Monday, September 19, 2011

The "He Said/She Said" Dodge

Want to avoid controversy yet continue to style yourself as a journalist?  Use "he said/she said," the surefire way of removing yourself from the debate while retaining a sense of personal gravitas!  Yes, kids, "he said/she said" can save you the trouble of real reporting, for it ties perfectly into the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow news cycle.  All that will remain is another entry on your resume!  So try it today and you will appear serious, keep your topic opaque, and your employer happy.
Jay Rosen, who has valiantly tried to push journalism into a position where it sees responsibility to its readers as the number one consideration--and has been doing so for over twenty years, has renewed his push to rid the profession of "he said/she said" 'reporting.'  In a recent post on his Press Think site, he uses an NPR story as grist for his mill, reiterating just what "he said/she said" journalism is:
  • 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.
This is chicken journalism, the 'reporter' hiding behind the skirts of 'balance' instead of writing a story that can inform its readership, explaining the real story rather than appeasing conflicting 'sides.'

Journalist Steve Buttry expands on what Rosen writes:
A key point I made... was that accuracy is not enough. We need to get beyond the “semi-true stories” (yes, I did play Jimmy Buffett’s song) we hear from sources and find the actual truth.

This [the story Rosen reacts to in his piece] is an excellent example. If you accurately report what the rules require and you accurately quote the warring factions’ views of the rules, you have an accurate story. But you have not sought the truth or reported it, beyond the basic fact that partisans disagree, and that’s a statement of the obvious and eternal in American political life.
Reporting disagreement is not real reporting.  Readers do not need to know, that is, that the 'two sides' don't agree.  They need to know the reasons for the disagreement along with enough information for them to determine the validity of those reasons.

Reliance on 'balance' instead of real reporting has opened the profession of journalism to the sorts of abuse that have lowered its reputation among the American public to a level not much different from that of politicians.  It allows manipulators of the media to become successful stars, people like Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe whose outrageous claims not only serve their personal interest but move the 'balance' far to the right.  It makes journalism itself a form of entertainment, for it provides the same show day after day, never allowing progress or change.

I wish Rosen great luck in his campaign to have "he said/she said' commonly considered one of the lowest (and one of the worst) forms of reporting.  The harm it has done journalism may not be irreparable, but it is certainly significant.

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