News, Analysis, and Opinion

The continuing calls to abandon objectivity in reporting in favor of a particular agenda.

In “When facts have a liberal bias, New York Times editors can get squirmy,” Dan Froomkin hits on a familiar hobby horse. This time, he uses the vehicle of social issues investigative reporter who worked at the nation’s Newspaper of Record for 21 years before taking a buyout in 2017.

Nina Bernstein was covering homelessness for the New York Times in 1999 when then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his intention to lock homeless families out of the city’s shelters for even minor rule violations.

Bernstein wrote an article about how a similar policy was working in nearby Suffolk County, leading with the story of a family of eight reduced to sleeping on a fellow church member’s linoleum floor. She reported that some families were expelled because of bureaucratic mistakes.

Simply by describing the facts, Bernstein was making Giuliani’s plan look cruel. And that created problems for her in the newsroom.

“Getting it in the paper involved overcoming lots of editor pushback,” Bernstein recalled. She and I spoke on the phone and exchanged emails.

It was a problem she ran into with some frequency: “To write factually, up close, with what I like to call intelligent compassion about these people’s lives basically invited charges of partisanship.”

After a discussion about the multi-layered editorial process at the NYT, where midlevel editors are especially squeamish about appearing to show favor, he wholeheartedly endorses her suggestion for a fix:

Bernstein said that one simple – though not easy – way that reporters could improve coverage of policy is to vow, like she did early in her career, to include in every story at least one real person who would be affected by the policy.

She had high praise for a December 1 New York Times story by Reed Abelson, Sarah Kliff, Margot Sanger-Katz and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, which described the health policy provisions of the Build Back Better Act as “the biggest step toward universal coverage since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.” Each section of the article began with the story of a person who would be affected by the changes.

“Add a person to every policy story, to ground it in truth,” she said — “to show what’s actually at stake.”

It’s also the ethical thing to do: “At a time of incredibly wide inequality, to leave out the voices of people who don’t read the New York Times or don’t read the Washington Post but who are dramatically affected by these debates, is irresponsible,” she said.

“It’s not good journalism. They are parties to this. They should be parties to this.” That’s even though, as she put it, “no, they won’t call your editor.”

And leaving out real people in stories about investments in such things as health care and education is a disservice to readers who may not understand the needs.

“There clearly are a lot of people in this country who have no clue about the daily lives of the people who are hanging on to the hollowed-out middle class,” Bernstein said.

I couldn’t disagree more. Anecdotes are used to frame far too many stories as it is, putting the focus on emotionalism over data. And, while data can certainly be cherry-picked to support a point of view, anecdotes almost guarantee it.

Further, if you start off your “reporting” with the assurance that we are living in a “time of incredibly wide inequality” and must therefore “invest” in various services in order to enrich “the daily lives of the people who are hanging on to the hollowed-out middle class,” you’re not a reporter at all but an advocate. Which is fine. But advocacy journalism is what Froomkin does, not what the NYT is supposed to be doing on its news pages.

What Froomkin is calling for is not an insistence on reporting “facts,” which don’t have a bias at all, but a radical transformation of the basic ethic of American journalism since it professionalized a century-plus ago. It’s one thing to reject, as Jay Rosen has famously done, a “view from nowhere” and another altogether to embrace a progressive agenda as the natural starting point for news coverage.

So, for example, there aren’t two equal “sides” in reporting on the science of climate change. There is an almost universal consensus on the fact that the average temperature of the earth is slowly rising and a pretty strong consensus that human beings are contributing significantly to this phenomenon and what the likely impacts of that trend continuing will be. It would be irresponsible, indeed, to ensure that every story on the subject is “balanced” with an equal number of quotes from the tiny number of dissenting scientists. The legitimate debate on the topic is on the policy front: what options are available to us and what are their costs and benefits.

Similarly, while stories on the continuing controversies over the outcome of the 2020 election need to point out the polling data showing how many Americans claim to believe the election was stolen, they should highlight the overwhelming evidence that it was not. There are two sides to the story but they’re not on equal factual footing. The real story, then, is why so many believe otherwise.

Where it gets problematic is in the space between news reporting and pure opinion pieces that I think of as “analysis.”

Both Bernstein and Froomkin favorably cite a November 12 NYT* article by Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon, headlined “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream.” Bernstein gushes, “What made it remarkable was that it was a political story that didn’t obscure or downplay the facts with both-sides boilerplate.”

It was indeed excellent reporting and was the basis for my piece the next morning* titled “Trump, the GOP, and Stochastic Terrorism.” It was deservedly on the front page of the day’s print edition. What I didn’t note at the time, as media criticism was not the purpose of that post (which I’d actually started several days earlier with a different news hook) was that the piece really should have had a banner identifying it as Analysis rather than news reporting.

Analysis occupies a space between news and opinion and I’m not entirely sure what standards have evolved or should apply to it. Lerer and Herndon lay out a lot of factual information, none of it “news” in the sense of having happened in the last day or two, and place it in historical and cultural context. Their thesis, which I believe they support, is “From congressional offices to community meeting rooms, threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party.” That’s not truly a fact—in that opinions can differ as to what constitutes “a significant segment of the Republican Party”—but it’s not pure opinion, either, in that the essay points to multiple incidents that indisputably occurred. There are numerous instances of that sort of thing in the essay: disputable conclusions drawn from indisputable facts.

I think analysis pieces have their place in journalism. Even on the front page of the NYT. But I do think we should carefully separate them from true “news” stories so that the reader doesn’t get the impression that the NYT is taking sides on partisan disputes as a regular part of its reporting.

To go back to the story that led off Froomkin’s piece, it was certainly disputable in 1999 whether Giuliani’s no-tolerance policy for misconduct in homeless shelters was sound. One imagines that women and families with small children who needed shelter felt unsafe in the presence of drug addicts and violently mentally ill people in these spaces. An anecdote from someone in some other shelter in some other situation—especially one chosen by a reporter with an agenda—really adds little useful information to the debate. It would have been more useful to get quotes from the Giuliani administration explaining why they were introducing the policy, get quotes from other politicians explaining why they opposed it, and then interview legitimate experts on homeless policy to get broader insights from various policy experiments.

Midlevel editors at the NYT are right to bend over backward to avoid reinforcing the perception that their reporters, who are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Democratic Party and its policies, have a partisan ax to grind. Knowing that Bernstein had natural sympathies should in fact have made her editors especially vigilant in fact-checking and ensuring her reporting was fair.

Fact-checking and ensuring those on both sides of policy disputes are fairly represented doesn’t mean pretending that there are not natural conclusions to be drawn from the available evidence. But, if reporters and editors go in believing that “facts have a liberal bias,” they will inevitably present the facts in a biased manner.

________________________

*The piece was published on the NYT website the evening of the 12th and was on the front page of the next morning’s print edition under a slightly different headline.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Media, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    Further, if you start off your “reporting” with the assurance that we are living in a “time of incredibly wide inequality” and must therefore “invest” in various services in order to enrich “the daily lives of the people who are hanging on to the hollowed-out middle class,” you’re not a reporter at all but an advocate. Which is fine. But advocacy journalism is what Froomkin does, not what the NYT is supposed to be doing on its news pages.

    So, now I’m curious about something. I would have thought that “we live in a time of incredibly wide inequality” is more of an empirical statement than an opinion. I recall seeing lots of support for this in reports of things like Gini coefficient.

    The “and therefore we must …” is, of course, opinion. But what you say seems to lump them both as opinion?

    Anecdotes that put a reader face to face with the consequences of a policy are indeed only part of the story. One needs to know how often this happens. And if one is numerate enough, you can put that in context. However, raw statistics about consequences aren’t engaging, and many, many readers don’t have the numerical tools to go from them to some accurate map of reality.

    I mean, we’ve seen that with covid, right? People can look at the numbers and be either terrified or dismissive. But when they know someone who’s had it…

    And by the way, I think the “view from nowhere” is bunk. I’m on board with Rosen. Honesty and fairness are more important than “unbiased” which is impossible.

    9
  2. JKB says:

    The journalism in once staid brands has become quite yellow. Even if they avoid the formats attributed to the historical yellow journalism publications. But they have moved to sensationalism, “dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system,” “exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering,” “use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts,” to name a few attributes that aren’t just formatting.

    And here James deals with the, “dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.” For which, the anecdote is the favored hook. Just because they don’t use multi-column format and huge headlines, doesn’t mean that the “journalism” in the body of the articles isn’t yellow to the core. After all eye-catching and misleading headlines is how you get clicks, anecdotes are how you create emotional buy-in to “click for more” and exaggerations of news events is how you get the social media user coming back for more and the podcaster, blogger and Twitter user talking about your article.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Meadows, it turns out, was using his personal phone, two gmail accounts, and a personal encrypted messaging app to conduct government business. Most of the Trump administration, and the W administration, behaved similarly. But nary a peep from NYT or anyone else. But FTFNYT sure dove enthusiastically down the HEREMAILZZZZ!! rabbit hole. There really is something wrong in the MSM generally and NYT specifically.

    They’re better now. They ignored Hunter Biden’s laptop and they sometimes fact check GOP lies in real time. But we’ll wait to see if that practice extends beyond the narrow topics of elections and COVID.

    Every now and again I waste a few minutes commenting or emailing begging FTFNYT not to be loyal to liberals, or Democrats, but to objective reality.

    10
  4. Scott F. says:

    Fact-checking and ensuring those on both sides of policy disputes are fairly represented doesn’t mean pretending that there are not natural conclusions to be drawn from the available evidence. But, if reporters and editors go in believing that “facts have a liberal bias,” they will inevitably present the facts in a biased manner.

    This strikes me as unilateral disarmament in the post-factual public arena we find ourselves in now. You’re asking for awfully high standards of integrity from mainstream media when making up sh!t is so in vogue…

    Malone: [talking privately in a church] You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?
    Ness: Anything within the law.
    Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.

  5. EddieInCA says:

    Bullshit James.

    We live in a time where the media reports the equivalent of the following:

    Dems say 2+2=4
    GOP says 2+2=27
    The media says “Parties split on math of 2+2.”
    You seem to want this sort of media behavior. I don’t. I want bullshit called out. Every time.

    One side is insane. One side is trying to govern.
    One side is trying to burn it al down. One side is trying to govern.
    One side is breaking the norms at historic levels. One side is trying to govern.

    Report the facts. They DO have a liberal bias. But only because conservatives have lost their minds.

    13
  6. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.:

    This strikes me as unilateral disarmament in the post-factual public arena we find ourselves in now. You’re asking for awfully high standards of integrity from mainstream media when making up sh!t is so in vogue…

    High standards are required more now than ever. We rely on a small number of outlets to gather news that rational people can agree is likely reported accurately, at least as far as the good-faith efforts of the reporters and editors can determine. This reporting is crucial as a starting point for the entire system.

    I don’t mind the NYT having an Editorial Board, so long as there’s a clear wall between News and Editorial. And, as noted in the piece, I think there’s room for the in-between Analysis pieces in the hard news section. But they should be scrupulously edited to ensure that they’re not gloried op-eds and clearly labeled so the reader understands what they’re reading.

    2
  7. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA:

    The media says “Parties split on math of 2+2.”
    You seem to want this sort of media behavior. I don’t. I want bullshit called out. Every time.

    As I think the piece makes clear, I don’t at all want simple stenography of what “both sides” say. I think that, yes, they should report what the major voices in the Democratic and Republican leadership are saying. But they should absolutely provide enough additional context for the reader to ascertain the difference.

    Where we may differ is that I don’t think it’s the role of straight news reporting to say “Trump is lying.” That’s editorializing. Rather, they should say “Trump says X,” followed by either “He provided no evidence for this assertion and the facts are A, B, and C” or “The basis for this assertion is D, E, and F but these claims have been widely discredited. Here’s the evidence for that. We reached out to his people for comment and they responded thusly.”

    It’s true that my preferred approach won’t dissuade die-hards that Trump is spewing falsehoods. But your approach simply ensures that Republicans won’t read the NYT.

    4
  8. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Where we may differ is that I don’t think it’s the role of straight news reporting to say “Trump is lying.” That’s editorializing

    No. No. No. There is such thing as objective truth. Not everything is subjective. If someone lies, actually lies, and is reported as such, it’s NOT editorializing. It’s reporting.

    2+2=4, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. It’s not hard, Dr. Joyner. You’re jumping through hoops to seem fair when certain situations don’t need fairness. They need truth.

    14
  9. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA:

    If someone lies, actually lies, and is reported as such, it’s NOT editorializing. It’s reporting.

    To know whether someone is lying requires understanding their state of mind, which is unknowable. “2+2=5” could be a lie, a joke, a mistake, a sign of stupidity, a sign of mental illness, or all manner of things. Give the reader facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

    5
  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hmm. I’m torn. I want facts and I want analysis, and I want them both clearly labeled. I don’t like the use of anecdotes in straight reporting, the anecdotes are cherry-picked to prove a point and I don’t like my facts served with a sauce of carefully curated emotion.

    That said, @EddieinCA is correct that calling a lie a lie is factual reporting. If a pol says the sky is green polka dots I don’t see that there’s much controversy in labeling that a lie. Because it is a lie. Trump’s Big Lie is a lie, that’s not analysis, it’s not partisan, it’s not emotional manipulation, it’s a fact.

    10
  11. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Whether Trump or any particular person is lying or simply delusional is a conclusion, not a fact. That’s there’s zero evidence that the election was stolen—and the sheer idiocy that elected Republican leaders in places like Georgia somehow helped steal it—makes it a distinction without meaning at this point. I still prefer that Big Lie be kept on the editorial pages as a shorthand description but there was never a point where the charges deserved to be treated with any deference.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    The problem then is that you are excluding the entire concept of lies from political reporting. If a pol decides to announce that Jews are drinking the blood of Christian children, we need to be able to say: that is a lie. Anything less gives air to the lie.

    People are dying because people are lying. Our democracy is in peril because of lies. Ten years ago I’d have been with you, but since then outright lies have become the preferred political tool of the Republican Party and it is now irresponsible and dangerous not to clearly label lies as lies.

    11
  13. wr says:

    “It would have been more useful to get quotes from the Giuliani administration explaining why they were introducing the policy, get quotes from other politicians explaining why they opposed it, and then interview legitimate experts on homeless policy to get broader insights from various policy experiments.”

    So we should hear about major policy decisions from everyone in the world except anyone who is actually affected by them.

    So when, for instance, child tax rebates end next month, we should hear from Biden why they’re a good thing, from Manchin why they’re a bad thing, and then from some “legitimate experts,” probably on both sides so we can learn that having millions of hungry children is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who funds the think tank. But we should make no effort to find out first hand how this actually affects people by talking to them, because that’s editorializing.

    Sounds a lot like the “little people” should just shut up and do whatever their betters decide is right for them. Is that how we define “truth” these days?

    11
  14. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    You are assuming reasonable people acting in good faith. As Eddie in CA and Michael Reynolds have made clear, that is not the place we find ourselves.

    If one actor holds standards while the other holds none, advantage is given to the actor without standards. Additional rigor enforcing the standards doesn’t raise standards for all, it further distorts the advantage. In this moment of public discourse, we should only give our energy to calling out the lies.

    5
  15. Tim says:

    The line about how climate change is not in doubt and doesn’t need balanced coming 2 paragraphs after the disputing whether income inequality is real is the chef’s kiss of center-right thought.

    Here’s a hint, Mr. Joyner, they’re both real, empirical, and objective

    3
  16. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.:

    If one actor holds standards while the other holds none, advantage is given to the actor without standards.

    So, you’re taking the position that it’s the NYT vs the Republican Party? That they’re both actors taking sides in a political debate?

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If a pol decides to announce that Jews are drinking the blood of Christian children, we need to be able to say: that is a lie. Anything less gives air to the lie.

    I would more prefer the old Mike Wallace approach of forcing the pol to admit that he has no evidence for the assertion and just made it up. Absent that, I’d report that he offered no proof, declined to do so, and then get experts to tell me that it’s an old antisemitic trope used by the Nazis and others and, preferably, get leaders in the pol’s own party to denounce him on the record.

    Ten years ago I’d have been with you, but since then outright lies have become the preferred political tool of the Republican Party and it is now irresponsible and dangerous not to clearly label lies as lies.

    See above. And also my response to @Scott F: the NYT is in the business of reporting, not carrying water for Dems.

    1
  18. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would more prefer the old Mike Wallace approach of forcing the pol to admit that he has no evidence for the assertion and just made it up. Absent that, I’d report that he offered no proof, declined to do so, and then get experts to tell me that it’s an old antisemitic trope used by the Nazis and others and, preferably, get leaders in the pol’s own party to denounce him on the record.

    Yes, but you have somehow managed to leave out the key fact that what he said is FALSE, and we know it to be false. I can (barely) understand your squeamishness with regard to the verb “to lie”; I can’t understand why you keep burying the lede about truth and falsehood.

    5
  19. James Joyner says:

    @Tim: You’re taking a phrase out of the context of the sentence. I don’t doubt that income inequality exists. Hell, it always has. My point is that she was going into the reporting with a policy agenda.

    @DrDaveT: “Lie” requires knowing intent. That there is no credible reason to believe that the election was stolen is a fact. That someone claiming it was is lying is not.

    1
  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner: True–but we have ample evidence that Trump and his inner sanctum are HOSTILE to the very values of American Government. Their fundamental objective is to win and secure as much power as possible to enrich themselves and expand their personal influence using the mechanisms of the American soft empire. We can skip the chin stroking on intent here.

    In theory, you are correct. We don’t and shouldn’t go around calling people liars. In practice, for this specific conumdrum, what must be done—must be done. There is no diplomatic or gentlemen way out of this–because we aren’t dealing with gentlemen and diplomats. These are ruthless people that must be spoken to in the language they understand. They understand power plays–plain and simple.

    I will never forget the day my father, a middle-aged man at that time bowed up at 4-5 men dealing drugs in front of my grandparents house. He went out there as a gentlemen to no avail—when he flipped the switch and spoke gangster–they moved the fuck on. My pops was Nation of Islam for long time– so he would have had no issues going there with those punks.

    6
  21. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Brown 32: To be clear: I think the claims the election we stolen are a lie. I don’t know whether Trump himself is delusional or lying but I’m sure enough that most Republican leaders still claiming it at this point are liars and should be regarded that way by decent Americans. I don’t object to the NYT or WaPo editorial pages calling it a Big Lie. I merely object to news reporting calling things lies absent direct proof of contrary knowledge.

    3
  22. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    So, you’re taking the position that it’s the NYT vs the Republican Party? That they’re both actors taking sides in a political debate?

    It’s late in the day, so rather than wait to see if @Scott F.: replies, I’ll observe that it seems moderately obvious that the two actors are Dems and Rs. NYT isn’t a player, they’re the referee. As referee, NYT all too often seems to feel they’re being fair if they call an equal number of fouls against each. The “Both sides are mad at us” standard. The idea is to call more fouls against the guys who are cheating.

    3
  23. Dude Kembro says:

    @James Joyner:

    F: the NYT is in the business of reporting, not carrying water for Dems.

    LOL who, after Emailghazigatepalooza, and Clinton Cash, and Iraq War, and Whitewater, believes that there’s any chance of the NYT carrying water for the Dems?

    I’d be happy if the NYT tried reporting instead of carrying water for right wing lies and witch hunts.

    On that note, making sound and rational inferences has always been a part of reporting. Deciding an event is newsworthy and more worthy of reporting than some other event involves subjective judgment. It’s a misunderstanding of journalism to state that journalists should just give a list of facts and nothing more. They write in prose for a reason.

    It is perfectly reasonable, and within scope, for a reporter to infer that an individual who makes 10,000+ false statements is a lying liar. It would be childish and irresponsible for them to not reach such a conclusion.

    3
  24. gVOR08 says:

    Pragmatism saves an awful lot of wheelspinning over things that are unknowable. I don’t know what’s in Trump’s heart, I don’t even know he hs a heart in that usage of the word. Why worry about it? The question isn’t is he a “liar” in some moral sense, but can what he says be trusted. He cannot. If, in a vernacular sense, we call him a “liar” I fail to see any harm done. Seems a lot more direct than calling him “someone who often says things that aren’t true”.

    WAPO headline,

    In four years, President Trump made
    30,573 false or misleading claims

    . You OK with that? Sometimes that’s described as he lied 30,000 times. I’m OK with that.

    1
  25. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Give the reader facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

    The election was stolen.
    I’m worth 10 billion dollars.
    It did not rain during my inauguration until I finished, then it poured.
    I know nothing about the payment to Stormy Daniels.
    Our new health plan to replace Obamacare is coming in two weeks.
    I was Michigan’s Man of the Year.

    How does one report on these lies without calling them lies? To do anything else is to justify them.

    8
  26. Slugger says:

    The nature of facts can be slippery. Here’s an example: what actually happened during Tet 1968, victory for Hanoi, victory for the US, or bloodshed without victory? This is not settled these many years later. Walter Cronkite thought that it portended a stalemate (I’d guess Korea was fresh in his mind), and many were upset by that opinion. Of course, if he had said that seven years later Saigon would fall with US Marines pushing desperate people off helicopters, people would have been really upset.
    My point is that the border between facts and opinions is not always sharp. Someone always makes a judgment about what gets presented. Afghani fighters, bold Muhadjadeen or evil Taliban?

    1
  27. JohnSF says:

    Nazi Stormtroopers: bold nationalists or evil genocidalists?
    Who cares, just slaughter them all.

    3
  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr:

    then from some “legitimate experts,” probably on both sides so we can learn that having millions of hungry children is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who funds the think tank.

    Yeah. When I was teaching students to write argument/persuasive essays, I used to remind them that one of the filters for evaluating “expert opinion” was that it changes depending on how the expert makes his living. For example, experts who work for research facilities will almost always conclude that someone else’s breakthrough discovery is “interesting, but calls for more research to confirm its validity.”

    ETA: And yes, the little people shutting up and letting their betters decide what is right for them has always been how we define truth. Moreso as we cross social boundaries and become to whatever degree we see ourselves as members of those “betters” groups.

    1
  29. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    So, you’re taking the position that it’s the NYT vs the Republican Party? That they’re both actors taking sides in a political debate?

    Well, in my position “like for like” would be the NYT vs. Fox, but the dynamic also works for the Democratic Party vs the Republican Party. In both cases, the rightists have left reason and good-faith far behind.

    I think you know this, because you tend to leave the GOP and their propaganda organs out of the discussion. So we get a post about weak standards of journalism at the NYT that ignores Fox News and their tendency to outright falsify while flagrantly blurring the lines between their news division and their pundits. And on the same day we get a post about how the Democrats have failed to come to terms with their obstinate Senator from WV that doesn’t acknowledge Republican monolithic obstruction as the reason BBB has to play out completely within Democratic politics.

    You’re a reasonable guy, so it makes sense that you would want a debate grounded in reason and clear facts, evidence, and data. So, when fully half of the public opinion ecosystem is trafficking in conspiracy theories, propaganda, and (yes) lies, then I can understand how it would seem pointless to quibble about the finer points of journalistic integrity or political strategy with such an ungrounded crowd. But, you are ignoring the elephant in the room. The rightists are successfully influencing an electorate that gets to choose our leaders. Reasonable people can‘t leave the rightists out of the discussion, thereby letting them off the hook, and have any hope of reasonable conclusions being drawn.

    5
  30. Kurtz says:

    @James Joyner:

    We rely on a small number of outlets to gather news that rational people can agree is likely reported accurately, at least as far as the good-faith efforts of the reporters and editors can determine.

    Isn’t this concept one of the major failures of neo-classical economics? Both political and economic realms have actors who are willing and able to reduce the rationality of an audience. Those abilities have only grown more sophisticated and effectual over time.

    Throw in that most people don’t follow politics closely most of the time and when they do it’s mostly focused on crude heuristics and key words and phrases, I think it’s tough to claim that focusing on facts will make a dent.

    The liberal media trope didn’t start in the 90s with the birth of Fox; its modern incarnation started in the era of professionalized journalism.

    Plus the selection of experts, which facts to present, and presentation are all sources of bias.

    If headlines are what really travel through the information laundry, a point you have made many times in the past, when does evidence even come into play?

    3
  31. MarkedMan says:

    Late to the game, and what I will say will please no one, but what the hell…

    This is the dumbest argument I’ve seen in a while (with one exception). Both “sides” are 97% in agreement but are getting their panties in a twist over semantics. “Lie” vs. “Falsehood”. James is asserting that to say something is a lie requires knowing someone’s inner state, full stop, end of story. Others feel that either some falsehoods are so egregious inner intent can be assumed, or that “lie” does not necessarily presuppose inner intent. Regardless, I’m pretty darn certain we all agree they are egregious and despicable falsehoods, that people with power have an obligation to speak the truth and whether someone in authority has a reckless disregard for the truth or is just a liar is just two equally vile servings of the same sh*t sandwich, and squarely puts the speaker in the same degenerate camp.

    What’s the one exception I mentioned above? WR @wr: hit the nail right on the head, but then no one else picked it up.

    1
  32. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: “WR @wr: hit the nail right on the head,”

    I feel charming,
    oh so charming,
    it’s alarming how charming I feel,
    and so pretty that I hardly can believe I’m real!

    1
  33. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: Re: 2+2

    But what you are asking, then, is for nobody to go out to the single mom who is directly affected by 2+2=27 logic and ask her how it’s affecting her.

    Policies have impact on real people. They are not just political games. Republican trickle-down economics (basically 2+2-27), for example, have injured a couple of generations and counting.

    Truthfulness needs to at least match the consistency and aggression displayed by the Republican liars.

    3
  34. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: @EddieInCA: Somehow, the three of us figured out that Trump is a despicable human being without the news pages of the NYT or WaPo directly putting that in the headlines. The facts speak for themselves.

    @wr: @Tony W: @MarkedMan: The problem with reporting-by-anecdote is that it’s inherently cherry-picked. How honest are these people in their self-accounting of the incident? How representative is their case of the larger universe?

    The computer outage this morning ate up my blogging time but I may get back to this later.

  35. mattbernius says:

    James, I have to admit that based on the headline, I started reading this post with a lot of skepticism. However, I agree with the core point: that reporting and analysis are different and should be labeled better. Unfortunately, various journalism outlets have been blurring these and other lines for years (for example, The Hill running John Solomon’s “reporting” of the Ukraine/Biden connection in their editorial section is a particularly egregious example).

    WRT the question of “lying” at some point when after multiple rounds of correction someone keeps repeating false information, I think it’s fair to use the term “lying.”

    The problem with reporting-by-anecdote is that it’s inherently cherry-picked. How honest are these people in their self-accounting of the incident? How representative is their case of the larger universe?

    If the reporting or analysis is based on a single anecdote, I agree. However, if the anecdote is being used to frame a particular story that’s backed up by the data, I have absolutely no issue with this. And it’s a time-honored tradition in the social sciences to go from the micro (and individual story) to the macro (the broader data set). Also, a quick scan of the 1999 article suggests that the author did talk with government folks and experts in Suffolk County as well.

    2
  36. mattbernius says:

    One other thing:

    So, for example, there aren’t two equal “sides” in reporting on the science of climate change. There is an almost universal consensus on the fact that the average temperature of the earth is slowly rising and a pretty strong consensus that human beings are contributing significantly to this phenomenon and what the likely impacts of that trend continuing will be. It would be irresponsible, indeed, to ensure that every story on the subject is “balanced” with an equal number of quotes from the tiny number of dissenting scientists.

    I think this is a bit of an application of 20/20 hindsight. I suspect that if you were writing this in the 1990’s or even early 2000’s and the NYT’s new section (or even analysis section) was writing about the reality of Climate Change as settled and definite, you (and others) might see that as activist reporting.

    Honestly, I suspect that there are a lot of folks even to this day that would make that argument as well.

    3
  37. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: All reporting is cherry-picked. All history is cherry-picked. Hell, my own memory of what I did this morning is cherry-picked.

    It’s the reporter’s job to use judgment and be fair about the real impact. It is the editors job to assure that happened.

    4
  38. Andy says:

    I pretty much agree entirely with James on this. The greater the partisan division, the more important a neutral fact-based press becomes.

    @EddieInCA:

    Dems say 2+2=4
    GOP says 2+2=27

    I think that’s an illustration of why fact-based reporting is so important because when you report the facts based on neutral criteria, then the big lies speak for themselves.

    And strategically, I think if one actually believes that their side has the facts on their side, then fact-based reporting makes the most sense. Bending the reed to compensate for the supposed lies of the other side actually is counterproductive.

    Take Donald Trump. There was an endless supply of factual reporting about Trump’s many failings. But for a lot of people on the left and in the media, that wasn’t good enough. So a whole bunch of crap was reported as “news” that was based more on hopeful speculation or worst-case assumptions rather than actual facts. During the entirety of Trump’s presidency, I was accused by many here of being a closet GoP or a Trump apologist for pushing back against these dumb theories and narratives masquerading as news.

    The thing is, all that does is give Trump supporters the excuse they need to conclude that such news is deliberately biased against them and their President. And to people who just want the facts, like me and James, it damages the credibility of outlets that do that.

    That sort of bias is also how you get a lot of reporting on really stupid stories like that Covington kid in DC, which spawned dozens of stories in the NYT and WAPO alone – so many media organizations rushed out stories before they had the facts.

    Focusing on facts avoids that. Not relying on selectively chosen POV anecdotes avoids that. Also, not using the mind-cancer of Twitter as a source for news avoids that.

    In a lot of ways, my old profession of intelligence is very similar to journalism. The ultimate goal is, ideally, to inform and provide information for people to make their own judgments. The intelligence profession strives to do this neutrally but often fails. It’s human nature to be biased. It’s human nature to develop frameworks and see patterns and then try to fit information into those frameworks and patterns instead of considering information independently. Such errors have been major elements in every major intelligence failure.

    There are fundamental differences between facts, estimates, analysis and opinion. Facts do not “speak for themselves” and they usually support more than one conclusion.

    The same thing happens in journalism. But the problem I see is that in journalism, this ideal is being rejected more and more, particularly among the younger generation of journalists who seem to see themselves as filling a much different role than a mere informer. Journalism , in my view, is becoming less about informing and more about providing context intended to point in a specific direction. There is a lot more handwaving in news articles too. Things like, “many people are” wording and other generalizations that are based on a very small number of opinions or examples (usually from Twitter). Another problem is the creative use of subjective qualifiers. This ties into the increase in POV reporting as well as “analysis” that is mixed in with facts that both tend to – intentionally nor not – point readers toward certain conclusions.

    And the business of journalism isn’t helping. The structure of the market promotes serving particular audiences and every media outlet that I’m aware of is affected by this. Unfortunately, the market for fact-based reporting seems pretty limited.

  39. David Kelsey says:

    @James Joyner:

    The problem with reporting-by-anecdote is that it’s inherently cherry-picked.

    Again, maybe a fundamental misunderstanding of what journalism is. It is not now, and never has been, about just giving a bullet point list of dry facts.

    All reporting is cherry-picked, based on subjective judgments, starting with the moments reporters and editors decide what is newsworthy and to what degree. They curry pick who to talk to, which quotes to include and exclude, which data is relevant, and which words to use to synthesize all this information into stories and analysis.

    The idea that journalism is just about giving facts and nothing else at all ever or there’s suddenly zero objectivity is not how journalism works or is supposed to work.

    2
  40. Dude Kembro says:

    @Andy:

    I think that’s an illustration of why fact-based reporting is so important because when you report the facts based on neutral criteria, then the big lies speak for themselves.

    Facts do not “speak for themselves” and they usually support more than one conclusion.

    What? Is this not a glaring contradiction.

    And since when has it been the journalist’s job to just inform. Two of our greatest, Ida B. Wells and Edward R. Murrow, would disagree with that notion vehemently, and they are most decidedly not a member of today’s younger generation.

    Those journalists are now recognized as icons of the profression because they recognized lynching and McCarthyism as empirical evils and reported accordingly. Ditto reporters on the Civil Rights beat in the 60s. Ditto woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee’s work on Watergate. Those stories weren’t just about listing facts, it was also about a series of subjective judgments: that this seemingly-minor break-in was more newsworthy than other stories, that their coordination revealed deep corruption in the Nixon administration, that said corruption was bad and a threat to the republic. All that stuff was part of the coverage, never just the facts and nothing else.

    Maybe too many reporters these days want to be star pundits and activist-entertainers on stories where more sobriety and distance is needed, true. But that does not mean journalism is never supposed to have a point of view and that suggestions otherwise are modern and brand new. The history of journalism indicates otherwise.

    1
  41. Andy says:

    @Dude Kembro:

    What? Is this not a glaring contradiction.

    It isn’t unless you think “facts” and “lies” are the same thing.

    And since when has it been the journalist’s job to just inform. Two of our greatest, Ida B. Wells and Edward R. Murrow, would disagree with that notion vehemently, and they are most decidedly not a member of today’s younger generation.

    The primary role of journalism is supposed to be to inform. What else do you think journalists are supposed to do beyond or instead of that?

    I read “the news” to inform myself about what is going on in the world – it is not to have advocates tell me what I should think. That’s what opinion sections are for.

    Those journalists are now recognized as icons of the profression because they recognized lynching and McCarthyism as empirical evils and reported accordingly.

    And they were successful primarily because they reported factually accurate and complete information that conveyed what was going on in an accurate way.

    All that stuff was part of the coverage, never just the facts and nothing else.

    I think this is beginning to dance on the head of a semantic pin. Clearly, journalism isn’t supposed to be a bullet list of collected facts or information and nothing else. When I say the focus needs to be factual and accurate information, this isn’t what I mean. Part of the skill is certainly the ability to add context and craft it all into a narrative and that’s entirely appropriate.

    Those stories weren’t just about listing facts, it was also about a series of subjective judgments: that this seemingly-minor break-in was more newsworthy than other stories, that their coordination revealed deep corruption in the Nixon administration, that said corruption was bad and a threat to the republic. All that stuff was part of the coverage, never just the facts and nothing else.

    I do not agree that it was about a series of subjective judgments. Good reporters have instincts or may get hints that there is more going on than what the current facts support. What they then do is more investigation to uncover more facts which they then reported. That is not subjectivity.
    That’s why the Watergate reporting was so effective – they didn’t have to editorialize in their reporting or make shit up – they did the work, followed leads and reported what they found.

    They didn’t do what is common today – report some speculation that popped up on Twitter and when that turns out to be wrong, excuse it by claiming they were only relaying what someone else said. Too often reporters today publish allegations before they fact-check them.