I wish I had seen Jay Rosen’s latest critique of “he said, she said” reporting before Saturday’s accuracy workshop at Georgetown University.
Jay provides an excellent example of reporting that is accurate but falls short of the journalistic principle of seeking the truth. That was a key point of the workshop: Yes, we taught about getting quotes accurate and verifying facts, but we stressed that accurate but incomplete or accurate but lacking context doesn’t fulfill the responsibility to seek, find and report the truth.
While I have called for updating some of the details in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I love the direct, elegant wording of its first principle: Seek Truth and Report It. “He said, she said” reporting shrugs off this responsibility. In fact, it presents lies equally with the truth, which is hardly different from lying.
I hope you read Jay’s critique, which I will just summarize here. He notes an NPR report about new rules regulating abortion clinics in Kansas. The report quoted one side calling the regulations an attempt to drive abortion clinics out of Kansas and another saying they were common-sense regulations to protect the health of women. NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, and the reporter, Kathy Lohr, defended the report. Lohr said it’s not her job to “take a position” on the issue. Schumacher-Matos said NPR reporting “comes under criticism from both the right and the left,” (implying that NPR must have found some virtuous middle ground).
A key point I made in yesterday’s workshop was that accuracy is not enough. We need to get beyond the “semi-true stories” (yes, I did play Jimmy Buffett’s song) we hear from sources and find the actual truth.
This is an excellent example. If you accurately report what the rules require and you accurately quote the warring factions’ views of the rules, you have an accurate story. But you have not sought the truth or reported it, beyond the basic fact that partisans disagree, and that’s a statement of the obvious and eternal in American political life.
As Rosen notes, you can find the truth in this story. You can compare the requirements to requirements for outpatient facilities providing other sorts of medical procedures, such as cosmetic surgery or colonoscopies.
I like that PolitiFact has spawned a lot of fact-checking operations in journalism. But I hate that this is a specialty. Shouldn’t fact-checking be routine in every story? Source A says the sky is blue. Source B says the sky is red. Shouldn’t the reporter look at the sky rather than just report the disagreement?