Can News Media Outlets Afford Truthful Reporting?

I am very much with Michael O’Hare in liking the idea of news media avoiding objective-on-the-surface “he said, she said” reporting. Too much media coverage is along the lines of “Some people think Obama’s health reform law includes Islamic-inspired death panels run by Socialists, but other people see it differently”, with no accompanying commentary on the fact that “some people” are lying and “other people” are telling the truth. Instead, each side is implicitly presented as having an equal claim to the truth. NPR, with praise from heavyweights like James Fallows, wants to move beyond such “false equivalence” and instead make a careful assessment of which side has a better claim to the truth.

So far, so good, but let me bring this home in a personal way to show how hard it will be to achieve.

I have worked with a tripartisan group of British politicians for the past 18 months to bring the successful 24/7 sobriety programme to the UK. My role has been mainly to do presentations summarizing the growing scientific evidence on 24/7 sobriety and similar programmes (e.g., HOPE Probation). An increasing body of evidence shows that these programmes help substance-misusing offenders while reducing both crime and incarceration.

Happily, the necessary legislation was passed by Parliament last week. Here is BBC coverage of the new programme. It’s classic “he said, she said” reporting, with people who “believe” in the programme set against someone who labels it a “populist gimmick”.

Think how much work it would have been for BBC to find out that one side in this debate is backed by randomized clinical trials, population epidemiology studies, and practical experience in a number of states. Even if someone had given the reporter my name, he or she would have had to track me down before whatever deadline was looming (which would have taken the reporter time) so that I could go through the evidence in detail (more time). The journalist would also need to do spade work on me to find out whether I was credible or not (more time) and also to understand what clinical trials are and how they can be interpreted (yet more time).

In contrast, telephoning someone with no knowledge of the evidence and having that person rubbish it probably took less than 15 minutes. Work minimized, deadline met, and on to the next thing for the BBC reporter.

False equivalence is, to put it baldly, cheaper than truthful coverage of policy debates. And unless there is a market penalty for “he said, she said” stories, news media outlets which aspire to truth rather than false equivalence may struggle for economic viability.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

28 thoughts on “Can News Media Outlets Afford Truthful Reporting?”

  1. I haven’t seen this argument before, and it is an interesting one.
    However, it doesn’t apply to reporters who have a regular beat. A criminology reporter could do the background work in 45 minutes. And a criminology reporter is not an example of overspecialization. Crime news sells big (too big, IMO.) Most major papers could afford to have somebody who knows more about crime than the phone number of the local police spokestron.

    1. Ebenezer said “Most major papers could afford to have somebody who knows more about crime than the phone number of the local police spokestron.”

      From your lips to God’s ear. I don’t know enough about the economics of news agencies these days to evaluate this speculation, but I certainly hope you are correct.

    2. >Most major papers could afford to have somebody who knows more about crime than the phone number of the local police spokestron.

      And couldn’t afford not to have someone who knows more about basketball than the average HS coach covering tonights game.

  2. I’m not sure newspapers were ever significantly better; It’s been a longstanding joke that the news is pretty accurate, except for events you have some personal knowledge of. They were laughing over that one decades ago. I know, I was (tangentially) involved in something that hit the newspapers during my childhood, and all I could hear from the adults was complaints from those involved that the papers had gotten everything wrong, and wouldn’t issue any corrections.

    Rather, I think the media have simply lost the capacity to make sure nobody hears the complaints. They used to just censor the letters to the editor, and it was done. Now, NBC cuts a piece out of the middle of a 911 call to make somebody sound like a racist, and it’s all over hours later. Cronkite’s got such a rep, maybe it’s because that could never have happened to him?

    Although I have noticed one respect in which the papers have gotten far worse: Their handling of polling data. A few decades ago, when, (I suppose…) it’s use was fairly new, they’d actually give the text of the questions and allowed responses, sample size, error bar. Now it’s just “polls say blah”, and that’s it, you don’t even know what the poll asked anymore.

    Ok, I take it back, they have gotten worse, it’s just they were never very good to begin with.

    1. Brett,

      Any simple statement like, “Polling shows ‘blah'” has no value at all.

      I teach this carefully and repeat it often in my undergrad statistics course. You cannot interpret poll results without (at a minimum) examining the questions, the survey method, and the poll’s demographics (to make sure they roughly correspond to the population in question). It is very possible that you have to dig into the internals (if they are available) to understand what the poll is saying.

  3. This is not entirely the media’s fault. You know how the people-who-know-nothing got to be on the reporters’ speed-dial? They (or their organizations) sent out press releases and white papers. They called the reporters occasionally. They held events where the reporters could get a cheap story and free food and drink. They made themselves available for a few minutes of interview even when they didn’t feel like it. In short, they paid their dues. None of these activities is incompatible with knowing what one is talking about.

    So the next time a reporter disastrously mishandles a story in your field of expertise, reach out to the politely. If you’re at an institution with any kind of budget or meeting facilities, get together an event or three. If a reporter does call, take the call and try to say at least one true thing in a short active-voice sentence. All that time hobnobbing with members of parliament and heads of institutes is fine, but it won’t get you into a reporter’s address book.

    1. No doubt the situation you describe is real, and part of the problem. The attitude that this situation indicates anything but laziness and incompetence on the part of journalists is also part of the problem. It is a reporter’s job to report the facts, period. It is their job to seek out reliable sources. Competent journalists do not need easily digestible information, or food, provided for them before they can do their job. If a source is obscure, unfriendly, and expert, then they are expert. If a source is familiar, generous, and unreliable, then they are unreliable.

      1. Mark: so how should a reporter, who is by definition not an expert, know which sources are reliable and which aren’t, when the experts won’t return calls or provide usable criticism? And even if the reporter comes to know which are which, how will the reporter remain employed if they continually fail to produce articles on deadline because the ostensibly expert sources won’t answer calls in a timely fashion (while their competitors, who use the nonexpert but accessible sources produce plausible copy on time)? Telling your editor “we’ll have it done properly tomorrow/next week/month/year” really doesn’t cut it. Accusing reporters of being lazy and incompetent because they work with what they can get makes no more sense than accusing medical researchers of being lazy and incompetent because the anti-cancer agents they find don’t always work.

        And of course being rude, unreachable and deliberately opaque is no guarantee that a source is expert, or vice versa. Some nobel prizewinners are delightfully lucid and friendly, and some utter hacks are prickly and incomprehensible.

  4. “Now, NBC cuts a piece out of the middle of a 911 call to make somebody sound like a racist, and it’s all over hours later.”
    I was really bothered when I heard about that. What do you think the reasoning was? My guess isn’t that it wasn’t political (in the sense that they were taking sides on what has unfortunately become a left/right tribalist thing), but rather a cynical attempt to “sexy” up the race angle on the story, making it more sensational that it really was. This, I think, is the most damning critique of television media, that it and you’re right that it isn’t new. In the last couple of decades, I would cite the fall of programs like 20-20 or Dateline as model examples of the move away from integrity and toward sensationalist, tabloid journalism. When integrity is put up against the bottom line it never seems like its a fair fight. I’m less familiar with it, but I’d imagine you could make a similar case that newsprint, especially after suffering such a beating as of late, has had to face similar choices. Online media, well that just seems a given – tribal outlets make tabloids seem pale.

  5. I agree with Ebenezer, but I would take it further to say there are plenty of topics covered every week on the news that any competent reporter should have the requisite knowledge of in order to avoid the “he said/she said.”

    When the torture issue came out, the NY Times should at least be able to review it’s own over 100 years of editorial history and realize they always called water boarding torture and should continue to do so. Instead, for the simple reason that a few people said publicly it was not, the NYT shamefully made a reversal of decades of policy. and what they didn’t seem to get was that their change is what legitimized the disagreement. It wasn’t Cheney who legitimized it. It was the NYT.

    I think there’s a fairly easy solution here, Keith. A news organization can simply strive for the truth. In areas it doesn’t have in-house expertise it’s fine to go back to he-said she-said. But if you go into he-said she-said with truth seeking in mind it’s still going to change things. For example, with a political issue, wht you most certainly would NOT do is get a “democratic strategist” and a “republican strategist” to argue an issue. You would get experts in that area and hope to find two with a legitimate disagreement. Say it’s a stimulus argument, you get Paul Krugman and Glenn Hubbard, perhaps. You don’t get two nitwits who everyone knows will universally agree with their party’s talking points no matter what the situation.

    If it’s climate change you’re welcome to find a climatologist who says it’s not man made. But it better not be that physicist who the WSJ interviewed! That’s like asking a chemist how to build a bridge. If the only “scientist” you can find who says climate change is a hoax has no involvement in the field of climate science, perhaps he should not be on TV discussing the topic.

    So there are plenty of ways to improve things even within the he said she said model.

  6. Say it’s a stimulus argument, you get Paul Krugman and Glenn Hubbard, perhaps. You don’t get two nitwits who everyone knows will universally agree with their party’s talking points no matter what the situation.

    This is one of my major peeves. I recall a TV news discussion of health care reform before PPACA passed. Instead of having people who knew something about healthcare the debate involved two political operatives, one D, one R, who just yelled talking points at each other.

    I suppose it’s easier to get these guys than it is to get actually knowledgeable speakers, and I also wonder whether the selection is partly driven by a preference for heat over light in the segment.

    I stopped watching the various weekend shows for related reasons. They seem to operate on the assumption that their panelists are authorities on absolutely any issue that arises – N. Korea, Iran, the Middle East, economic policy, euro problems, etc. They’re not.

    1. In order to get knowledgable speakers, you have to, to some limited exent, BE knowledgable. But suppose you majored in journalism, and your entire life experience is journalism. Doubtless you’ll get a story about how newspapers are run right, but do you have a knowledge base to get anything else, anything at all, right?

      1. @Brett, there may be a handful of topics where this is the case, but seriously, for the vast majority, locating respected experts in a field is not all that difficult. Without knowing anything, you can just try to find the chairs of departments of respected colleges and universities.

        Even easier, at this point any major news organization has enough twitter followers that they can probably just tweet, “who should I interview if I want to get the broad range of expert opinions on topic x?” Filter through the hundreds of tweets you get, and I’m sure you’ll have a ton of useful sources.

        Matt Yglesias does this a lot, “where can I find data on X?” I’ve answered him myself with useful sources.

        This is not all that difficult. A well connected reporter should have enough relationships that he generally wouldn’t be getting hoodwinked on who to speak with. And if and when he does get hoodwinked, he’s going to hear about it ruthlessly from the commentariat, which should provide a useful corrective.

        Again, if the allegiance is to the truth instead of balance, even if you screw up sometimes, you’re going to make things better.

        1. When calling the University, you should:
          (1) Call more than one;
          (2) Ask for names of persons not members of your faculty; and,
          (3) Rather than the head/chair, call one of the senior faculty. The holder of a named chair or the like is a good choice.

          When calling the University, you should not:
          (1) Call University Communications/Public Relations;
          (2) Take pot-luck about who you speak with.

          Once you have the names, consider asking the experts for the name of another expert.

          1. @Dennis, all very good tips.

            You could even ask the expert you reach out to to offer the name of someone they respect yet vehemently disagree with on the topic!

  7. If the mean time to reply by informed individuals is longer than jerks then it just means there may be a weak spell in reporting while building a sufficient supply of stories being worked on. Eventually an equilibrium will be reached in which there are enough requests for information in for enough stories such that there should always be a well researched story to publish before deadline. The race to publish first has produced a race to the bottom in which content is irrelevant, you have to get in the discussion before the next news cycle.

  8. I can’t quite tell whether this is a sarcastic post or not. I mean, finding out the truth DOES take more time (and money) than ‘she said/he said’ reporting. It’s also true that sometimes the amount of time is so small that pure laziness is apparently the only explanation.

    But then the NYT “waterboarding is not torture (and we have always been at war with Ira- I mean, Eastasia)” incident points out the other way that the truth is too expensive. It wasn’t ignorance about what waterboarding actually was, or ignorance about what torture is, that drove the NYT: it was pure and simple sucking up to power. And challenging the powerful is indeed often very expensive (ask anyone involved in Wikileaks). You can be as sarcastic as you want in calling a reporter lazy, but if their editor is telling them in no uncertain terms that the paper can’t afford to have anyone on staff who has a reputation as a troublemaker at the White House, then a little sarcastic commentary isn’t going to change their reporting (it may help them quit, but that still won’t change the paper’s reporting).

  9. Chomsky often notes the editorial bias against depth and nuance inherent in the demand for seven second news grunts … A Bellmore can always repeat the conventional nonsense without a second of hesitation and with no need to explain a thing because every lie has already been recycled five million times before, so the audience just nods in a soma like stupor. But say something new, and you’re instantly behind a couple of hours … New thoughts, promoted by new faces you’ve never seen on tv, often involving new media called “books,” and even “studies” which involve scary amounts of math. The news blondes can.not.deal with it, so it’s just a heck of a lot easier for everybody to get back to the punch and Judy version. And you know what? The advertisers … I mean, “underwriters” … Are much happier with that too, because new ideas are often associated with reality, with it’s liberal bias, and is pretty generally a downer in these days of ecological overshoot and nuclear armed chimps.

  10. I would buy the time-constraint problem you describe as an excuse for the first day of reporting on a topic, but who is up in arms about “they said/they said” reporting on one-day stories? Any issue important enough to motivate someone to make up (and energetically push out) a bunch of lies will be in the news for days or weeks; that’s plenty of time for news outlets to figure out who’s interested in truth and who’s bullshitting.

  11. I suspect that most of the customers for daily news prefer the sports like competition between two sides to any serious attempt to establish the truth. Blogs regularly get the facts very quickly, and it’s certainly within the budget of major media outlets to follow blogs. The fact that they don’t suggests that they think the truth would bore their customers.

  12. There is a market penalty for false-equivalence cheap he-said she-said reporting.
    Newspapers and network news have been paying it for decades.
    Their readers/viewers first learn not to trust them, then quit paying attention, then depart.

  13. The BBC’s coverage of most scientific questions is abysmal. Mark Liberman at Language Log has a long list of BBC offences in his field of linguistics (parrots understanding Chinese and the like). The few BBC science reporters are OK, and the natural history unit is brilliant. The problem is that that the rest of its reporters are innumerate humanities graduates who will have dropped maths after O-level or its GCSE equivalent, and never followed the most elementary statistics or research methods course. For similar reasons the coverage of economic events is shallow in the extreme.

    1. This brings up a pet peeve of mine, the high school math sequence in the US, which is bizarre and very very good at causing most students to flee and fear math while never even having acquired any sense of what math is and why one might enjoy it. I have argued for years that the next class after algebra should be a very solid “critical thinking with numbers” class, essentially a stats and rhetoric class without using either of those words, and it should be at least a full year (for those who will take geometry and trig/ calc) and it should be at least three years if you are not taking the precollege math sequence.

      Essentially, what I envision is a class that combines elements of debate, writing, and statistics (including inferential stats, and especially graphical analysis of data), using topics such as those often discussed here at RBC. Give young people room to do what young people most need to do, which is show how dumb adults are, by giving them positions to defend and propound (they can choose the side they want to start with, you don’t tell them that they’ll have to switch sides until later) and have them tear into each other in weekly battles, where the points are made and provisionally accepted as “won” or lost until the loser can come up with either new evidence or a new, better and more convinvcing way to present the evidence. It would be an exciting class to teach and take, and one that would have administrators terrified if done right.

      1. In general I think our math curricula are poorly thought out. Among other things there should, IMO, be much more emphasis on probability and statistics, up to the point of a year being (shudder) required at the college level. An educated person ought not be mystified by basic statistical concepts.

  14. “Say it’s a stimulus argument, you get Paul Krugman and Glenn Hubbard, perhaps. You don’t get two nitwits who everyone knows will universally agree with their party’s talking points no matter what the situation.”

    Glenn Hubbard is not a nitwit?

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