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.
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?