CNN or MSNBC will cover a political issue, say unemployment, and then they will shield themselves from criticism by having two guests on to discuss: one democrat and one republican. The journalist moderating the discussion like David Gregory allows both sides to say whatever they want about the issue so it is “fair.” And he will refuse to challenge the republican on a complete falsehood like “the reason so many people are unemployed is high taxes on job creators and excessive regulation,” because he is afraid someone will call him biased to the democrats. So that leaves the democrat guest to challenge the republican’s claim which the uninformed viewer regards as just a partisan attack.
It is the journalist moderator’s job to not allow people to come on their show and lie to their viewers without being called on it. Instead they throw up their hands and say “well folks, you heard from both sides now you decide.” It’s disgraceful.
“You just heard opinions on Social Security from Bernie Sanders, a distinguished, highly respected senator and from Joe Walsh, a first term House representative who is famous for yelling “you lie” at the President of the United States and for owing $115,000 in child support while complaining about the government not paying its bills.
Since we allowed everything said by both people to go unquestioned, you can assume their statements are equally valid and true. Now you can go research whether or not they lied on your own time on the internet.
Goodnight and thanks for Watching.”
I think this kind of reporting plagues the debate on education as well. But oftentimes, we really only get the he or the she said, we never seem to get another side of the dispute because everyone seems infected by the same dubious wisdom about education and so-called “accountability.”
As a former journalist, I’d note a corollary to this blog post’s examination of “he said, she said” journalism. While some news outlets do no assessment of fact or truth, An increasing number of news organizations, mostly large daily newspapers, are now effectively outsourcing their efforts “to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story.”
I refer to the various flavors of “Politifact,” a worthy but flawed attempt to assess truth in statements made by politicians and other opinion leaders. Politifact is a print news endeavor that began in one city and is now emulated by a number of daily papers around the country. Some local TV news operations meanwhile now do their own truth-checking, at least occasionally.
Like I said, Politifact is better than no fact. But in operation it creates more problems than it resolves.
The first problem with these efforts is that they are removed from routine daily coverage into a special column, limiting their application. Also, Politifact entries are very narrowly focused, for the most part, on rhetorical statements by politicians. So, for example, a dispute over a scientific law or theory is usually only considered within the prism of political rhetoric. Better than “he said, she said,” but only just barely.
Second problem: Politifact-type articles tend not to consider issues from the general to the specific, but rather take a specific statement (or small series of them) and analyze how accurate they are. This is useful to a point, but mostly means readers cannot see the forest for the trees.
Third, in choosing which limited set of statements will be parsed and analyzed, editors and reporters apply huge leverage that can itself skew understanding. Sometimes, local Politifact articles come off as “gotcha” games, when a politician utters somthing in public that is off the cuff and not precise but hardly representative of a pattern.
Fourth, this analytical but narrow approach to fact-finding can play into the hands of opinion leaders who are more interested in memes than in precision. The more precise a subject tries to be, the more he exposes his statements to scrutiny. In short, Politifact may encourage more haziness in public discourse, and less use of facts and statistics.
Finally, the Politifact operation employees a simplistic true/mostly true/false/pants on fire metering system whose application is itself fuzzy. The more complex the issue (and economics and science-related issues in general are often these days quite complex), the less capably Politifact serves to further citizen understanding.
Far better would be if journalists incorporated fact-checking into their general news coverage, rather than wall itself off or dispense with it altogether. Partly this reluctance is because journalists misapprehend their duty. “Fair and balanced” sounds great, but allows for all sorts of lousy reporting. But also, fact-checking on the fly in the face of daily deadlines is often very difficult, although the Web and electronic databases make this chore far easier than at any other time in the history of news reporting. A thoughtful news organization would retain — perhaps within its copy desk — a desk-based team that would, besides just looking for reporter grammatical errors and simple errors in fact (such as misspelling of names) add meaningful background including review of subject claims to any deadline story from the field.
It is the opposite of objectivity to diffuse truth by planting yourself “in the middle” between the press releases of conflicting parties. One of them is usually quite wrong and a good journalist makes the call…and thus becomes a trusted source for real, socially involved people. And the other aspect is the listener, those recipients of news..do they really want a position or do they want to live in the dreamland of “it’s all screwed up, both sides are crazy?” I suspect there are people like that who are cynics. I think NPR has appealed to those burned out activists for years. I am not one of them. Excellent article.
This article is the breath of fresh air that “Fresh Air” and other programs like it should be.
In a mere matter of moments I was able to, as a citizen journalist, (ok – hack blogger) fact check the specific requirements of this bill.
I find it utterly distressing how investigation has left reporting, how absurd claims with no basis in fact go unchallenged and how deeply those in the media pander to trying to placate ideologues. Let alone those sponsoring the show.
I am going to share this essay far and wide, as well as the preceding one about CNN “Leaving it There.”
An aside to the NPR ombudsman, and CNN’s news room: Hire me. Honestly. Hire me. I have the google, and its magic! Heh.
Actually my reply became a full blown essay, if you’re interested.
What about Michele Norris’ question at the end of this interview?:
M.N.: Is this story a piece of advocacy journalism on your part?
As if she cannot believe that reporting the facts might end up making one side look better than the other.
The original “piece of advocacy journalism” is here:
Actually, I heard that report and I appreciated the question. It gave the author of the piece a chance to respond on the record to a criticism of her that’s going to be thrown at her from people who don’t like what she’s reporting.
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The comment came via email and was posted with the author’s permission.
I enjoyed reading your criticism of NPR.
I am one of the volunteer bloggers at the Dump Bachmann blog.
We have been blogging about Bachmann since 2004. We have a book scheduled for publication in December:
Since Congresswoman Michele Bachmann became a presidential candidate, national reporters have been coming to the Dump Bachmann bloggers for information.
They often ask why the local mainstream media failed to report on Michele Bachmann and why Dump Bachmann, other blogs and the weekly City Pages picked up the slack.
It is gratifying to read in national publications and media outlets stories that were ignored by the local media.
There are still some parts of the Bachmann story the national media have not looked into, in part because of the “he said she said” problem and also because the stories have become too complicated due in part to the amount of time they have been allowed to continue without media scrutiny.
One way that “he said, she said” reporting has failed when reporting about Bachmann is that Bachmann would say something false or outrageous and then refuse to speak with reporters who requested interviews to follow-up.
It’s like a tennis match in which one of the players’ hands are tied while the other player scores over and over.
Thanks again, and keep up the good work.
A very interesting reply to this post at Getrelgion.org. (“The press just doesn’t get religion”)
“it has been shown that hellish conditions exist in some abortion facilities…the question is whether these abuses are so widespread that state action, via these regulations, is justified”
I’m not seeing how this is prima facie evidence of anything, much less a problem with abortion clinics in need of a remedy particular to them. A medical clinic with “hellish conditions” is by definition not in compliance with existing health and safety codes anywhere in the U.S.
There you go again, thinking and such.
A few years ago I was listening to “Talk of the Nation” and they did a tea party special. The lead-in to the program was a tea-person talking about how she was yelling and throwing her shoes at the TV when Obama won the presidency because she knew that there was going to be a “bank bail-out”.
The bank bail-out, as commonly understood was something called TARP, and it had happened a month or two prior to the election. In fact, her preferred candidate famously “suspended” his campaign to go back to Washington to vote on the measure.
I called in immediately, and told the screener that they should either correct the misinformation on the air if that was how they were going begin the program, or they should let me go on and make a point about how tea-people are delusional and believe things that aren’t real, and as proof I could point to the lead-in to the program.
The screener told me they would only accept calls from tea-friendly people, and besides, they didn’t do corrections.
That was when I cut down my NPR listening to the occasional episode of Car-Talk and This American Life, and they have not gotten any money from me since.
[…] We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR is truly a MUST READ. […]
I am frequently reduced to yelling things at my radio like “challenge that statement!” and “where are the facts to back that up?!” during interviews on NPR.
But if anyone from NPR is reading, please take this to heart: I really do love this organization. I just want it to be the best it can be, and that means that you can’t always treat both sides of a debate as equal. You are doing a far better job of reporting the news than anyone on TV and most newspapers, but that doesn’t give you an excuse for sloppy or painfully “fair” reporting.
Jay, congratulations on getting a response from the NPR ombudsperson. I’ve regularly sent NPR the exact same critique on their stories and never heard back from the ombudsperson, though occasionally a reporter will respond to say, “I disagree with you.” Here’s my most recent, sent Sept. 14:
From: Harris Meyer
To: “[email protected]”
Sent: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 1:10 AM
Andrea, you did a he-said, she-said today on who’s mainly responsible for the current federal budget deficit. But it isn’t hard to go to the evidence and report what actually happened. As Dave Leonhardt and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and other economic authorities have repeatedly pointed out, the bulk of the deficit results from the two unpaid-for Bush tax cuts, the two unpaid-for wars, the unpaid-for Medicare drug benefit law, and the loss of tax revenue stemming from the financial collapse and recession. The Obama stimulus plan accounts for only a small part, and the health care reform law doesn’t account for any of it, since the CBO has scored the law as reducing the deficit over 10 and 20 year time frames. How about reporting the facts rather than promoting false equivalence?
Thanks, Harris. I really think that the good people at NPR–by the way, I’m a loyal listener and we’ve been members at WNYC for many years–have no idea how many of in the core audience are on to this problem.
You mentioned David Leonhardt. I find this very interesting, too:
It’s essentially a column about what should NOT be sucked into the he said, she said machine.
I agree that he said, she said, is horrible.
That said, at least some of the sins of the “MSM” are practiced by “A-list bloggers,” too.
Jay, take a poke around Talking Points Memo sometime. See how it, like the MSM, misuses anonymous sourcing. See how it plays on the “access” issue.
While “old media” often isn’t great, “new media” often isn’t everything it gets cracked up to be.
What this long rant (that I mostly agree with) fails to take into account is that the *economics* of news gathering often does not allow reporters to more thoroughly investigte an issue, even when they want to. Investigative, in-depth journalism takes time & time is money–money that media outlets, esp newspapers, have less & less of. Reporters, like everyone else, are being asked to do more with less. For example, the number of stories they’re required to turn in increases because of staff cutbacks. To make their quotas, reporters have to shorten the attention given to each story. This devolves into he-said-she-said or what I call “parrot” journalism. Additionally, because everyone in the newsroom (& workplaces in general) is busier, multitasking & experiencing blown-apart attention spans, you get rushed people making rushed responses to what they *think* an email says, without taking necessary time to thoroughly read & ponder the message & their own response. Happens to me all the time–people responding to my messages in such a way that it’s obvious they just skimmed the question in the interest of speed & efficiency. He-said-she-said journalism is a problem, yes, and it’s also a symptom of the far larger problem of workers being stretched so thin that they can’t do a good job. That won’t change til people at the top decide to spend the time & resources it takes to produce a better product.
I have to say I don’t understand this kind of argument. I think I’m aware of the economic crisis in mainstream journalism; it is, after all, the number one fact of life in newsrooms today. NPR, however, is stronger than ever.
But more than that, if economic pressures are to blame, in what way does this diminish NPR’s duty to level with its listeners? Did you hear the ombudsman, or any producer at NPR, or the reporter in question explain their use of he said, she said by saying, “we simply don’t have the resources to investigate who’s right, so we fall back on he said, she said?” No. I did say that in my post. They declined that kind of candor. (Here’s what I wrote: “But when you don’t have time to do that [kind of investigation] or you lack the knowledge required, or you’re fearful of the criticism that might follow… what do busy journalists tend to do? They fall back on ‘he said, she said.’ It’s understandable.”)
They used entirely different rationales: that would be taking sides, we get it from the left and the right, our job is to be accurate and fair, etc. What you’re arguing is that these rhetorical stratagems–attempts to change the subject–are excusable because the news business is under pressure. I don’t dispute that the news business is under pressure, resulting in the thinning out of the product in many situations, but I do not agree that this grants journalists some new kind of “right to BS” us.
NPR could easily say, “We’re stretched too thin to exert the kind of factual check you’re expecting.” Why not? That would be leveling with the listeners. NPR could also decide: no he said, she said if we can’t perform an independent check on the clashing truth claims. There are other options available, but no one at NPR seems able to face the issue head on. Because they still believe that he said, she said is responsible journalism.
Therefore the first step for those who disagree is to disabuse them of this belief.
What are the lowest forms of Journalism? I suggest an application of the computer science test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior: The Turing Test. We can weigh how NPR’s and Kathy Lohr’s he-said-she-said reporting compares to what can be mechanically produced by a cleverly programmed computer. In other words: if that is all we get from you, why should we not make the rational financial decision to replace you with a robot? Or as Nicola Bruno asks: “Will Machines Replace Journalists? …what will be the role of journalists in a media landscape in which reporters and news items are little more than commodities, and, in the case of reporters, a soon-to-be redundancy?”
This is a great analysis and really great comments. I want to add, as some commenters have alluded to, that time has to be factored into this model. So while I agree that the press has a duty to get past he said, she said reporting, the first report could still justifiably go to print in this fashion.
For example, it is news that folks are saying both A and B. The fact of the disagreement is news and a reporter does the broader community a service to report on this simple fact. But for all of the reasons pointed out in this article, it’s not enough, and we are all right to expect more.
So perhaps the question becomes, how soon does a follow up story require more than just he said, she said? My own view is that a journalist should be explicit about a story taking the he-said-she-said format, and should commit in that story to following up with a more thorough analysis.
I like that idea. Your suggestions make sense. But we’ll never get there until the producers of “he said, she said” see it as poor quality service. Right now, they don’t. See what I wrote on Twitter about this frustration.
Sherwin said, “For example, it is news that folks are saying both A and B. The fact of the disagreement is news and a reporter does the broader community a service to report on this simple fact.”
Right, but was it so newsworthy that NPR had to report it right away–i.e., before it could do more research on the matter? I don’t think so. Reporting the story right away for people in Kansas might be understandable, but I feel like the national audience could have waited until NPR could do more reporting/digging into the issue.
The pressures on NPR journalism come from many sides and that makes the content much more vulnerable than for other media. NPR news management is eager to do the right thing and report without fear or favor. That actually happens more than the critics admit. But there are a myriad of subtle and not so subtle pressures. Funders, foundations and underwriters exist on the margins of public radio, but their very presence can seep through the firewall. When that happens, self-censorship is the result. 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.
Thanks for that much needed perspective, Jeffrey.
For those who don’t know him, Jeffrey is a former Vice President of News and former ombudsman for NPR.
Jeffrey offers an insider perspective on why I am much less inclined to donate to NPR. The money NPR gets from big business and “venture philantropists” impacts their coverage of education and trumps my hard earned dollars.
They drive me bats, but are such pieces simply sign posts marking the starts of needed investigations? I agree that where NPR and others feel they mark the end of an investigative journey, it’s quite frustrating to be presented with such stuff as a result that could be used to define shared understandings with utility.
But is it, I wonder, a minimal viable next step to allow the he->said<-she niche to remain filled, but further indicate: "Clearly we'll need to do more here to give you the information you'll need to decide where you feel the truth lies*" or something to that effect?
I realize that iterative journalism or open-ended processes that view creating the first part of a story is a valuable contribution to be extended by self or others are probably not going to invade the serious person's newsroom any time soon. This is open source geek hackerishness speaking.
But, it seems to me, these pieces aren't entirely or essentially broken. Usually, I learn where the fight is, and then go dig in to figure out what's really happening. But they are unfinished and, more problematic, not labeled that way. An approach that marks them as a map of a disputed reality could change what they are into something hugely less frustrating/confusing for those outside interest camps, and far less affirming to those within.
Possibly, yes. But this would require NPR to have a different attitude toward such reporting. It would have to concede that “we have no idea who’s right” journalism (when there are truth claims in dispute) is inadequate but the best we can do at the moment, and then lay a marker down for future investigation.
That’s not where the organization is now. It’s still at the point where it defends he said, she said as good service. Now NPR people would generally concede (in a manner drives me up the proverbial wall) that of course we could always do a deeper investigation, we’d like to spend weeks on every story, but the reality is… which is not that different from saying, “oh, grow up, will you?” But that’s a kind of disclaimer.
More striking to me is the observation I made in this post. To Edward Schumacher-Matos the proposition that these Kansas regulations are intended to drive the remaining few clinics out of business is clearly made in the piece. What he meant, of course, is that this argument is clearly in the piece. (So is its utter denial.) That this difference is elided by the ombudsman seems highly significant to me.
What do you people think?
I’ve little doubt you are correct, and that NPR does not as an organization, nor do journalists in general, yet appear prepared to stop defending just-report-the-conflicting-statements forms as peachy keen.
While NPR folks clearly show that understandings required to motivate and inform a change exist – things like the blurring of including arguments with making an argument that you describe suggest they aren’t universally held or that other factors (such as often alluded fear of niche audience and/or funding loss) motivate evading rather than addressing the issue.
Preston – while I agree with the notion of iterative journalism in theory, I haven’t seen NPR evolve on an issue. For example, torture. NPR still won’t use that word to describe what the US does. I could go on, but that’s really the best example.
I have seen the same basic reporting creeping into BBC reports in the UK and often when covering some controversial topics just like abortion.
It makes sense to me to see the facts behind each side of an argument and I hope your message can make it through to the journalists that stick to the “I am on the fence so why ask questions” approach.
[…] which Rosen has posted a new response: I think this is lame. You can judge for yourself , but I say there was nothing particularly “left” in my post […]
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.”)
I’m the News Director at Colorado Public Radio and it seems to me there are some simple steps the reporter could have taken even on deadline to give this story more context. First thing, I don’t think you have to do a lengthy investigation into the 2,500 pages of evidence the proponents of the regulations put forward, though presumably there was a little advanced notice on the hearing which could have allowed time to look for highlights. But also, when the proponents say it will make procedures safer, at least ask them to describe some particulars in detail and provide the evidence they are using to make their case. And I don’t see any evidence mentioned from the clinic owners about the cost of compliance – one gives a hypothetical about what if his procedure room was 149 square feet instead of 150. But two clinics are saying they cannot comply – they must have very specific reasons. By asking for more detail, you can show better where each side is coming from, and also have a list of further details to try to verify.
Another simple thing it to look for 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?
And while I’m at it – we could use the “How do you know that?” question in most stories out of Washington. It seems like lately the only quotes we hear on budget ideas are “It kills jobs!” or “It creates jobs!” and the story is good to go. Isn’t there some truth about taxes and jobs creation floating around out there that journalists could make part of these stories? Or at least make clear that it’s not a black and white issue, instead of being a platform for purely political messages?
Another simple thing it to look for 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).
Like I said, it’s about reporting, digging deeper, not editorializing. Thanks very much for your testimony, Kelley.
Great points, Kelley. Thanks!
This is why I often listen to CO PR over the internet even though I moved away from CO years ago.
[…] Rosen applies his theory of “he said, she said” journalism to an NPR report on Kansas abortion clinic licensing. NPR’s Ombudsman […]
The common defense is also time. That has some merit when it is truly breaking story. But these regulations just didn’t materialize the day of the NPR story. The regulations tactic is a common one (see Virginia).
When Cong. Issa held hearings about “regulations killing jobs” The Washington Post ran a long story quoting mostly GOPers making the same claim. I called the reporter to complain that he should have made some attempt to find out if the claim was true. Or at the very least, ask for proof of claim. Remapping the Debate did that and found that none of the principals could cite any study or research supporting the claim. There was time for that, I would think.
The reporter didn’t think so.
Our poor harried stenographers.
While writing a news site style guide I wrote the following snippet (http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/User:Amgine/SG_Details-A#abortion):
Do not use “pro-life” except in direct quotes, or in a title or proper name. The term is a deliberate marketing technique to imply their opponents are anti-life. Neither pro-abortion nor pro-choice are desirable terms for similar reasons; prefer a longer construction such as supporters of abortion as a health-care option or advocates of a woman’s right to choose abortion.
“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.”
This is why, after 20 years of listening to NPR, I stopped tuning in. They are so busy finding “the middle” that their reporting fails.
David Gregory: “It’s not our role.”
So Gregory thinks his role is creating a buffet of truths and untruths and letting the listener decide which he/she prefers?
I think he’s missing the point. Reporting reality is not a bias, contrary to Colbert’s hilarious claim.
“He said, She said” is partly an outgrowth of “getting a sense” journalism, some of which is due to a distinctly postmodern mistrust of “truth”. Inappropriate for journalists.
My essay on “getting a sense” journalism is here.