The facts and the truth

NPR has changed its rules for journalists  [HTs and more discussion: DK, James Fallows] from reporting “both sides” of any issue to including expert judgment about the sides’ relative weight.  This is a very big deal. Print journalism used to be quite partisan, but around the turn of the 20th century, wire services started to market a product designed to be attractive to all newspapers, and invented the idea of “balanced reporting” presented as an ethical principle, a bowl of grits model of news: tasteless, vitamin-free calories that can’t offend anyone. The idea was to stick to facts, and to present them in pairs. This degenerate idea of fairness and ‘accuracy’ became a de facto standard for newspapers generally.  For example: “Galileo Galilei announced today that three moons circle Jupiter, but the Bishop of Padua said that was impossible.”  Martin Linsky used to demand that the press report the truth and not just the facts: that Galileo and the bishop said what they said are indeed facts, but it’s essential for the reader to know that Galileo had seen the moons doing their thing with a telescope, while the bishop only had an dogeared copy of Aristotle. Supply your own current illustration from, for example, climate science reporting.

So-called “he said/she said” reporting, as the NPR code now recognizes, makes the reporter the servant of her sources and not the reader/listener.  Reporters are not just selling news to us; they are selling us to politicians, lobbyists, and their other sources, and they are paid by access.  If your copy isn’t useful to a senator, the senator will not return your calls.  When the senator says what is not true, and the reporter says “Senator Foghorn lied to a press conference this morning”,  the reporter is being useful to us but not to the senator, and her editor will wonder why Foghorn’s bill funding a new highway was in all the other papers first.

If NPR’s understanding of what it really means to report catches on, the news is going to get a lot more useful and interesting. It will also lead to some ugly battles between politicians and corporate shills accustomed to the idea that they have some right to pump any kind of nonsense through the media, and real journalists trying to do their jobs. And keep their jobs in a world where reprinting press releases and sending a reporter to stand in the rain on camera to tell us it’s raining somewhere is more and more all the industry can afford.  Until we fix the broken business model for content, things may get even worse before they get better, but NPR is on the side of the angels (and on ours) here.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

22 thoughts on “The facts and the truth”

  1. This should be interesting. The RWing will take a hit on “tax cuts pay for themselves” but “Comparative Advantage / Free Trade” holds a huge academic consensus.

    When anti-globalization activists get treated like wingnuts, I bet a lot of people who were rooting for this type of reporting will be pissed. But not Paul Krugman of course.

    1. Anti-globalization activists have PLENTY of solid arguments which honest reporters will continue to report.

    2. Ditto Manju. No offense, but “huge academic consensus” may not mean what you think it means.

      1. “huge academic consensus” may not mean what you think it means.

        According to a survey of economists that appears in ch 2 of the Mankiw Textbook, Free Trade ranks #2 (93% of economists agree it helps the general welfare). Rent Control sucks (my words) is #1 and the Keynesian Stimulus pulls in at #4 (90%, just to give you a lefty cornerstone principle).

  2. Public broadcasting is expensive, and somebody’s gotta pay the bill.

    That article from last year contains a couple of paragraphs that bode ill for our fondest wishes in this threead:

    “Every year, there are projects that we just set aside,” Kerger said. “This year we told stations much more specifically what we aren’t doing.”

    One project put on hold is the news initiative, proposed two years ago to upgrade public TV’s online news services. “I didn’t want to get partway into the project and realize we don’t have the resources to do it,” Kerger said.

  3. It’s a little more complicated than this (speaking as someone who spent 15 years or so in the trenches). The first question isn’t so much about whether you report the qualifications of Galileo and the Bishop when you quote them, it’s whether you quote the bishop in the first place. Usually, if someone doesn’t have any expertise in a particular subject, you don’t use them as a source (unless it’s one of those “man-in-the-street” interviews where your superior readers get to see what risible things hoi polloi are thinking). On of the biggest successes of propaganda machines has been to work the refs so that totally unqualified people get quoted at all.

    Of course, one of the ways that happens is that your editor says to you (or your publisher says to your editor), “My friend the Bishop of Padua has been telling me a lot about this controversy. I think you should definitely talk to him [if you want the story to run under your byline and you want to keep your job].” And the same editor or publisher who relays this useful information about potential sources will be sure to relay fact-checking information and have a word with you about the inaccuracy of your characterizations under the new system.

    1. Kudos to Paul for using “hoi polloi” without appending the definite article! (His comment is also substantively valuable.)

  4. 1) Most consumers of news want want honesty. (Not all; most.) Some brave, enterprising business person should be able to make money off this vast river of demand.

    2) Turning back the corrupt tide of the he said/she said news model we be a powerful blow for truth and justice.

    And another powerful blow could be dealt by letting everybody know about the False Claims ACT, and by making it EASY for whistleblowers to sue under the this Act. People who witness corrupt dealing with the Fed. Gov. can make an ABSOLUTE TON of cash if they’ll step forward and help out our society by suing the bad guys.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. §§ 3729–3733, also called the “Lincoln Law”) is an American federal law that imposes liability on persons and companies (typically federal contractors) who defraud governmental programs. The law includes a “qui tam” provision that allows people who are not affiliated with the government to file actions on behalf of the government (informally called “whistleblowing”). Persons filing under the Act stand to receive a portion (usually about 15–25 percent) of any recovered damages. Claims under the law have typically involved health care, military, or other government spending programs. The government has recovered nearly $22 billion under the False Claims Act between 1987 (after the significant 1986 amendments) and 2008.[1]”

    1. Sadly, most consumers of news wouldn’t recognize honesty if it ran over them and left tire tracks on their foreheads.

      1. As I recall, the False Claims Act played a large part in the resolution of the plot of John Grisham’s early novel, “The Firm”. The problem for the protagonist was to stay alive long enough to make his claim, and to deflect attention from the likelihood that he was going to make the claim till he got out of harm’s way (there being a sufficient number of bad guys to make an entertaining book.)

  5. Hey, take it easy on the grits, although I”ll admit I add jalapeno peppers to mine to add some edge.

  6. For example: “Galileo Galilei announced today that three moons circle Jupiter, but the Bishop of Padua said that was impossible.”

    Not that I disagree with your larger point in any way, but a sizable majority of recognized experts on the subject (many of whom were Jesuits, though not bishops) had big problems with Galileo’s various astronomical findings. The “dog-eared copy of Aristotle” would have been more like a brand-new copy of “Aristotle on Natural Philosophy, Three Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Edition.” Galileo’s telescope was a v0.1.1 alpha pre-release model with obvious distortion and imperfections; if you looked through it the right way, not only did you see a few Medician stars, you saw a few Jupiters, too. Nor were the doubters behaving any differently in doing so than the physicists who recently said, “FTL neutrino? No, that doesn’t sound right to me.”

    NPR, going strictly and conscientiously by this model, would have gotten the Jupiter story every bit as “wrong” as all the rest of Florentine society, for as long as everyone else. And that’s okay–how could it be otherwise?! But it’s a pretty good reminder that journalism at its best is nowhere near omniscience.

  7. “Dog-eared” would count in favour of the hypothetical Bishop of Padua.

    I reckon Matt is largely right here: the reporting (say in 1610) of claimed findings like Galileo’s that overturn a well-founded scientific CW should tilt towards scepticism. The well-founded CW on climate change is somewhere on the alarmist far side of the latest IPCC report. The very rare actual studies that cast doubt upon it should be reported with scepticism. Denialist bulls*t should not be reported at all, except to investigate the conspiracy to mislead.

    By the time the Inquisition got round to jailing Galileo in 1633, there had been plenty of confirmatory observations using other and better telescopes. So “Inquisition rejects facts” would have been a true 1633 headline – and that’s roughly how it played in London and Amsterdam.

    1. This is important – you can’t help that facts happen when people want to hear them.

      This is why climate denial is so good at what it does*, we still have an insane drug war,** and are building the next crisis for people with issues in AF, among other places.

      I hate to be flip here, but empire is hard, and really easy to lose.

      * I don’t absolve the mouths that suck from that teat, I just acknowledge that this is what happens.


  8. More good news. NPR withdrew its Mike Davies story on Apple factories in China. They had a great show today — Sat 3/17 — including a damaging interview with Davies. He back-pedalled with a weak effort to explain why his monologue is a stage production and doesn’t need to be accurate. NPR and ‘this American Life” deserve kudos.

    1. Daisy not Davies, for those goggling.
      He’s the guy who wrote about his dog years at Amazon.

      Seemed like a nice, clever fellow then.

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