Jay Rosen is a man whose views on journalism and the future of media I take very seriously. A month ago he posted a long piece attacking the He Said, She Said formula of journalism. We all know what that is - a convenient journalistic tool for presenting at least two sides to any issue. Jay calls it false balance, often the lame acceptance of fact-free spin, which leaves the reader helpless in understanding where truth lies. He attacks the "straight down the middle" impulse saying it is no longer acceptable when the web can provide so much material to help call out distortions and untruths. And certainly the example he cites, from the New York Times, is spectacularly lame. I agree with the thrust of what he's saying, but was left uncomfortable for, I think, three reasons.
Firstly, I'm not sure it's the He Said, She Said formula that is really the problem. What Jay, and others, are really and rightly attacking is lazy journalism. That can take many forms. Be it for reasons of competence, motivation or time, there are many reports which are frankly lame or lazy and which get through the editing process. I can recall as an editor of BBC TV Bulletins 20 years ago it was perfectly possible to be entirely passive and fill the programme with agency and diary material and few people would notice or complain. However, the challenge, and satisfaction came from swimming against that tide and driving original inquiry and analysis which set your programme apart from the pack. It's hard work, but it shows.
The same is true of any form of journalism. Equally, although I recognise the He Said, She Said formula may be a common cover for complacency, I can at least conceive of it being judiciously used to elucidate and inform in a valuable way where there is genuine controversy or legitimate conflicts of view.
(That last point is important - legitimate conflict. Jay also rightly attacks false balance or false equivalence. He's right to do so. This is particularly a risk in science and medical coverage, for example, where often a rogue or minority view can be set against the well researched and expert view as if it had equal weight. Many have complained of climate change coverage for that reason, or medical controversy)
Consider the sensitivities of conflict reporting, or societies where there is a less free environment. Used thoughtfully, the discipline of He Said, She Said might provide at least one brake to diatribe, hate speech or polemic or a pathway through a hotly contested and potentially incendiary issue.
Secondly, I worry that what Jay and others risk encouraging (even unintentionally) is more opinion and less evidential rigour. We are awash with opinion, some informed, much not. Evidence-based reporting, the basis of objectivity (as distinct from impartiality) is in retreat and needs to be bolstered. He Said, She Said started life a hundred years ago as a journalistic discipline to counter yellow-journalism as Pulitzer and others tried to establish a degree of civic responsiblity in the press. It may have run its course but there are many who simply favour journalism of opinion - under the cloak of "calling the story". I maintain we need evidence, fact-based reporting more than ever in a world awash with information rumour and opinion. That sometimes calls for a journalism of restraint - in which the New York Times (and the BBC) has an honourable tradition.
Finally, there is nothing new in this and I am reminded of the differences between British and American Journalism (not least, in broadcast regulation. Successive studies have shown the UK public trust broadcasters more than newspapers because they recognise the impartiality requirements). Thirty four years ago a British TV producer, John Birt, later Director-General of the BBC, and Peter Jay, a Times columnist and later Economics Editor of the BBC wrote a series of three articles attacking the formulaic approach of TV News. They called it a "bias against understanding" - and their argument was at heart the same as Jay Rosen's.
"Intelligent - in the sense of understanding, not intellectual - news means continuous news analysis. This requires many qualified - that is, knowledgeable and educated - journalists, sometimes working in teams and continuously blending inquiry and analysis, so that the needs of understanding direct the inquiry and the fruits of inquiry inform the analysis."
It was an argument against TV's version of He Said, She Said and in favour of specialist, informed reporting. At that time News was straight reporting with interpretation or analysis left to current affairs long-form programmes. Birt proposed integrating the two and when he joined the BBC he started to put it into effect recruiting dozens of specialist journalists, organising them and blending reporting with interpretation and analysis. In the late eighties, instead of interviewing those caught up in the news, specialists correspondents would be interviewed to explain the significance of an event or a report. It was highly successful, building the reputation of BBC News as a quality, intelligent, authoritative service. It's a model which persists to this day.
But many have complained about it - saying the media is denying the public direct access to the words of politicians, for example, preferring to offer their own interpretation instead. Or that what should be professional specialist journalistic judgement is sometimes no different from personal opinion. The complaint I hear about UK TV news most often is a plea to once again "separate news from comment."
So where does this leave us? I favour intelligent analysis and explanation - but with editorial discipline and supported by evidence-based reporting. As we rightly assert there is no place for lazy journalism in the new digital world we must also be careful not to dispense with what still matters. He Said, She Said journalism as a cover for lack of inquiry, inadequate resources or for false equivalence has no place. But as part of a range of tools to impose a discipline on opinion or prejudice it may still have some value. "Calling the story" can bring understanding - but it has at least as many pitfalls as lazy journalism. I don't disagree with the critics of He Said, She Said. I just think it needs to be nuanced.
Returning to Jay's post, he puts his criticisms in the context of "the active user" in the digital world. It reminds me of an interview for the Berkman Center between David Weinberger and Dan Gillmor where Dan suggests that the public have a growing civic responsibility to use media actively and critically. I agree - but it is one of the yet-to-be-resolved issues of the new world of journalism how the public will be encouraged and supported to take a more active and critical role. As local newspapers fold it's clear that in many cities, both here and in the US, the civic role of the press will disappear. If it matters - and I believe it does - it will have to be reinvented and the "active user", once recognising the democratic value of what's lost, will be key to its reinvention.
Perhaps the subject for another post sometime, it seems to me the shape of future digital journalism is emerging. It will be open, networked, online and mobile, semantically driven. There will be a greater separation between serious journalism and info-tainment - those who try to straddle to divide will be forced to fall one side or the other.
But much is still to be resolved. particularly sustainable business models, but also how civic information will be provided, what will be the responsibility of the consumer and how will they be supported in this new and active role? It will need more than opinion and comment. It will require facts and editorial discipline.