20/20 #12 — He said, she said: Taking sides on truth

(False) objectivity

Does objectivity mean reporting both sides of every story? Definitely not, says Robert Eshelman in Columbia Journalism Review. When one side of the story is just plain wrong, then journalists should not give it equal weight. Global warming is his case in point.

Jay Rosen offers a tidy definition of he said, she said journalism:

  • 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.

What’s wrong with he said/she said

Back in the day, Eshelman reports, journalists did a much better job on reporting global warming:

“’There was a lot of coverage and most of it was smart,’ [Bill McKibben] says by phone from his home in Vermont. “Journalists talked to scientists and just reported it. It hadn’t occurred to them that it should be treated as a political issue as opposed to a scientific one,” McKibben says of coverage in the late 1980s.

Eshelman reports on the growth of the “climate wars,” and the fossil fuel industry-funded climate change deniers who insist on a point of view diametrically opposed to the consensus of 97 percent of scientists. The denialists are loud and well-funded, and journalists (many of whom don’t understand the science) quote them as an easy way of demonstrating “objectivity.”

Which, when you think about it, is kind of like quoting the flat earth people as a legitimate voice for “the other side” in the debate over funding NASA or the Holocaust deniers in an article about World War II.

Your job: Find the truth

Journalists sometimes use “objectivity” as a shield to cover up their capitulation to the insidious temptation to report on complicated political issues — health care policy, the persistence of racism, educational achievement — by quoting voices on “both sides.” That’s not enough. Journalists have an obligation to help figure out what’s true, not just to parrot opposing viewpoints.

Longtime journalist, editor, and teacher Steve Buttry sums it up:

“Shouldn’t fact-checking be routine in every story? Source A says the sky is blue. Source B says the sky is red. Shouldn’t the reporter look at the sky rather than just report the disagreement?”

Want more?

Here are a few good resources, in addition to those quoted and linked above:

©2014 Mary Turck

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