He said – She said – Part Two

300px-argument_clinic.pngCrikey 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 of my friend George Orwell – how serious this issue is. For me it’s the difference between reason and unreason, sanity and its opposite. Anyway, Troppodillians, and those who’ve wandered over from Crikey, the Crikey post is below the fold, and I welcome any discussion it generates.

He said she said journalism: New York Times shows the way

George Orwell said that respectability being given to the proposition that two plus two equals five frightens me much more than bombs.

But theres one place where our sanity is challenged like this every day. Our media.

The essence of he said she said journalism is the wide eyed reporting of opposing sides of an argument as if their very being in opposition confers on each some inherent claim for equal respect.

As Paul Krugman puts it, if a presidential candidate said the earth was flat, the headline would be Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point. After all, the earth isnt perfectly spherical.

Like reality TV, the equally ubiquitous he said she said journalism generates cheap content. The latest scrap is reported by a journalist with minimal knowledge of the area and the reader ends up none the wiser.

Heres an innocent example.

In yesterdays Age (it took a while for Crikey to publish this piece) Josh Gordon reported on a scrap about the Victorian Governments debt.

With consistent operating surpluses forecast to continue, Victorian Government borrowing will rise to less than three per cent of state product to fund infrastructure investment. If you think thats wrong or scary youre ignorant of the simplest household economics.

But Gordons story was that Victorian Treasurer John Brumby was on the defensive about state debt. Why? Because his opponent attacked him. But thats not news is it?

But maybe something is stirring. The New York Times recently reported some statistical analysis showing that white umpires fouled black players disproportionately and (to a lesser degree) vice versa. NBA spinmeisters had commissioned their own study which said the opposite (surprise, surprise!).

He said – she said.

But the Times did what journalists should always attempt even if theyve only got time for a phone call. It sought and reported on independent advice confirming the original studys superiority. Times readers had the information to form an informed opinion rather than the usual cynical shrug of the shoulders.

A whole lot more of that and we might, slowly, dig our way out of the morass all around us.

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16 years ago


Even worse is when “he said, she said” journalists call a public official, senior adviser etc etc with a prepackaged “he said” sort of comment that they want the person to say. Rather thanasking a penetrating question displaying knowledge of the subject matterthe journalist sets up a sentence along the lines of senior government officials say X in relation to Y.

16 years ago

From Paul Krugman:

Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, “Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.”

Responsible journalism requires at least a cursory effort to determine the facts of the matter.

Here Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne discuss how this he said-she said practice has been exploited by evolution denialists. They say, “evolution is wrong”. Then when scientists say, “no, it isn’t”, they say, “see, there’s a controversy. You must teach (and report) both sides.”

Of course this couldn’t happen in other contexts… could it?

16 years ago

Oh, look this isn’t an argument. It’s just contradiction!

16 years ago

There are white players in the NBA?

16 years ago

An argument isn’t just contradiction, Nick.

NOTE: my tolerance for where this is going may be higher than that of CT readers generally.

16 years ago

No it isn’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. It’s not just contradiction.


[…] bemoaning the Bush Govt’s lack of accountability.

16 years ago

Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.