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|Subject: False Balance - He said, she said - from the NYT Sat Sep 29, 2012 1:48 am|| |
September 15, 2012
He Said, She Said, and the Truth
By MARGARET SULLIVAN
IN journalism, as in life, balance sounds like an unassailably good thing.
But while balance may be necessary to mediating a dispute between teenage siblings, a different kind of balance — some call it “false equivalency” — has come under increasing fire. The firing squad is the public: readers and viewers who rely on accurate news reporting to make them informed citizens.
Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.
“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”
It’s all a part of a movement — brought about, in part, by a more demanding public, fueled by media critics, bloggers and denizens of the social media world — to present the truth, not just conflicting arguments leading to confusion.
You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, made current again on the PressThink blog by Jay Rosen of New York University, a media critic who has pressed the fact-checking argument.
The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts.
“There’s a temptation to say there are objective facts and there are opinions, and we should only use objective facts,” said David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief. “But there’s a big spectrum. We have to make analytical judgments about the veracity of all kinds of things.”
What’s more, reporters and editors often have to make these calls on tight deadlines, as they did just after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention last month. That speech carried some assertions that have been shown to be misleading, and other speeches at both political conventions have become flash points for the fact-checking and false-balance discussion.
Particularly in this intensely political season, readers and media critics are calling for journalists to take more responsibility for what is true and what is not. What’s more, readers want it done immediately, not days later in follow-up articles.
“I take their point, but we have to be cautious, especially on deadline,” Mr. Leonhardt said.
Readers are quick to cite examples. Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression — hot topics that may affect the presidential race.
In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”
Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”
On other subjects, The Times has made clear progress in avoiding false balance.
The issue has come up frequently with science-related stories, particularly those involving climate change. The Times has moved toward regularly writing, in its own voice, that mounting evidence indicates humans are indeed causing climate change, but it does not dismiss the skeptics altogether.
Similarly, false balance became a topic a few years ago during the dispute over the teaching of “intelligent design” versus evolution. The Times responded by inserting language like this: “There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. Courts have repeatedly ruled that creationism and intelligent design are religious doctrines, not scientific theories.”
The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”
The Times does not have written guidelines for reporters on false balance. “How could you, since every situation is different?” Mr. Corbett said.
It ought to go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.