He said/she said isn’t just a failure of journalism, it’s a failure to understand the media market

For some time now, journalism professor and First Look Media advisor Jay Rosen has been railing against what he calls “he said, she said” journalism — that is, the artificially balanced approach to a story that deliberately avoids drawing a conclusion or stating whether someone is wrong, even when that should be obvious or could be checked. This is arguably an ethical lapse of sorts, but in a recent post Rosen also makes a persuasive case that it’s a business failure as well.

Rosen starts with one recent example, a story in which the New York Times writer Jeremy Peters talked about the pros and cons of voter registration, and summarized the alleged views of both unnamed Democrats (that voter registration primarily serves to keep out the poor) and of unnamed Republicans, who apparently argue that registration cuts down on the serious problem of voter fraud.

As Rosen argues — and as former Reuters blogger Felix Salmon has also noted in a recent post on the topic of false equivalence in journalism — the structure of the Times story cleverly glosses over one of the key facts that it rests on: namely, whether voter fraud is a problem, and therefore a valid justification for voter registration. Is that actually the case? Rosen argues that this is something a reporter should theoretically be confirming or debunking, rather than just repeating:

“Would you happen to know, New York Times, whether fraud at the polls is ‘rife in today’s elections?’ Is that something I should expect you to know, seeing as you are the high-end product in the national news marketplace? Or is Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have no idea a good enough standard?”

Not balance, but false equivalency

We’ve been down this particular road many times, thanks in part to the wave of opinionated commentary that has been unleashed by the web. In many ways, the “he said, she said” debate is a sub-category of the larger debate over whether journalists should be objective or not — or whether transparency and disclosure of a writer’s views are enough to compensate for any conflicts. Rosen has written a lot about this as well, something he calls the “View From Nowhere.”


First Look, the new venture that is funded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, is one of the most prominent advocates of the opinionated approach to new media, with a structure that involves teams of dedicated journalists with a specific point of view — such as Glenn Greenwald and the rest of the writers behind The Intercept, one of First Look’s initial magazine-style offerings — focusing on a topic and being unabashedly opinionated.

David Weinberger, a researcher with the Berkman Center at Harvard, has argued in the past that objectivity is a construct that might have made sense for journalism and media before the internet came along, because there was no easy way to find either supporting or dissenting commentary, which would allow a reader to verify or challenge the points in a story. As Weinberger put it: “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

He said, she said is no longer enough

But in his post about the downsides of “he said, she said” journalism, Rosen makes an important point, which is that taking this approach to a story — one that Salmon has argued prevails as much because of laziness as anything else — also shows a failure to understand how the media market has evolved. The standard story format that makes opposing statements and does little or nothing to verify or debunk them serves less and less of a purpose in today’s media world.

“Classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a ‘sin’ against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be a high-end product: New York Times reporting.”

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

The “he said, she said” approach might have been enough in a world where newspapers were one of only a few methods for distributing the news — an era when they controlled both the news itself and the platform for getting it to the consumer. But neither of those things are the case any more. Now, newspapers are competing with everything from digital-only news outlets to Twitter and Facebook, and that competition means they have to up their game.

The whole selling point of a new site like Vox or FiveThirtyEight, or even First Look itself (not to mention the NYT’s own site The Upshot), is that they are going to tell you exactly what is true and what is not, rather than taking the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” approach.

To her credit, NYT public editor Margarget Sullivan has written a number of times about the dangers of false equivalence and “he said, she said” journalism. As she put it in one of her posts: “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 New York Times is at least starting to talk about the challenges it faces from digital-first and more socially-oriented ventures, judging by a recent internal “innovation report” the newspaper put together, which describes how a journalist’s job is no longer over once the story has been filed or published. But there are still many things left unmentioned in that report that arguably require changing, and the “he said, she said” style is one of them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Thinkstock / marcduf