The Consequences of He Said, She Said Journalism

For a long time, those closely watching the climate debate unfold have denounced “he said, she said, we’re clueless” journalism, in which reporters present a “debate” between those who accept the science and those who do not, and leave it at that. Let the reader figure out who’s right, the philosophy seems to be. It’s journalistic “objectivity” not to “take sides”—right?

Those criticizing this approach—myself emphatically included—are working under a key assumption: If journalists would take a stand on matters of fact (such as whether global warming is caused by humans), rather than treating them as un-resolvable, the broader political discourse would also shift onto a firmer footing. That’s because we would move towards having a shared factual basis for making policy decisions, rather than fighting over the very reality upon which policy ought to be based.

It’s in this context that a new study (PDF) published in the Journal of Communication, would appear to break new ground–by actually examining the psychological effect that “he said, she said” or “passive” journalism has on readers, and in particular, on their views of whether it’s possible to discern the truth.

The study, conducted by The Ohio State University communications professor Raymond Pingree, did not focus on climate change but rather the U.S. healthcare debate—but the same lesson would seem to apply. Study subjects were asked to read fake news stories in which two disputes about the contents of a healthcare bill were either left unresolved, or factually adjudicated. In other words, sometimes the subjects were exposed to “he said, she said” coverage, and sometimes they were exposed to a breed of journalism that unflinchingly examines where the truth lies.

Then the study subjects answered survey questions about their confidence in whether it was possible to discern the truth in politics. For instance, they were asked how much they agreed that “If I wanted to, I could figure out the facts behind most political disputes.” What kind of article they’d read had a significant effect: Those who’d read the “passive” story were more, er, postmodern in outlook. They were less sure they could discern the truth (if it existed).

Pingree, the study author, does not seem shy in discussing the implications of these results. “Choosing among government policies is simply not like choosing among flavors of ice cream,” he has stated. “Policy questions quite frequently center on facts, and political disputes can and often do hinge on these facts, not only on subjective matters.”

The context for discussing Pingree’s study is critical: The news business has changed vastly, and Pingree asserts that journalists are far less likely to plainly state where the facts lie than they were in days past.

This may be partly an economic issue: Journalists are stretched thinner and thinner and may not have time to adequately research their stories. There’s no doubt that “he said, she said” is the easier approach to take in a time of declining newsroom staff and increasing journalist multitasking—not just reporting, but also constantly blogging, making online videos about their reports, and much more.

If you combine together Pingree’s analysis of mainstream journalism with an analysis of the rest of the political opinion environment—where everyone is shouting their own facts all the time, and diametrically opposed blogs service irreconcilably different worldviews—then no wonder some citizens are pretty down on “truth.”

Pingree thinks our politics suffer as a result. “That may make it easier for people to just quit following politics at all, or to accept dishonesty in politicians,” he states. I would tend to agree.

Here’s the study reference and PDF link: 

Pingree, R. J. 2011. Effects of Unresolved Factual Disputes in the News on Epistemic Political Efficacy.  Journal of Communication.


I suggest that the problem with journalism you describe, is more fundamental.

The problem is that many journalists, with some exceptions (yourself included, i presume) do not have the basic educational background nor knowledge of the complex scientific subjects such as climate change that they (are asked to) report on. Many have what is often referred to as an arts background. This is not just reflected in a poor understanding of science, but in the scientific process. They treat both scientific research and scientific findings as being subjective, a matter of opinion, rather like a political discussion about how to spend tax revenues. There is often a culture superiority complex at play too. Many from the arts take a rather dim view of science, mistakenly thinking that science is easy.

For these reasons they mistakenly think that they must produce what they consider to be a balanced report, giving equal weight to both proponents and opponents of the science under discussion. Moreover they then fail to recognise when overwhelming scientific evidence has settled a scientific debate (at least that is until good evidence is presented to suggest otherwise). Thus, in the context of post-19th century global climate change and its potential causes, they think they need to give equal weight to all possible causes, disregarding the finding that strongly indicate that all but one cause (simplistically, increased concentrations of greenhouse gases) cannot adequately explain global warming from the mid 20th century onwards.

This is the problem in my experience.

I agree entirely with your comments NickV and would like to add, if I may, that lobbying and lobbyists compound the effects you describe even further by intentionally obfuscating considered or proven fact and hijacking the agenda of journalists with blatant misinformation and sensationalist propaganda designed at worst to divert attention away from considered facts and at best dilute the potency of the message.

Sadly, corporations have the expertise, cash, resources, connections and influence to mould and shape debates in ways that scientists and the population at large, and interest groups in particular can not come close to matching.

What hope is there then in getting accurate information on which to make informed decisions? To foster debate and develop policy? Not just within and about the climate debate but all significant debates…

Time for the noble, philosophical, scientist/dictator as world leader yet?

The Office of Technology Assessment also had the function of encouraging fact-based policy debates. You have written many times about the need to revive OTA, but this post reminded me again that now more than ever, whether the debate is about health care, homeland security, or climate change, we need help from information producers to keep the conversation rooted in reality.

I think we should definitely press blast whenever we see “he said, she said” coverage in the press, but I’m not so sure it’s in decline. In fact, I’d argue that media industry economics favor it, especially in the current context.

steve barbarich, steven barbarich

The press does not listen. What does it take to be heard these days melanie14? You almost need to make news of your own just to make a statement. I think there is just too much noise in the media. We seem to be to worried about what the latest TV star breakdown more than important issues.
Something’s gotta give at some point I think.
Just my 2 cents.


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