Why “He Said, She Said” Journalism Is Harmful

The deadline pressure felt by daily newspapers and TV’s evening news is probably a contributing factor to what I call “he said, she said”* journalism. Another pressure, of course, is that of “objectivity.”

The former often results in superficial reporting. The later, in my opinion, in a false sense of controversy.

No where is this phenomena more evident than in how U.S. media report climate change.

Almost five years ago, I wrote about a Seattle Times analysis of climate change and climate change reporting.

[On 9 October 2005], the Seattle Times devoted a mind-boggling number of column inches (3+ pages, no ads) to its lead story, The Truth About Global Warming. The author, Sandi Doughton, was prompted to research the story after attending a forum for science writers in 2004, where “several speakers involved with climate science complained that skeptics of global warming get equal treatment in news coverage, as if scientists are hopelessly divided on the question. The speakers insisted they are not.”

Doughton decided to explore the claim. “I didn’t accept it at face value as I went into the story,” she says; in the process, she reversed her prior belief that scientists were in disagreement about global warming.

I bring up this almost-five-year-old story because of a recent report from Stanford, Expert credibility in climate change, which was published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Scientists. According to the Vancouver Sun:

The study noted that a series of sweeping high-profile statements criticizing action against climate change that recently appeared in the media were signed by hundreds of academics who had limited expertise on the issue since they haven’t published peer-reviewed research on global warming, but were still managing to cause confusion in the population about scientific evidence.

[…]

But the study found that the academics supporting the evidence that humans are causing global warming were more likely to be climate change scientists doing extensive research while the skeptics had produced less evidence to back up their claims. For example, more than 90 per cent of the climate scientists who supported the evidence had each published more than 20 peer-reviewed papers while about 80 per cent of the skeptics had published less than that amount.

Thus, what Doughton determined five years ago as a journalist has now been validated by a scientific assessment. Yes, there are critics of the paper’s methodology, but much of this is quibbling about how to assess “credibility.”

Will this report change how U.S. media report climate change?

Probably not. And that’s not just because very few media outlets are covering the story. (Only 310 news articles, says Google.)

The probable lack of behavioral change is harmful.

By misrepresenting the controversy, the media fail to provide relevant context for news events; I believe that contextualization is the only way media will be able to achieve long-term, sustainable economics in an era of everyone-has-the-tools-and-means to be a reporter.

By misrepresenting the controversy, some media outlets may see a short-term gain in viewers or subscribers, further reinforcing America’s — and media conglomerates’ — addiction to quarterly measurements of “success.”

By misrepresenting the controversy, the media help foster a political climate where it is less likely that “the public” and its elected leaders will muster the will to talk about — much less act on — needed changes in lifestyle, tax breaks and energy use.

And I call all of those things “harmful.”

* He said, she said journalism rests on a reporter’s use of two oppositional figures who are willing to speak on the record about an issue related to public policy. The quoted individuals are presented as equally truthful/knowledgeable, and the reporter exercises no editorial commentary, i.e., the reporter does not cite data or facts that would contradict claims made by the quoted sources.

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