September 8, 2004

Reporting the facts…

The whole problem with 527s disappears if the press does its job. Or, rather, if the press rediscovered the meaning of “objective” reporting.

The politically useless he-said, she-said stenography that passes for so much political reporting is only possible when the press misunderstands objectivity. Objectivity is not a stance; it’s a process. And it does not and cannot produce or guarantee journalism that reports events “as they are.” No such thing is possible because there is no such thing as the world “as it is.” We understand everything in human experience in human terms. And that means we give the world meaning in conjunction with the physical realities we encounter with our human senses and human understanding.

The fairness bias of journalism dictates that journalists should get “both sides” of the story–a laudable goal for the most part. The fairness bias combined with objectivity-as-a-stance dictates that journalists should write down whatever happens or whatever is said and relay it without comment. Checking the facts and reporting the results of such checking is considered by many journalists to be commenting on events or what was said. Such journalists believe it is up to citizens to figure it out.

Good journalism must operate with a discipline of verification, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Part of what this should mean is that reporters follow the objective process of reporting as they verify the facts and report the results of that verification as news.

This kind of reporting is hard work. He-said, she-said reporting is the easiest reporting of all. I hate to even dignify it with the term “reporting.” And, like so many things that come easy, it is nearly useless in fulfilling one of the long-held missions of journalism: to give citizens the information and knowledge necessary to exercise citizenship.

With a discipline of verification and operating as custodians of fact at the heart of journalism (and, in particular, political reporting), the damage caused by the lies of 527 advertising is severely mitigated.

I think it’s always a bad idea to curtail speech. Let candidates and their organizations raise all the money they want and spend it any way they want. Let them spout whatever nonsense they please. None of that is a danger to the republic when the press operates with a discipline of verification and as custodians of fact. Citizens would then know how to figure it all out: read the morning newspaper.

16 Responses

  1. Sven 

    When you say “rediscovered,” does that mean the press had less of a fairness bias in the past?

  2. andy cline on media objectivity

    Reporting the facts…: “The politically useless he-said, she-said stenography that passes for so much political reporting is only possible when the press misunderstands objectivity. Objectivity is not a stance; it’s a process.” Read the … how you sa…

  3. The fairness bias and objectivity should not be thought of as the same thing; they are related things. Both have evolved over the years. And, at one time, neither one was thought necessary to the production of good journalism.

  4. Anna 

    A quote, a point and a question –

    It (misunderstanding the meaning of “objective” reporting) seems to boil down to conflating neutrality (=stenography) and objectivity – “…The difference between neutrality and objectivity is this: Neutrality requires that you give equal billing to people who say the earth is flat and those who say it is round. Objectivity allows you to point out the evidence that the flat-earth folks are wrong.”( quoted in )

    And when you have a culture of he-said-she-said reporting, the only place the reader can find the paper’s “best guess” overview as to what’s really going on, is in its editorials – which happen to be devoid of generally accepted (or explicitly stated) ethics and need not be empirically or logically justified since they “speak for themselves” and are “not a dialogue, … a lecture, and you are supposed to sit in your seat and listen, or leave…”
    This does not serve the reader well.

    Question – in a Platonic ideal press whose purpose is to inform the readership, what role is left for Balance as a goal of coverage? or has the purpose of Balance always been merely to avoid offending?

  5. Anna… re: misunderstanding objectivity

    Yes, that’s another way to articulate it.

    re: your question

    I don’t think the purpose has always been to avoid offence, although that’s what the fairness bias has turned out to be it seems. I think we need to redefine “balance.” What are we to balance, or what constitutes a balance? That question has largely been answered in ideological terms, i.e. a balance of political perspectives as understood in a two-party political structure. What other balances might we envision?

  6. Charles Knell 

    “Balance” is, of course, a metaphor. The literal meaning involves a fulcrum and a lever. When you place two objects on a balance with a symmetrical beam, the object with greater mass will lift the object with less mass. When you shift the lever to the left or right, you can make the beam balance at neutral position in spite of the difference in mass of the two objects.

    By reporting two positions on an issue as if each had equal validity (“mass”), reporters are shifting the balance bea m (stray space inserted because this software refused to juxtapose “beam” and “to”)to the left or right while pretending to be netural.

  7. MWS 

    There is good reporting being done in the way you talk about. There was a NYT article yesterday about Bush’s deficit forecasts that pointed out the unrealistic assumptions used. On the other hand, there is so much of the “he said-she said” approach.

    Frankly, when I read a newspaper, I am always concerned, not so much about bias, as about a lack of context and a lack of sophistication in the reporting. Reporters always seem “biased” because they often don’t seem to be able to convey the complexity that decisionmakers face. I think this reflects something else you have talked about in the blog-the narrative bias. There is such a need to place events in a neat narrative form that reporters are unable to convey the fact that decisionmakers often face a no win situation. Without that context, standard reporting often makes decisionmakers seem incompetent or venal.

  8. Charles… exactly. I would add that the bias in this balancing is primarily the fairness bias, although overt and covert political bias also play a role depending up the situation.

    MWS… yes, there have been some attempts during this campaign–mostly too little, too late, IMO.

  9. Anna 

    “the bias in this balancing is primarily the fairness bias…”

    I’m having trouble with the term “fairness bias” since in so many ways it is _not_ fair, any more than a civil court judge automatically giving half of the disputed resource to each party is fair.

    To me it’s more a “diversity bias” – leading to a sort of affirmative action for viewpoints, irrespective of their merits.

  10. Anna 

    also –

    “The fairness bias and objectivity should not be thought of as the same thing; they are related things. Both have evolved over the years. And, at one time, neither one was thought necessary to the production of good journalism”

    At that time, was the result “yellow journalism”? Or was it what we _today_ would consider good (as in, ‘informing the readers’) journalism?

    (am not trying to make a point here, just curious)

  11. Anna… “fairness” is the term journalists use, so I use it, too.

    Re: that long-ago time

    I’m speaking of the history of American journalism until the Progressive Era.

  12. Anna 

    “‘fairness’ is the term journalists use, so I use it, too.”

    OK, thanks, did not realize ‘fairness’ had a specialized meaning in this field – analogous to the meaning of “significance” being different in statistics vs. in colloquial speech. It does seem a bit Orwellian to an outsider.

  13. Anna…journalists operate with a rather simplistic definition of fairness (not simple-minded). What creates problems, besides that simplicity, is the ethic of fairness that springs from the definition.

    For many journalists, fairness means letting “both sides” have their say with little or no comment from the reporter. It also means making sure all interested parties in a news situation get to have some say in the resulting article. Now this ethic and the resulting practice obviously leave out many unofficial voices (status quo bias) and often give too much attention to false or misleading statements given in knee jerk reaction to opposition statements.

  14. Beltway Traffic Jam

    The daily linkfest:
    Julian Sanchez has a hilarious George Bush rap. [Warning: Rap language.]
    Phil Libin argues that one can indeed fight a noun.
    Craig Henry notes that the next generation of forgeries will be a lot better than the ones that fooled…

  15. Nothing to See Here – Aye, My Roger Be Jolly edition

    Avast, Matey! it be National Talk Like a Pirate Day today, saz I.

    I guess this is why I never got into The Sims; I’m not twisted enough.

  16. Dorothea Burnett 


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