Is "He Said, She Said, We're Clueless" Coverage Dying?

By Chris Mooney | April 13, 2009 9:46 am

Jay Rosen has an interesting post about “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism, and credits my 2004 CJR article which was one early contribution to critiquing this form of reporting. (Jesus, I’ve been doing this for too long.)

There’s a reason the critique of false “balance” emerged, in significant part, from the science journalism world. In CJR, I was very much channeling the complaints of many evolutionary and climate scientists, who were outraged by media coverage and continually pointed out that since there’s no such thing as “balance” in science, reporting about science which employs such a paradigm often gets the story completely wrong. Indeed, such reporting empowers anti-science voices, who continually demand that their outlier stances be treated on a par with scientific consensus positions.

Anyways, Rosen explains the advantages of “he said, she said” from the journalistic perspective–basically, it saves a reporter from the trouble of having to do any serious intellectual work (it also has political advantages)–but then also postulates that it’s “in decline”:

Today, any well informed blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can easily find the materials to point out an instance [of] false balance or the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Professional opinion has therefore shifted and among the better journalists, some of whom I know, it is no longer acceptable to defend he said, she said treatments when the materials are available to call out distortions and untruths.

Um…maybe. It depends on who these “better” journalists are and whether they will still have a job in five years.

I will concede that there’s a creme of sophisticated print journalists who get the problem with phony balance. But I mean, if you watch CNN or something, it’s as omnipresent as ever. Moreover, cutbacks in the media industry, and the slaughter of journalistic “expertise” that has occurred as various kinds of media specialists (like science journalists) lose their jobs, makes the lazy crutch of “balance” more likely than ever to prevail.

For here’s another advantage to “he said, she said” from a media industry perspective: It’s cheap. Any intern can write a “balanced” story. You don’t need seasoned career journalists if that’s the kind of fare you’re producing. You definitely don’t need to pay their healthcare and pensions.

So I just don’t buy the idea that the blogosphere can beat back “he said, she said” in the media business. Once again, I see it as a basic matter of industry economics; and so far as that goes, all the trends seem to be in the direction of more journalistic laziness and lack of expertise, rather than less….

Comments (11)

  1. MadScientist

    I suspect pigs will fly before there is a large proportion of responsible journalists. Can you imagine a paper not running the latest story on Jenny McCarthy and her claims that vaccines cause autism? Papers make stories to sell copies to get income from advertising (and distribution). Carrying that to the extreme you get rags such as the “Sunday Telegraph” or “People’s Weekly” etc. I wonder what fraction of the population would genuinely be interested in truthful news?

  2. You illustrate again why I don’t see why you think scientists can do anything to improve science journalism. In this case, scientists had been complaining about ‘he said, she said’ for more than a decade before 2004. Had a total of zero effect on the journalism.

    Fellow I know had this story happen to him in the late 1980s. Told me about it in 1990. The TV show ‘Nightline’ called him up to, as they put it ‘be against CO2′ (as an agent of climate change). They already had their person for on the one hand, and needed one for the other hand. That’s all. Not that the science was, even at that time, equal on the two sides. Or that he was a leading scientific voice ‘against CO2′. As he put it, he had nothing against the molecule; perfectly decent molecule. Nor did he have any argument with the fact that it’s a greenhouse gas that had been rising due to human activities. Nor any argument that what you expect from an increase in greenhouse gases is warming. He did have some concerns about how strong the conclusions were that were being drawn from what he felt weren’t always strong data or model sources. But that was all. Nothing suitable for ‘he said, she said’.

    I agree that the media business is heading for the bottom, the laziest, least skilled, journalism. It’s been doing so for at least 30 years now, so no surprise that it still is. That bottom includes the ‘he said, she said’, as well as thinking that George Will gets to make up his own ‘facts’.

    Neither scientists nor blogosphere is going to change that. What the blogosphere can do is show what superior journalism looks like.

  3. “On the one hand, on the other hand” almost always creates a false choice.

    It’s been going on for longer than 30 years. It started when two-newspaper towns started disappearing because the local advertising base could only support one. Since newspapers back in the 1800s were very often political creatures that presented stories as facts in support of a political program, the disappearance of one newspaper very much represented a decrease in advocacy for ideas competing for supremacy in the political marketplace. Publishers of the remaining single newspaper saw that rather than continuing to alienate up to half their potential readers, it would be better to rearrange their systems so they could promote themselves as dispassionate providers of all points of view on any given issue.

    That it enabled lazy journalism that allows no one to reach a useful conclusion is pretty much a byproduct. Once an information center like a newspaper incorporates “let’s not offend x” into its newsgathering paradigm, the quality of the final product is inevitably suspect.

    That’s a nutshell version, but since it’s based in economics I say it’s a lot more sensible than a media conspiracy to confuse everyone. :-)

  4. It is all a matter of counting the audience. Joe Romm claims 10,000 users reading what is produced at Climate Progress. That is pretty good for the blogosphere. I have no idea what the Intersection gets.

    Still, CNN and all of other “balanced” reporting sites would be dead with only 10K viewers.

    As long as this is the paradigm, then the blogosphere needs to find a way to add two zeros to the right side of their reader/visitor numbers.

    When the good, honest blogs get to the point where they have the readership of the LA Times, which is itself in economic trouble, then we will be truly changing minds.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  5. I’d agree that the “one side says this, the other side says that, who can say what’s really true” form of journalism is alive and well. And conservatives are more willing than ever to exploit it by any means necessary. Why worry about telling journalists the truth if those reporters don’t really care whether you’re lying?

  6. Thank god if that bullshit goes away. It’s a key sign of the decline of the media.

  7. Carman

    If scientists and journalists or bloggers can’t really do anything to improve science journalism then we all may as well pack up our pens and go home. Seriously, people … I know that the state of science writing is pretty discouraging right now, but if earnest, responsible journalists _don’t_ think they can change the way science is discussed and if scientists just give up on communicating their craft with the rest of the world, I’m pretty sure it isn’t gonna get better any time soon.

  8. Carman: Scientists aren’t giving up on communicating their work to the rest of the world. If anything, they are much more active at it now than 10, 20, 30 years ago. Less of it is happening by way of scientists being interviewed by journalists, true. But, then, with the plummeting circulation figures for print, scientists could be just as active (rather, journalists could be just as active) and it would still be the case that science communication to the public by print would be plummeting.

    Instead, these days there is far more communication happening direct from scientists to public — by way of scientists blogging. There are other avenues as well, such as the Cafe Scientifique. So I have a blog, and have talked at a local science cafe a couple of times in the last year. But it’s more than a decade since a journalist called me up about my science.

  9. @Robert Grumbine: you realize, of course, that a Cafe scientifique is talking to an “army” of, let’s say, tens of converts.

    As for blogs, the very plausible future is a two solitudes world: on one side, very specialized news, on specialized science blogs or other “niche media”, read by very specialized audiences. One the other side, generalists media (newspapers-on-the-web or whatever) with a much larger audience, but who will not receive any science news, or maybe just a little bit, because all influent readers (and, who knows, publicity too) will have said: it’s a failure. Let’s concentrate on “real” science news done by specialized science journalists and bloggers like “ourselves”.

  10. Pascal: In your haste to disagree with me, please read what I write anyhow. I noted that I had spoken a couple times at a local science cafe. I do, then, have an idea of what my audience size was like. It is indeed a matter of tens. Tens who hear accurate information is a big improvement over thousands or millions who get ‘he said, she said’. It’d be even better if I had an audience of the thousands or millions.

    The commercial side, per Chris’s note, has already decided that science doesn’t sell. Actually long since. They’re increasingly acting on that aside from a very small few exceptions like Discover itself. The choice is not one between scientists putting info out directly to the public, with science journalists finding other careers, versus scientists communicating only to the journalists, and journalists then having major platforms to spread the information far and wide. Science journalism is disappearing, for a number of reasons — including ‘he said, she said’.

    Our choice is, increasingly, scientists get out and do what we can, or for nobody knowledgeable about science to talk about it. Rather than sit on my hands, which I realize there’s at least one voice from the journalism world who says I (and almost all other scientists) should, I speak to my audiences of tens (Cafes, once or twice a year) or hundreds (my blog, daily average).

    If there’s anything that I can do to improve science journalism, by all means let me know. I’m certainly not refusing to talk to journalists, or papers. But the Washington Post illustrated with Will that, as I’ve observed before, papers don’t care about what scientists have to say about science.

  11. Journalism’s current model doesn’t allow for expertise on the part of the reporter, nor any sort of pontification common to the opinion page. All you can do is report the conflict as even. See climate change denial for an example. I made good mileage playing this angle in my novel Warm Front. Yesterday’s Washington Post article on the minority view is a good start on unevening the odds on the side of truth. That’s what is needed. Blame editors for that, They are science averse and timid about making a stand of any sort for fear of offending advertisers.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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