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The Sciences

Is "He Said, She Said, We're Clueless" Coverage Dying?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApril 13, 2009 6:46 PM

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Jay Rosen has an interesting post about "on the one hand, on the other hand" journalism, and credits my 2004 CJR article which was one early contribution to critiquing this form of reporting. (Jesus, I've been doing this for too long.) There's a reason the critique of false "balance" emerged, in significant part, from the science journalism world. In CJR, I was very much channeling the complaints of many evolutionary and climate scientists, who were outraged by media coverage and continually pointed out that since there's no such thing as "balance" in science, reporting about science which employs such a paradigm often gets the story completely wrong. Indeed, such reporting empowers anti-science voices, who continually demand that their outlier stances be treated on a par with scientific consensus positions. Anyways, Rosen explains the advantages of "he said, she said" from the journalistic perspective--basically, it saves a reporter from the trouble of having to do any serious intellectual work (it also has political advantages)--but then also postulates that it's "in decline":

Today, any well informed blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can easily find the materials to point out an instance [of] false balance or the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Professional opinion has therefore shifted and among the better journalists, some of whom I know, it is no longer acceptable to defend he said, she said treatments when the materials are available to call out distortions and untruths.

Um...maybe. It depends on who these "better" journalists are and whether they will still have a job in five years. I will concede that there's a creme of sophisticated print journalists who get the problem with phony balance. But I mean, if you watch CNN or something, it's as omnipresent as ever. Moreover, cutbacks in the media industry, and the slaughter of journalistic "expertise" that has occurred as various kinds of media specialists (like science journalists) lose their jobs, makes the lazy crutch of "balance" more likely than ever to prevail. For here's another advantage to "he said, she said" from a media industry perspective: It's cheap. Any intern can write a "balanced" story. You don't need seasoned career journalists if that's the kind of fare you're producing. You definitely don't need to pay their healthcare and pensions. So I just don't buy the idea that the blogosphere can beat back "he said, she said" in the media business. Once again, I see it as a basic matter of industry economics; and so far as that goes, all the trends seem to be in the direction of more journalistic laziness and lack of expertise, rather than less....

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