Jay Rosen on why political reporting is broken. Jay Rosen's blog is Pressthink, and he's on the journalism faculty at New York University. (He's also the former chairman of the Department.) When he critiques your coverage, people tend to pay a
September 16, 2011

Jay Rosen on why political reporting is broken.

Jay Rosen's blog is Pressthink, and he's on the journalism faculty at New York University. (He's also the former chairman of the Department.) When he critiques your coverage, people tend to pay a lot of attention. Read his detailed take down of the NPR abdication of their journalistic responsibilities over a story about abortion regulation, and his response to the "both sides are mad at us, so we got it right" thinking that passes for actual journalism:

First I’m going to tell you what happened; then I’m going to comment on it. #I set my clock radio to NPR. A week ago I woke to this report about new rules for licensing abortion clinics in Kansas. The report stood out for me as an exquisite example of that dubious genre known as “he said, she said” journalism, which I’ve been complaining about for some time. My 2009 piece attempts to explain the persistence of this form; it also gives a definition:“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • 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.

In last week’s NPR report, the dispute was about the new requirements for abortion clinics in Kansas. These rules were an attempt to drive the few remaining clinics out of business, said abortion providers and their defenders. Nope, just common sense policies aimed at protecting women’s health and preventing abuses, said opponents of abortion. I didn’t think that just leaving it there was good enough, so I sent a complaint to the NPR ombudsman. Then I turned it into a post at my Tumblr blog, including the audio clip so readers could hear for themselves:

My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true.

The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.

According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do!

And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.It is obvious to me that there’s something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. ”He said, she said” does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks. That’s putting your needs—for political refuge—ahead of mine as a listener. I don’t appreciate it. It makes me trust you less.

And one more thing, a little lesson in realism. They’re going to attack you anyway, and crow in triumph when your CEO is forced out by those attacks. Ultimately there is no refuge, so you might as well do good journalism.

A short time after this was posted, Edward Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombud, said he would soon have a reply. He also said that he doubted the abortion report was “the lowest form of journalism.” But I didn’t say “lowest.” I said the “he said, she said” genre is one of the lowest. Sounds trivial, but I don’t think it is.Yesterday his column went online. Lowest Form of Journalism or Constructive and Fair? He thought I had over-reacted, and he got the reporter involved to comment, as well. For which I am grateful: thanks, NPR, for being so responsive. On Twitter, Greg Collard, a news director for an NPR affiliate, said the same thing: “Your criticism was way over the top for that piece.”Was it? Let’s dig in. I think in many ways NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. For example:

We forwarded Rosen’s criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:“I’ve covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.“It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering. So, I don’t do that, with abortion or other issues.”

Take a position on the issue? No, Kathy. This is not what I’m saying. Lohr tried to change my criticism into something she knew how to respond to. Thus, our exchange went something like this.

Me: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who’s right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don’t understand is: That’s not my job!

I do understand how you define your job. What I’m asking for is more reporting, not editorializing or picking a side.

Go read the rest. It's always a joy when someone holds the media to account. And by the way, if you're not reading PressThink, you're missing a lot.

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