Real Reporting Is About Revealing Truth; Not Granting 'Equal Weight' To Bogus Arguments

from the nyt-failures dept

Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has long been the leading advocate in condemning the prominence of “he said/she said” journalism in the mainstream media. This kind of journalism is driven by a complete distortion of what it means to be an “objective” journalist. Bad journalists seem to think that if someone is making a claim, you present that claim, then you present an opposing claim, and you’re done. They think this is objective because they’re not “picking sides.” But what if one side is batshit crazy and the other is actually making legitimate claims? Shouldn’t the job of true journalists be to ferret out the truth and reveal the crazy arguments as crazy? Rosen’s latest calls out the NY Times for falling into the bogus “he said/she said” trap yet again. This time it’s on an article about plagiarism and copyright infringement charges being leveled from one biographer of Ronald Reagan against another. We wrote about this story as well, and we looked at the arguments of both sides, and then noted that author Craig Shirley’s arguments made no sense at all, as he was trying to claim ownership of facts (something you can’t do). Furthermore, his claims of plagiarism were undermined by the very fact that he admitted that competing biographer Rick Perlstein’s quotes were different. Shirley claimed that “difference” in the quotes showed that Perlstein was trying to cover up the plagiarism, but… that makes no sense.

Of course, when the NY Times reported on this, it did the “he said/she said” thing, providing no enlightenment whatsoever to the public who was reading it about whose argument actually was legit, and whose was ridiculous. Reporter Alexandra Alter played the false equivalence card:

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

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

As Rosen notes, this is the “easy” way out for a journalist. Actually figuring out who’s right takes work, and hell, you might be wrong. So why take the risk:

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

But, as Rosen notes, thanks to the internet these days, newspapers are increasingly having trouble with this kind of lazy “safe” journalism. Because the public will call them out when they avoid reporting the truth, favoring a false narrative instead. In this case, the NYT’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, (whose job it is to examine whether or not the NY Times is best serving the public) called the paper out for this weak effort in response to complaints from the public. She directly notes the problem of this he said/she said journalism:

By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.

And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn?t help much. It?s as if The Times is saying: ?Here?s an accusation; here?s a denial; and, heck, we don?t really know. We?re staying out of it.? Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency ? and for good reason.

So I?m with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader. The standard has to be higher.

As Rosen further points out in his blog post, the ability of the public to weigh in may be changing the equation here. The “easy” and “lazy” response of just doing he said/she said journalism won’t cut it because you’ll get called out on it. Journalism should be about reporting what’s true, not just what people say is true. The continued use of he said/she said is actually “reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face.” Rosen even points out that the BBC is now specifically retraining its reporters to stop inserting “false balance” into stories where there’s an underlying truth and an attempt to distort it. It seems amazing that this even needs to be repeated, but it’s been that way for so long in many publications.

Hopefully, the ability of the public to call it out will make more lazy journalists and editors recognize what used to be the “safe” move is no longer so safe.

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Comments on “Real Reporting Is About Revealing Truth; Not Granting 'Equal Weight' To Bogus Arguments”

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fortiori says:

From a slashdot comment years ago:

One person’s “balance” is another’s wildly corrupt, morally bankrupt, exploitative society. The use of the word often connotes that both sides of an argument are equally fair, and equally at fault, which is impossible.

Forget balance. Aim for the truth and correct your steering whenever needed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Who is Jay Rosen?

Being more divisive to strenghten the opposition to the article? That in its own is one-sided.

When it comes to the specific article and the specific problem, the material for making a proper assessment is available online. Now, you can still make the argument that plagiarism is not necessarily better defined than copyright violations. 10 words in a row matching plagiarism? Same relatively unique arguments, different wording plagiarism? etc.

But instead of making a kindergarten political “he said, she said” story out of it, the angle would probably have been better served by doing the digging and analyzing what the specific claims are and taking the debate about what the specific case of plagiarism is presumably about and hear the legal opinions on that ground instead of running with a worthless surface-divisive story where the deeper content might be pretty damning for one side…

C_Ryback (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Who is Jay Rosen?

Yes, I do. He apparently has never worked in a daily newspaper office.

What the F does he actually know, based on experience?

Answer: Zero. Nothing. Nada.

Would use go to a sex therapist who was a virgin and asexual? Someone who claimed to be an auto repair expert who’d never actually worked on a car?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Who is Jay Rosen?

You’re just repeating the same fallacious questions after being informed they’re fallacious because the answers to those questions don’t matter — what matters is the argument he’s making. Saying he’s not qualified is not actually countering his argument. If he’s so unqualified that he makes stupid arguments, then it just makes it that much easier counter them — there’s still no logical reason to bring up qualifications.

But I can’t resist the temptation to bite the apple nonetheless…

“Would use go to a sex therapist who was a virgin and asexual?”

Yes, if the therapist was good. You don’t become a good sex therapist by having a lot of sex.

“Someone who claimed to be an auto repair expert who’d never actually worked on a car?”

Probably not, because I’d be playing the odds. However if I didn’t know and let him fix the car anyway, then whether or not he fixed a car before mine is a moot point. All that matters is whether or not he properly fixed my car.

C_Ryback (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Who is Jay Rosen?

LOL, ROTFL. WashDC is full of lawyer/fools who have never run anything and produce crap that makes felons out of everyone.

Like today’s cars. So complex, you have 5+ years of experience and $20,000 of tools to fix many problems. Asking someone without experience to fix a car today would be like asking a monkey to do nuclear physics.

Only some naive college student would think otherwise.

AC says:

This isn’t a binary argument, though. It’s not just truth or balance. Ideally, sure, truth prevails, but all too often, a news source gives priority to the narrative that fits their own agenda. If we’re basically told what the ‘truth’ is, how are we to know if that’s the real truth, or just the truth the news organization prefers?

I’d FAR rather see a bullshit argument given the same weight as a valid one, and be left alone to determine which is which than only be given one side, and not knowing if that was actually bullshit.

This particular example is more a failure of not giving the whole argument for either side than it is a failure for giving both to begin with. They can’t just open the forum for discussion and call that good journalism, but neither should they be just be repeating the talking points of either side without hearing from the other.

If ALL the facts are laid bare, the truth becomes clear. But getting them all is not just hard, it is completely undermined by most people’s non-existant attention span. I certainly don’t trust most news organizations to properly filter down the facts to just what’s relevant.

Mystiq (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My first thought reading this was “Fox News.”

Watch this video:

Sometimes the crazy is crazy. Giving two sides an equal amount of time when one side definitely is not true is insanity. Fox does this all the damn time and claims they are “fair and balanced.” They are neither because not only do they give the crazy equal time, they spin the truth and then argue about it with a bunch of dumbasses, some of whom aren’t even experts. Why are you giving someone who knows nothing about the subject equal time (sometimes more) than the guy who has PhD in the field?

Every publication is biased. “Fair and balanced” is neither fair nor balanced when the clear-cut crazy argument is given equal time to the truth because it makes the crazy seem valid. When it is not.

C_Ryback (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

FACT: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only self-identifed Socliaist in Congress, admits that because FOX News is talk-oriented, he’s gotten 300% more TV time than on CNN (reporter-oriented).

The Jay Rosens of the Ivory Tower want to censor what you get. Ditto, Obama, Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Moore.

He’s wrong, all the time. It is as idiotic — yes, idiotic — as claiming “Citizens United” is the end of the USA. Well, if buying advertising can win elections, why has Bloomberg lost so much?

Facts and reality — they’re pesky.

C_Ryback (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Obama — big advocate of “don’t believe he said/she said” journalism. Because, of course, God gave him the right to tell everyone that he’s all-knowing. /sarc

Hillary and Warren — keep claiming to have “evidence-based” thinking. Translation: “use my study, not others.” LOL.

Michael Moore — so wildly inaccurate, Pauline Kael of “The New Yorker” made a joke out of him.

Marvin says:

Re: Re: Re:

But slanting the article so lopsided to the left or right is ok. Let both sides (or more) be heard. A smart reader will figure it out. Using buzz words like alleged or snickering for the camera put the reporter’s doubt front and center. So many people have been conditioned to believe the likes of the Times or big boy networks they can’t handle a departure from the established norm, good or bad.

AC says:

Re: Re: Re:

And as I mentioned above, this particular story didn’t go far enough in getting the whole story from either side, and with more facts, the real truth can become clear. That’s still no excuse to pretend the other side of the story doesn’t exist.

I should simplify:
* Great journalism: getting to the one, clear, factual side of every story.
* Acceptable journalism: presenting both sides in a truly meaningful fashion, and pressing both to go farther than the pre-recorded talking points.
* Poor journalism: Only presenting one side and not getting the facts correct.
* Fox journalism: Combine the worst parts of the previous two, and present both sides, but give one an advantage and one a disadvantage.

Just the simple fact that a story is even a little controversial means there is SOME sort of argument to back it up. It may not be popular, it may rely on cherry-picked statistics, and it may rely on emotional arguments instead of factual ones, but there’s something there. Otherwise, there would be no controversy; everybody would just agree.

Now if I were to take 100 bat-shit crazy stances and never present the other (more rational) side to any of them, there’s a good chance that some people could be convinced that I am telling the truth on some percentage of them.

That means the difference between great and poor journalism from above is simply how much you trust the news agency to present the right side of the story. It’s not as simple as “give reasons.” Both sides have reasons to believe they are correct.

To reiterate: I’m half-agreeing with Mike: good journalism is hard. If you do it right, it’s worth it. I’m just taking the additional stance that few organizations have earned the sort of trust required to make it worth their time and effort.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Good point, I don’t mind them mentioning the bat shit crazy idea, and than having a legal advisor in this case explain why the idea is bat shit crazy. It’s actually one of the things I like about Dan Abrams on GMA. They let bat shit crazy Nancy Grace spout, and then he calmly explains the legal reasoning….

Anonymous Coward says:

He said/she said journalism is actually worse than useless. It actually increases partisanship. With no indication of who’s right and who’s wrong people are left only with their own biases so that Democrats will just assume the Democratic claim is true and Republicans will just assume the Republican claim is true. This way neither Democrats nor Republicans will learn that “their side” can be factually wrong and will naturally conclude that “their side” is always right. This only makes partisanship worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“He said/she said” us only a problem when the facts are gone from the debate. If you invite two actual scientific experts with the right attitude to discuss you will get a good friendly education of the watcher, if you take two politicians they will muddy up the water and try to steer the conversation to a point of missing the subject. If you take random people in, the responses will be based on what they heard and how they heard it.

A little experiment would be to take two groups of people with about equal competences and train them in an issue, one by politicians and lobbyists and the other by scientists.

My bet would be the politicians’ people will be far better at arguing since they are served the lobbyist talking points, but the scientists’ people would be far better able to point out the flaws in the arguments. Unfortunately pointing out flaws and being defensive will look weak as long as the barrage of arguments from the politicians keep coming. It is just better viewership from having politicians run the show.

Zem (profile) says:

It may appear to be a noble idea, but I believe I can prove it wrong.

Lets start with “damn lies and statistics”. Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli if you care to believe Mark Twain.

There are many journalists who write about the economy. Statistics is of course a major source of economic information. Now, if journalism is about truth, and statistics are just lies, it would be impossible to be an economic journalist.


Whatever (profile) says:

journalistic due process?

Interesting story for sure. The professor puts forward some good points, and some news organizations do appear to be guilty of giving some truly batshit crazy ideas equal time.

However, I have to say that one line out of this story really caught my eye:

Actually figuring out who’s right takes work, and hell, you might be wrong

It’s not just that they might get it wrong, but also that they could be making the minds up for their readers as well, without any of the sort of journalistic due process that is needed.

Look at the whole deal from Ferguson. The initial stories came out with the “White cop kills unarmed black boy”, and without presentation of any of the other sides, people went off like a bomb. Over a few days, it has turned out that the story isn’t quite as simple as we might like it to be. The rush to journalistic judgement, the tone and the direction the story took initially (and all the angry talking heads on the major US news channels) has slowly turned. the ‘unarmed boy’ was a near adult and certainly bigger than most of us, he may have been coming from robbing a store, and there may have been a physical confrontation with the cop before the shooting. Oh oops, the talking heads are all in hiding now, quickly coming to realize that they rushed to judgement, didn’t want to present the “batshit crazy” idea that the cop may have been doing his job to some extent, and so on.

The failure of the media to provide the other side and to consider anything other than the story fed to them is a as much of a problem.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: journalistic due process?

Actually it’s not making your mind. It’s about a journalist analyzing the facts and providing that analysis. If there is space to doubt then make that doubt clear and visible. Ferguson is actually a good example. Most good journalistic articles I read actually did this by making it clear that there was an investigation ongoing so nobody could determine what happened to the black guy that was shot to death and that included questioning the police version given the guy had no criminal records. These initial bad stories are bad news sources going the sensationalist route.

Over a few days, it has turned out that the story isn’t quite as simple as we might like it to be.

Actually, it’s precisely what happened. Except they could have let the white/black pseudo-dichotomy out of the headlines as the skin color is not important at all (although the inherent police racism would have to be dealt with in the news articles).

…there may have been a physical confrontation with the cop before the shooting…
…didn’t want to present the “batshit crazy” idea that the cop may have been doing his job to some extent…

Again you are swallowing the cops version in one gulp. Not surprising given it’s you. The use of “may have” implies there’s any doubt it didn’t happen by now. And the way the police dealt with the riots is quite far from “cop doing his job”.

The failure of the media to provide the other side and to consider anything other than the story fed to them is a as much of a problem.

And then you are actually advocating the media should present the two sides even though one is clearly wrong after trying to pretend you agree with the point of this article. Hilarious.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: journalistic due process?

Oh by the way, the guy did steal some cigarettes (it wasn’t clear to me with all those stories flying). The cop still grossly overreacted and it actually doesn’t change a thing. If the guy was just arrested then it would be a non-story. Also as an interesting tidbit it seems post-mortem exams showed he had marijuana in his blood (I’m not entirely sure here so if I’m wrong I invite fellow readers to correct me) which… doesn’t matter one bit. If anything it would further erode the cops version that he tried to do something to the cop as marijuana is a pacifying substance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: journalistic due process?

The problem is actually that the information is temporally separated. The information initially presented, I saw, had the police claims of a physical struggle at the same page as the eyewitness reports. What has happened since is that new information is coming foreward staggered.

The police released a video about a crime the kid committed, but on further review the policeman didn’t seem to have that information at the time (Not to mention it has nothing to do with the actus reus and thus the question of if he did something culpable. It is a mens rea argument and thus about mitigating the punishment!). A private autopsy has been released on the bullet paterns in the victim. Several other small pieces of information will continue to emerge over time, but we are probably about to get past the interest in the media for ever smaller details about the specific case, which is the real problem.

People end up with an incomplete picture because the information about a crime is incomplete to begin with and as information surfaces, better and better indices and evidence will settle the picture of what really happened, but the media will loose interest when the overall picture gets settled since it isn’t new news anymore.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: journalistic due process?

People end up with an incomplete picture because the information about a crime is incomplete to begin with and as information surfaces, better and better indices and evidence will settle the picture of what really happened, but the media will loose interest when the overall picture gets settled since it isn’t new news anymore.

So the problem remains: If real reporting is about revealing the truth, would they fail in a rush to judgement?

It seems that the modern media is way more interested in the “this just in” mentality of taking any piece, tidbit, or even suggestion of news and running with it like it’s the absolute truth, without knowing if it is or not.

The police here could be incredibly full of shit. The kid could have been trying to kill the cop. We don’t know – and the media doesn’t know either. If it bad reporting to say “we just don’t know” and present both sides, even if one later turns out to be horseshit? Who are the media to judge that, really?

John Thacker (profile) says:

Unfortunately, in practice I expect that if the media decides to abandon the “he said/she said” dichotomy they’ll end up presenting only the police’s side of the story, because of course those loyal agents of the justice system are more credible than witnesses, especially those with criminal records.

And don’t the much criticized FISA hearings rely on this concept– there’s no need to hear the obvious lies of the accused terrorists, no need for “he said/she said?”

Certainly reporting should strive towards truth, especially statements that can be fact checked. But I worry that too much of an emphasis on the problems with presenting the arguments of either will lead to closed mindedness. The Church no doubt thought that there was no need to confuse the public with the obviously wrong ideas of Galileo, and others. Perhaps those things were okay for scholars to discuss, but the common man was not to be misled with obvious error.

I suspect the reaction will depend on how much you trust the gatekeepers.

John Thacker (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In practice, the result of saying that both sides should not be given equal respect or weight will be that the lower status and power side will be given less respect. Do you really think in most cases it will be the cops given less respect, or will the “unreliable opinions” of the ordinary witnesses and suspected criminals be given less respect?

If the accused here already had greater status and power than the police, then there wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem to begin with. But abandoning balance when the accused are already low status will not redound to their benefit.

Rocco Maglio (profile) says:

Well meaning censorship is still wrong

It would seem to me that Mr. Rosen is calling for censorship. He believes that only one view point should be presented. This causes people to not understand how anyone could possibly have a different view, so they demonize people who do not agree with them. You expose people to the facts for and against something. If a fact does not fit the narrative you should not ignore it. This is exactly what is wrong with journalism today.

C_Ryback (profile) says:

Re: Re: Well meaning censorship is still wrong

So .. when did a Supreme Being give Rosen and anyone else, the license to proclaim what is “true” vs. “not-true.”

Like the fools who claim they have exclusive ownership of “scientific truth.” When, in reality, science is always being challenged. Duh.

“Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice?”

Anon says:

Modern Journalism...

So much of what I see in the news is simply re-writing the news release. If you see a news article like “50% of Obese People Get Diabetes” you can bet the reporter picked up a news release from the Diabetes Foundation or somewhere and re-wrote it. it’s not breaking news.

The other 50% is re-writing the wire story, since almost nobody has foreign news bureaus any more. (Which also explains, for example, a news story about Cairo or Istanbul from a correspondent in London) You Google a current story and find 90% of the news articles from different newspapers use almost the same wording and details.

A really good example of this – Michael Brown’s death. Nobody mentioned the cigar heist until the police news report (despite the apparent clamor for the video, according to the police chief). Then, in every news report for every paper or TV station, they repeat the chief’s assertion that “the officer saw the cigars in his hand”, they repeat the story “a box of cigars stolen”. Virtually nobody says whether Brown had cigars after being shot, whether the quantity matched what was allegedly taken. These are kind of important details to the narrative, yet nobody seems to have asked the questions.

You’d think the very first day the police, if they were needing some shred of justification, would say “he had the same quantity of cigars as were stolen from the store”. A guy with a hand full of cigars doesn’t raise his hands to surrender, and it could be difficult to hit a police officer without crushing or dropping them; or did the officer see then “in his pocket”? Yet this cigar story first appears many days later.

These are the details that make things appear concocted. It’s a simple amount of investigative questioning to answer these questions. Yet nobody does.

Close, but no cigar.

Austin (profile) says:

Well as long as we're at this...

…why not give zero weight to each and every argument based upon religion?

I’m a non-believer. Every time I see someone arguing against abortion or against stem cell research, this is the exact same thought I have: why is this person given a chance to speak? Their argument is based on the – WRONG – assumption that “god” is anything more than a fairy tale with all the voracity of the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster. Why, oh why, is this cave dweller treated as though his opinion should carry any more weight than a random nut job plucked from the nearest insane asylum?

But then, if we treated religious crazies like the crazies they are, 90% of all the debates we routinely have simply wouldn’t happen. A world devoid of religion is a world where almost everyone is in agreement, because their conclusions are all drawn from information, rather than third-hand 6,000 year old unverifiable horse crap.

And a world without debates makes for a world with some incredibly boring election cycles. Which would be good for the citizens, good for the country itself, and good for the world. But it’s bad for the politicians.

And that’s why, in 2014, we still have religion. At all.

zip says:

often mandated by legal dept.

A newspaper or magazine’s legal department is often the party responsible for “he said/she said” journalism — that is, when they don’t kill the story entirely. It’s purely a business decision: will they spend more money defending themselves in a lawsuit than they would selling additional copies of an explosive front-page expose? (Switching to a “he said/she said” format gives them a safer middle ground.)

In 1991, Time Magazine made that calculated decision and lost. By publishing a no-holds-barred article about the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology — despite the grave legal threats — the media giant ended up spending millions of dollars defending itself against a lawsuit that was ultimately thrown out of court.

Despite ‘technically’ losing the suit, the cult considered this a victory. In its aftermath, the mainstream media went virtually silent on the Scientology cult for nearly two decades. When stories did finally return, such as the explosive St. Petersburg Times series, the cult was granted the final (unchallenged) word on every topic — “he said/she said” ad nauseum.

So while “he said/she said” is a cop-out from real journalism, at least it’s better than the alternative.

Anonymous Coward says:

Didn’t read, because the title is absolutely right. There was talk not long ago on cbc radio (which itself is sometimes guilty of doing it) about giving “equal weight” to opinions that one journalist know are factually wrong but almost in a sadomasochist way will interview the lunatic (like the example used on CBC, William Kristol, whom they had interviewed a week earlier) and treat them like what they say and their opinions are of equal value.

2 people on either side of a “debate” with the journalist[scratch that out, the questionnaire] in the middle is all these people being equal human beings as in they all have the inalienable rights of the constitution and bill of rights, but they have zero equality when it comes to their opinions which the most ridiculous ones are getting a bit too old to have any opinion time on news media.

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