The end of ‘he said – she said’ journalism?

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Well that’s too much to hope for. I’ve posted on ‘he said – she said’ journalism at least once before. Like reality TV ‘he said – she said’ journalism is the logical consequence of the economics of profit driven newspaper reporting of politics. The journalists’ knowledge is never taxed and the entertainment just keeps pouring off the presses. John Howard says that WorkChoices has created lots of jobs and Kevin Rudd says it hasn’t. If you don’t think that’s very entertaining, that’s just the ‘hook’. The entertainment, the readers reason for reading can then be provided (again by someone who doesn’t need to know anything of the issues) courtesy of some stories about how people behaved in Parliament – perhaps someone got chucked out or showed some untoward signs of exasperation. – or about how this will ‘play’ in the electorate and who has managed to put the best spin on it. Thus the pundits reflect on how successfully or owtherwise they’re being spun to. A strange business but then no doubt there have been stranger occupations.

As the great economic journalist Paul Krugman (he’s a very good economist but a truly great economic journalist) says:

If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.

So it was with immense pleasure that I read Andrew Leigh’s post in which he reports the NYT report of Justin Wolfers’ statistical work that found that white umpires tended to foul black players to a disproportionate degree and (to a lesser extent) visa versa. Wolfers and his co-author Joseph Price had sent an advance copy of their findings to the league who had got their spinmeisters onto it commissioning their own study which – lo and behold – debunked the original study.

He said – she said. Except that the NYT decided to do what journalists should always do (even if there’s not much time a couple of phone calls might give you something useful to say). It sought its own expert advice and reported that.

Three independent experts asked by The Times to examine the Wolfers-Price paper and materials released by the N.B.A. said they considered the Wolfers-Price argument far more sound. The three experts who examined the Wolfers-Price paper and the N.B.A.s materials were Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, the author of Pervasive Prejudice? and an expert in testing for how subtle racial bias, also known as implicit association, appears in interactions ranging from the setting of bail amounts to the tipping of taxi drivers; David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield, the author of The Wages of Wins, which analyzes sports issues using statistics; and Larry Katz of Harvard University, the senior editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Recently I was asked by a lecturer in Journalism at RMIT to give a talk to senior journalism students on blogging – and invitation I accepted with alacrity. But I said I also wanted to talk about ‘he said – she said’ journalism and the death of Western Civilisation (well I didn’t mention that last bit but that’s the way I feel about this blight on our capacity to think straight). Perhaps Western Civilisation is stirring again. Not before time.

Troppodillians’ advice on what I should say to the senior journalism students including but not limited to strategies to bring ‘he said – she said’ journalism to its knees will be gratefully received both by me and by the senior journalism students who, after my talk, will go out and save Western Civilisation.

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Andrew
Andrew
14 years ago

“white umpires tended to foul black players to a disproportionate degree and (to a lesser extent) visa versa.”

Do they foul white players using the front of the credit card rather than the back? I know that American football is full of arcane details but this is ridiculous.

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

When I first read the NYT story, I thought ‘how clever – only a paper with the resources of the NYT could do that’. Then I realised the obvious point: that all the workload was on the professors, not the journalists. And the academics didn’t look like they minded at all. Like you, I expect, I’d be happy to play independent arbiter at least a few times a year.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Nicholas,

The main advise I would offer is to impress upon them that if they wish to keep an independent mind, they’re going to have to a lifelong habit of feeling comfortable with the notion that their private opinions may be wrong and thus to never cease updating their best guess of how things work. A good way to do that is to stay friendly and in touch with people you radically disagree with because they will invariably find data sources and arguments you wouldnt find yourself. Hence tell ‘m to keep contacts with the likes of yourself and to never fall into the trap of completely believing any story, even if it is genuinely best-guess.
And if that sounds patronising, well, that seems to be what they ask for.

Robert Merkel
14 years ago

It’s probably too late for this cohort, but it’d be nice to tell first-year journalism students that they should take at least one statistics course during their time at university.

patrickg
14 years ago

Hmmm, don’t compromise, I guess.

The entire structure of journalism encourages you to compromise your ethics, writing, and standards for dealing with people.

It’s easy to take baby steps at a time – writing good pieces for a shitty paper, writing shitty pieces for a good publication, writing shitty pieces because the topic is shitty, but it lets you write a good piece on a better topic next time, writing shitty pieces because you have to pay the rent – until one day, you look in the mirror and you see Piers Ackerman looking back.

At least that’s how it felt when I was doing it, and I’ve never felt as ethically compromised since.

My advice would be don’t do it full-time, if you expect every piece to be good quality work. It won’t happen, and the inevitability can be horrible.

And also: Don’t think it’s okay because everyone else in the field does it. They’re hacks.

mangoman
mangoman
14 years ago

I am not a journalist – just a reader, listener, watcher – but please Nicholas tell any student that you can that they do not entertain with the ‘he said – she said’ rubbish. In fact they infuriate. It seems to me that their lack of capacity to do their job properly is contributing to the dumbing down of the population or at least creating a new class system with those in the know and those who aren’t.

We increasingly look to the media for a constant feed of information and analysis. When the media fail to do the job competently myths develop, leaders are left unaccountable and ignorance/apathy become fashionable.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

This is all well and good, but there’s an assumption being made that the journalist’s approach to an issue is basically a matter of competence, resources and habits. As if all we need to do is work on these, and we’ll have much more useful and critical journalists. But many journalists in the mainstream media are working for proprieters who don’t necessarily want the truth to come out. Censoring is too crude, so they’ll insist that their editors present ‘both sides of the story’, even when one side is transparent corporate spin, as in the baseball story. The editors in turn demand this of individual journalists.

Numbers Man
Numbers Man
14 years ago

I work in the climate change field and have quite a bit of contact with the media on a fairly regular basis. I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a journalist (a long-standing contact) who mentioned in passing that journalists at that newspaper were instructed by management (the editor) to get quotes from contrarians on climate change issues. Influencing journalists to move away from he said-she said journalism is a good thing, but it probably isn’t going to be enough if management (sometimes ideologically driven management) demands it.

patrickg
14 years ago

You’re dead right James, and most journos are lucky if it even gets to the stage where an editor needs to say something like that about a specific piece. In my experience, they’ll say it once, and you’ll do it ever after, or they’ll say it when they give you the brief.

Nicholas, I hate journalists as much as the next guy, but in their defence, it’s not always laziness. When you have an hour or two to get an eight hundred word piece in, with three quotes and a statshot, time – and quality – is not something you have, and most editors tend to care about the former, but not so much the latter.

Girl on The Avenue
14 years ago

Bravo. You have a point. On the other hand…

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[…] Nicholas Gruen thinks Australian journalists could learn a thing or two from the NYT’s Allan Schwartz. Steve Levitt does too. For what it’s worth, any Australian newpaper journalist who wants an independent referee’s view on an economics paper is welcome to touch base. Particularly on controversial issues, I do think that the Schwartz method has a lot going for it. […]

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
14 years ago

I agree with PatrickG, having worked as a journo there are many situations where there is inadequate time to tease out the complexities. I know you are taught at uni to avoid “churning out stories” but with time constraints and editors asking for “copy” to fill the spaces with limited staff, stories all too often are produced on the run.

While I’ve never worked at any of the better staffed major media companies where there might be a little more latitude, my experience of being expected to produce a story within the hour (or close to) does tend to dimish the possibility of being able to produce articles that provide the sort of context that I as a reader would have demanded (with rigorous fact-checking all too easily overlooked). It is for this reason that I used to joke to myself at some of the more ridiculous times that I was the “official press-release reiterator.” The only way I’ve found to avoid this was to find some sort of compromise between quality and quantity. You just have to pick winners, and you have to delegate some stories to being “space-filling articles” which when down briskly enable you to pursue the more important stories in at least something close to detail. Sadly some of these “space-filling articles” are unjustly pumped out to the dictates of the word factory, and with a little more time could have communicated a lot more to the reader. I’ve all too often been in the situation where I have been assigned or uncovered what my editor would consider a minor 200-400 word piece where some source has provided a wealth of material in which I have only scratched the surface. Tragic.

Tibbles
Tibbles
14 years ago

What a concept…so, who’s keen on seeing journos apply it to all those Australian gun law studies? ;)

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[…] ran a piece of mine today heavily reworked from my earlier Troppo post on ‘he said – she said’ journalism. In it I tried to further articulate – with the help […]