The NY Times and Pathetic He Said/She Said Journalism
If you want to see a perfect example of how reporters can get so lost in journalistic process that they lose sight of the truth, reality even, read this NY Times public editor column from yesterday on the "he said/she said" convention:
Readers are quick to cite examples. Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression — hot topics that may affect the presidential race.
In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”
Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”
I just don't know what to say at this point. How can you possibly believe you've "laid it out" if you didn't include the most salient fact that there is no evidence of in-person voter fraud? It's completely inexplicable unless you realize that if you say that, you are simultaneously raising the question of why the Republicans would be passing laws to prevent it. That's when it gets dicey --- the only reasonable conclusion is that these people don'tbelieve the evidence and are passing these laws out of some form of mass paranoia. Or they are trying to suppress the vote, the success or failure of which is nearly impossible to measure.
That's the "core issue," whether you're reporting about the two sides being at odds or whether you're trying to educate the public about the issue itself (or, hopefully, doing both ...) I suppose it's understandable that a reporter could get so mired in the weeds that he could no longer see that he was actually misleading his readers by reporting on the dispute without offering all the context and evidence that would lead the reader to understand the entirely of the issue. I guess I just assumed it would be an editors job to make sure he did. Apparently this editor didn't think so and others obviously remain confused which I find truly depressing.
The public editor did weigh in on that in a frank and refreshing way, I thought:
It ought to go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.
Yes, it certainly ought to go without saying but I'm glad somebody in that job finally said it.