The perils of ‘he said-she said’ journalism

Chris Mooney has an excellent post on DeSmogBlog today discussing an aspect of modern journalism that many find frustrating – the tendency to report stories as a conflict between two equal and opposite points of view, with no chance for resolution.

Mooney cites a study by Ohio State University professor Raymond Pingree, which studied how this approach to reporting affects people’s understanding of health care policy.

Study subjects were asked to read fake news stories in which two disputes about the contents of a healthcare bill were either left unresolved, or factually adjudicated. … What kind of article they’d read had a significant effect: Those who’d read the “passive” story were more, er, postmodern in outlook. They were less sure they could discern the truth (if it existed).

Pingree thinks our politics suffer as a result. “That may make it easier for people to just quit following politics at all, or to accept dishonesty in politicians,” he states.

Michael Janeway, a former reporter, writes about this decline of faith in politics in his 1999 book Republic of Denial. In the introduction, he quotes the late, great David Broder (who died yesterday at age 81):

“If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no point in trying to stay informed.”

How many intelligent, thoughtful people do you know who are completely disengaged from politics or the media because they simply don’t know who to trust anymore?

If nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools.

So how does this manifest itself in the climate and energy discussion?

Yesterday, the New York Times published a recap of Tuesday’s congressional climate hearing headlined, “At House EPA Hearing, Both Sides Claim Science.”

In the story, reporter John Broder (no relation to David Broder) plays the role of stenographer (UPDATE: for a line-by-line deconstruction of the article, see Joseph Romm’s blog). The conclusion?

Despite some fireworks, the handful of members from both parties who attended the hearing left with the views they arrived with. The subcommittee is expected to approve the bill later this week.

That’s it. While Broder does use the words “scientific consensus,” there is no effort to weigh the credibility of testimony from some of the world’s top climate scientists against that of witnesses that Republicans brought in to debunk them, or even some dubious scientific claims from the lawmakers themselves.

The story reads like coverage of a divorce trial. Which is funny, because during the hearing, Rep. Jay Inslee complained about how “the media report on science like a divorce trial.”

Incidentally, you won’t find that quote in the Times piece, but you will find it in this story from the Guardian, which leads thusly:

Democrats have attempted to get Republicans to confront the science on climate change, in an effort to halt moves to block regulation of greenhouse gas pollution. But it’s not clear that the appeal to reason worked.

In an increasingly contentious hearing, Republicans insisted that science on climate change was “not settled” or accused world-recognised experts who had been called to testify of holding “elitist and arrogant views”.

See the difference? The Guardian makes it clear that while there were two “sides” to the discussion, only one of them was actually grounded in established science. Disagree with the science if you want, but at least this story gives you a firm footing for making a judgment about who you want to believe.

The coverage of the climate hearing prompted David Roberts of Grist to share the story of a conversation he had about climate change with a cab driver in New York:

He’s not totally sure what he thinks, but he’s heard enough contradictory facts and theories to render the whole thing fishy.

What he wants, he said more than once, is someone just to talk to him like he’s an adult — no BS, no agenda, no emotional manipulation. “Just givitame straight!” he kept saying. What he obviously craves is clarity, just to get the damn thing settled.

On the New York Times story, Roberts continues:

…the average reader will come away with no way of weeding through the claims, no perspective or context, no incremental gain in understanding. Nobody will know anything they didn’t know before, just that a bunch of politicians in D.C. are bickering.

All I can picture is Steve, rolling his eyes in frustration.

Me, too.

Photo by Lourdes Nightingale via Creative Commons

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