If by any chance you’re feeling good about the state of journalism today, allow Mr.-Gloom-and-Doom Me to wipe that away with a single link.
Take a look at Barry Ritholtz’ Yeah! The Housing Bottom Is Here! It catalogues six years of compliant reporters dutifully shoveling up quotes from real estate industry sources proclaiming a bottom to the housing market, implicitly urging readers to get out there and buy some real estate right now.
Each article follows the rules of good journalism. They include stories from many of the nation’s leading news organizations. Many articles offers multiple sources, in well-edited narrative. There’s no indication in any of the stories that their reporters misquoted anyone, or misrepresented what their sources were trying to say.
Yet, every article on that page is spectacularly, dangerously, and offensively wrong.
And that illustrates the gravest problem facing journalism today. It’s not competition from the Internet, or even the loss of local advertising monopolies. If journalism as an industry were producing consistently accurate, forward-looking, and unique reports that helped people live better lives, without ending up underwater on a crappy mortgage, competition from inferior news sources – even cheaper or free sources – wouldn’t threaten the industry’s survival.
The gravest problem facing journalism today is its continued adherence to a stenographic model of reporting, one that accepts accurate recitation of quotes and data as truthful reporting, overlooking the very inconvenient fact that people very often lie to reporters.
J-school cliche says “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” But far too often in news reporting, “checking it out” means simply calling up another source, and presenting their confirmation or denial of mommy’s alleged love in the next grafs of the story.
Ideally, a reporter would check claims by sources not just with other sources but his or her own investigation of relevant, accurate data and other eyewitnesses. Of course, to do that, a reporter needs time (often in short supply in understaffed newsrooms) and expertise. A reporter needs training and experience in the beat he or she is covering so that he or she can select and perform the appropriate analysis for the issue at hand. Not only that, the reporter must be able and willing to perform an accurate analysis that checks regular sources’ accuracy over time, to determine whether a source is trustworthy.
To that end, in 2012, it should be obvious to anyone working in financial journalism that the National Association of Realtors is the “Baghdad Bob” of the business beat. (Heck, that should have been obvious years ago.) If you’re quoting an NAR spokesperson, or NAR-affiliated analyst, in a real estate story, you might as well just label your piece “advertising” and ask the NAR to cut you a check for it. Because it’s likely of no service to your readers, given how often NAR sources have been wrong over the past six years.
Unfortunately, too few reporters do any sophisticated, data-driven source analysis – as evidenced in part by the long list of stories linked above. I suspect that, while lack of time and expertise contribute to that failure, fear of being labeled as biased or partisan drives much of our industry’s reticence in challenging certain financially or politically powerful sources.
As I’ve written before, partisanship and ideology only creates a problem for reporters if it influences their reporting, driving them to ignore or suppress information that contradicts their political beliefs. If accurate reporting leads a journalist to a partisan conclusion, the only problem for journalism is to ignore that conclusion or soften that reporting because you don’t want to look partisan.
Yet we live in an era when just about every issue’s been politicized – from housing prices to birth control to student test scores. Even the weather. Heck, it’s hard to find a beat outside sports and movie reviews where reporters aren’t afraid to take a stand.
We’ve got to change. If traditional news organizations are to survive in the Internet era, they’ve got to make changes that keep them from consistently barfing out stories that mislead their audience and fail to stand the test of time. The ultimate test for journalism doesn’t lie in how a story was reported or presented. It lies in whether the information the story presents is true.
Let’s stop being naive. Accusations of partisanship and bias are being used by people on the wrong side of the facts to bully us into not pointing that out. Let’s quit accommodating them by dumbing down journalism to stenography.
We need to do better. If we’re to win over more readers (which makes our publications more attractive to advertisers) or even to convince some of those readers to pay us for our reporting, we have to be find a away to be right more often. And that means calling out the liars and fools among our sources.