A healthy debate about ‘he-said-she-said’ journalism

I credit the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane with starting a good debate about fact-checking in journalism, and I like Bernard Keane’s of Australia’s Crikey with a pretty level-headed summary of what Brisbane said:

Brisbane’s point was that op-ed columnists have the freedom to challenge such assertions, and that the Times has been running a sidebar to presidential nomination stories that fact-checks claims by candidates, but such analysis was not currently part of the straight reportage of the Times, and he wanted to know whether it should be.

Fact-checking rather just parroting what politicians say has been on the rise in American journalism. FactCheck.org has been running was launched 2003 by Brooks Jackson who did a similar features CNN, and Politifact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its web-based fact-checking operation. Even the Associated Press has had fact-checking projects running for years. As Brisbane says and also New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, fact checking and truth telling is a part of the Times’ journalism.

Jay Rosen has long been criticising what US political coverage calling it the Church of the Savvy with its “view from nowhere”, and Brisbane’s column really got under his skin. Jay writes:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

I would ask: Whose side is the press supposed to be on? I’ve always assumed my readers. Sure, it’s our job as journalists to call out political, corporate or other figures when they peddle falsehoods, and I don’t accept an objectivity that cannot distinguish between what is false and true. I also think it’s important to put points of view in perspective, rather than think that absolute balance should be a goal of journalism. That requires not only editorial decisions but judgement calls. However, I’ll be honest. I don’t see it as my job as a journalist to take sides. I’ll call bullshit on any side, and my independence is core to my identity as a journalist. My university had the largest fraternity and sorority system, and I used to say that I belonged to Gamma Delta Iota – God Damned Independent.  I’m still that way. I respected my colleagues at the BBC who had the ability to hold everyone’s feet to the fire, regardless of party. That’s not a view from nowhere, that’s about accountability, including my own.

As for Jay’s issues with objectivity, the idea has a lot of detractors these days, and it’s constantly been under attack since the day I left j-school. Objectivity does not mean false balance. Giving bullshit peddlers equal time is not objectivity. Radical relativism, or false equivalence as James Fallows refers to it, where everyone’s views or narrative is valid or reported without challenge isn’t objectivity. However, I still check my biases because as my journalism professor, the late, great Bob Reid, bellowed at us:

Check your biases, because your biases will determine the questions you don’t ask!

It’s still burned into my mind.

I’m not as het up as Jay about this. As James Fallows says:

So I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let’s hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it’s one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be “fair” and “objective” in the new political-infosphere terrain. (And, yes, I realize that these choices are difficult — there’s a whole book on the topic!)

I also see it as an opportunity for journalists to outline their professional values and rebut some of the caricatures that people hold of us.

This is a healthy discussion, and as Keane at Crikey says, this isn’t just about views on objectivity, balance or false equivalence, this is also about resources. I hope he pardons me for the extended quote, but this is important:

The complicating factor when criticising he-said-she-said, however, is resources. Should a radio reporter, rushing to air coverage of a press conference, instead devote an hour to researching every claim made by the politician at the microphone? More to the point, what would her producer say? What about an audience now accustomed to instantaneous coverage of everything? In an era of ever-more constrained media resources, time spent fact-checking is now at a premium. People love to bag journalists, especially on social media, and it’s frequently merited, but what’s missed is that journalists are placed under ever greater pressure from editors and producers to meet ever faster deadlines, in an ever greater number of formats, with fewer and fewer resources.

Yup. Everyone working in journalism knows this right now. We’re under greater and greater pressure to produce more and more as there are fewer and fewer of us.

I’ve only linked to and quoted a few of the posts on this topic. Jay has lots more links on his post. The Atlantic has more. Missed out in that round-up is Clay Shirky’s piece today in the Guardian. James Fallows’ post is worth reading in full. Politicians have stepped up their game in ways that the US press has yet to find an effective response to. Although journalists’ favourite passtime is navel-gazing, this has brought up some important questions. It’s a good discussion to have in an election year.