Reporting on controversial issues, where competing partisan sides vie for a reporter’s attention and validation, is perhaps the greatest challenge in journalism. Media critics have long noted that many reporters have somewhat mindlessly tended to give each side equal time, stacking a quote from one partisan source on top of a quote from the other side. This has been referred to as “he said, she said” journalism, or the practice of “false balance.” It is the result of a certain tradition in journalism, the “objective” model, that saw a reporter’s role as largely passive when it comes to knowledge of issues — simply get two counterbalancing quotes on any controversy, and your work was done.
But in many instances the underlying data associated with an issue — global warming or voter ID laws, for example — is almost entirely on one side or the other. Reporters who neglect mountains of indisputable data and allow for claims, however unfounded, to be aired publicly may do more harm than they realize, as social science research shows that citizens, once exposed to misinformation, are not easily able to shake loose from its grip. The persistence of such material in a digital world only makes that problem worse. In this way, reporters can fail in their fundamental role to inform citizens and make democracy work.
Further, when stories are not anchored in data, sensationalism can run rampant, damaging the public interest. For example, between 1992 and 1994 the volume of news coverage about crime roughly tripled, fueled by several high-profile national cases. This in turn led to high degrees of concern about crime registered in public opinion polls, and lawmakers passed tougher sentencing policies and spent more on prisons. This happened even as, according to Justice Department statistics, crime rates, including violent crime, were actually falling.
That particular media critique and many others are examined in the book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, by Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He says that journalists can easily become complicit in the “deception” perpetrated by partisan sources and groups with ideological bias:
So how can a reporter, especially one fresh to a beat or roving on general assignment duty, inoculate herself against misinformation? There are no easy answers, of course, but the beginning is to educate yourself — and increasingly this means doing so on deadline, and learning how to learn quickly, in “Internet time.” Patterson calls this “knowledge about how to use knowledge,” and it requires some basic statistical familiarity, a comfort with databases and an ability to read research and complex material.
At its root, this means a habit of always asking, on every story: What do the data say? What is the current state of research knowledge?
Conveying such information to news consumers, along with carrying out the traditional journalistic practice of interviewing, observing and gathering anecdotes, becomes a vital part of knowledge-based, or contextual, reporting. This does not mean reporters have to deliver a single “truth” to their audience, but rather that they should try to provide some sense of the state of research knowledge and available data. It also means reporters may “frame” stories very differently — they may approach interviews and sources differently, selecting what’s important in a more informed way.
What would such an education look like on a given issue? Below are a dozen research reviews that can serve as models of this practice. Click on each topic to see the deeper information reporters might gather — each links to an article that reviews the associated research literature and data.
- Capital punishment. Beyond moral questions, what do the data say about deterrence effects, false convictions and public opinion?
- Global warming and heat waves. We hear skepticism about climate change all the time, but what is the most credible research?
- Laws and gun violence in America. This is an issue that is often filtered through a political lens. What does research tell us?
- Vaccines and health. More Americans are not vaccinating their children. Do they have a case? And what are the potential public health impacts of lower vaccination rates?
- Minimum wage. This issue is always a political “football.” Do we have empirical evidence supporting one side or the other?
- Fracking and public health. We hear of the vast promise of a natural gas energy boom in the United States, as well as worries about human health. What have experts found?
- “Big box” stores. The building of large chain stores is frequently controversial in small-town America. What do we know about community effects?
- Violent video games. Do first-person shooter games encourage reckless behavior and spur acts of violence?
- Solitary confinement. The practice of confining prisoners who break rules to isolated quarters has come under scrutiny. What are the effects on prisoners’ mental health?
- Voter ID laws. One side fights for unfettered access to the polls, while the other raises concerns over voter fraud. Which side does the data favor?
- Fluoridation in public water systems. This is an old fight, yet continues unabated. What should you know if groups in your community try to stop fluoridation?
- Marijuana and health. As legalization has spread in the United States, claims are being made on all sides about the potential health effects. How much do we really know?
Keywords: training, false balance, data-driven reporting, local reporting