Fighting the "he said, she said" cowardice

Don't get me wrong. I love NPR. I listen to it for at least four hours a day. But lately I've found the network's embrace of "he said, she said" journalism a little too difficult to swallow. This morning's report on censorship of a scientific report commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality isn't perhaps the most egregious example, but it does concern climate change, so it's worth examining.

For those unfamiliar with this lazy and cowardly form of reporting, check out new media maven Jay Rosen's take. Basically, the problem is NPR is afraid to let its reporters come right out and call a spade a spade, lest someone in Washington should accuse the network of ideological bias.

This is understandable, given how much undeserved grief NPR has received recently from the right wing. Loosing federal funding would be a serious blow. But ultimately, if NPR news programming continues to shy away from actually describing what's going on, instead of just allowing "both sides" to have their say, even when one side is lying, then it won't really matter what happens with the money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

That's the context. Here's the example that has gotten me riled up. A couple of weeks ago, it came to light that political appointees running the Texas CEQ had edited out all references to sea level rise in a chapter of its latest State of the Bay, a regular report on the Galveston Bay Estuary Program. The commission had asked the Houston Advanced Research Center to write the report, and the chapter's author, John Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University in Houston, summarized the latest science regarding what what happening with sea level they're rising faster than they used to because of global warming. But the CEQ, evidently following the lead of the state's climate-change-denying governor, one Rick Perry, decided the facts weren't what they were really interested in after all.

You can see the chapter, with all the edits tracked, is here. It leaves no doubt about what happened.

A worthy story, broken by the Houston Chronicle, and picked up here and there, but not by NPR, until today.

Here's the headline from some other media outlets that paid attention when it was first news:

Texas officials censored climate change report

-- New Scientist

Perry Officials Censored Climate Change Report
-- Mother Jones

And here's NPR's headline:
Scientists Say Texas Agency Edits Out Climate Change

See the difference? Subtle, but significant. The story itself, by John Burnett, begins with an intro that talks about "alleged scientists censorship." and "scientists and conservationists have accused the state environmental agency of editing out references to climate change."

To be fair, Burnett states unequivocally that the CEQ did make some edits, and later notes that scientists know sea level rise, caused by anthropogenic global warming is occuring. He contrasts that with a CEQ spokesperson's argument that the anthropogenic part of the science is "unsettled." But he also lets the CEQ defend itself as not being about censorship, and the overall impression left by the story is the old "one the one hand scientists say this, but on the other, the government says that."

Burnett let Anderson make "claims" about the "alleged" censorship instead of stating it simply himself. This is standard NPR practice, let the people's voices tell the story, instead of having the reporter make the case. But that's simply not being honest with the audience, who should be told what's really going on. What NPR, the Morning Edition host and Burnett should have done is state in no uncertain terms that the Texas CEQ censored a scientific report to ensure it didn't clash with a political position that has no basis in fact.

Again, one can glean that all from Burnett's story. But it took me two listens to make sure it was all in there. Radio listeners shouldn't have to do that. It should be more straightforward.

Here's Rosen talking about exactly the same sort of thing in an exchange with the NPR ombudsman about an NPR story about new, obviously unreasonable abortion-clinic regulations in Kansas.

I think in many ways NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. For example:

We forwarded Rosen's criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:

"I've covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.

"It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I'm covering. So, I don't do that, with abortion or other issues."

Take a position on the issue? No, Kathy. This is not what I'm saying: at all....

Me: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who's right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?

Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don't understand is: That's not my job!

I do understand how you define your job. What I'm asking for is more reporting, not editorializing or picking a side.

Exactly. That's what I expect for the cash I give my local NPR stations each year. Nothing more, nothing less.

More like this

Despite the fact that I'm a science reporter for an NPR affiliate station, I have a real problem with 'he said, she said' journalism as a formula for objective reporting - particularly when it comes to science. That said, I take issue with several points in your post and the articles you hold up as superior journalism.
First of all, the headlines in New Scientist and Mother Jones were inaccurate. It was not a climate change report. It was a State of the Bay report. Climate change is what was deleted.
Could Burnett's headline have been clearer? Sure. Could he have pushed back more on the idea that climate change and sea level rise are 'unsettled science'? Sure. But here's the heart of the matter.
There's clear evidence that changes were made. 'Sea level rise' was almost categorically changed to the less descriptive 'sea level change.' And explanations of the role of climate change were eliminated. Anyone can see that for themselves.
What's really at issue is why. Was this ideologically driven censorship? Mother Jones makes that assumption. And, to be fair, it's not a big leap. Unfortunately, without clear documentation (e.g. emails, memos) that state the intention of the edits, that's a question that can only be answered by 'he said, she said.'

"It was a State of the Bay report. Climate change is what was deleted."

And the State of the Bay changed because..?

Oh, that would be climate, wouldn't it.

Since sea level rise and climate change are linked, missing out "Climate change" rather makes the report useless: a report on what it IS is no use, because you can't work out what might need changing. You need to know what's likely to happen, then plan for it.

But the problem is that climate change Is Not Happening (tm) for repubs. Therefore any mention should be removed.

And do you think the people whose names are on the report would know more about the report's scope than you?

One would have expected so.

"Unfortunately, without clear documentation (e.g. emails, memos) that state the intention of the edits"

The idiots GAVE the reason for the edits: it was against their political guidelines.

I would have hoped you could do a better job of reporting than this, really.

PS Heather, if you're REALLY set on finding out why, how about firing off some FOIAs on it? You know, journalistic investigation. Like a science reporter working for an NPR affiliate ought to be doing.

The same thing happens frequently on the CBC here in Canada. In the past few days, I have heard interviews by two different journalists with our Natural Resources minister (about Keystone) and with our Environment Minister (re Canada's emissions / tar sands).

In one case, the journalist fairly timidly said "but the Pembina Institute says...". In the other, the journalist did counter a few of the minister's statements with facts, but the minister simply ignored them.

In both cases, the end result was giving politicians a soapbox for spreading disinformation.

I don't fault the journalists in this case too much; I think it would require someone with more scientific background to do a proper 'reality check' in real time.

Those posting articles on the website have no such excuse.

Heather, I understand where you are coming from, but it's a bit misleading to argue that the other headlines are inaccurate because they refer to climate change. The chapter in question dealt largely with the effects of climate change on the bay. That was the whole point of the chapter, and author John Anderson has made it clear that without the references to climate change, and anthropogenic climate change, the chapter is pretty useless, which is why he refuses to be associated with the edited chapter.

I'd guess Heather would lose her job if she stuck her neck out and actually compared the two versions of the document herself and said which parts were taken out.

Yes, there are some statements a reporter can't be expected to confirm from personal experience.

Earth flat?
Well, it sure looks that way from where you stand. If you can't tell for yourself, quote various views.

Report text changed?
How could you tell if that happened?

Ummm, I don't get it, removing words and phrases like "accused", "scientist say", etc, IS editorialising unless the writer witness the act themselves.

NEWS is not supposed to judge anything except the accuracy of the facts and quotes it's reporting. In this case the facts and quotes are about the (alleged) manipulation of a scientific report by politicians, it's "alleged" because nothing has yet been proven. When (if ever) some independent body investigates the allegation then NPR may rightly think about dropping the caveats.

Also what was in the report is more or less irrelevant to the angle of the story, it would be the same story if they deleted stuff about heavy metals. But still, the writer was thorough enough to research and report that what was (allegedly) deleted was in fact based on sound science.

Give me NPR's weasel words over Fox's certitude any day!

This is another reason why NPR should not get govt. Funding.

"the (alleged) manipulation of a scientific report by politicians, it's "alleged" because nothing has yet been proven"

Really. So when the link to the changes are shown, this isn't proof, Alan?

"I don't fault the journalists in this case too much; I think it would require someone with more scientific background to do a proper 'reality check' in real time."

No, it would take journalists some questioning of the people they're interviewing.

However, if they find out that their channel's sponsors are unhappy, then they'll be told by the chiefs to STFU.

And therefore the only place you'll get journalism now is on the blogs.

And then journalists complain that the bloggers don't have the ability to do journalism unlike themselves who have had a career path of journalism.

Sorry, you may be ABLE to do a better job, you you DON'T. And people leaving journalists to circle-jerk and go to blogs where, even if the person is misinformed, at least they're not too timid to ask questions.

"He said, she said" can be done well.

Here's an example from an NPR story on an controversial topic that were it was done effectively:

NPR Host: ".. Many Scientologists regard [certain court cases] as the sort of persecution any young church undergoes on the road to becoming an established religion. And whatever its critics say, Scientology is a religion. It has tax-exempt status in the United States. It also has ordained ministers, a recognized creed, a literature of its own, established places of worship and regular services. Despite its troubles with foreign governments, the Los Angeles-based church says it is booming. It claims to have eight million members around the world, though observers say the numbers are far lower."

There they stuck to explaining what the various sides say. But that didn't stop them from still announcing various statements as 'facts'.

For example, the NPR Host was were very upfront that Scientology is a religion.That isn't exactly a universal viewpoint - which is why they backed it up with an explanation of why.

NPR simply stating that, despite what people think, it really unabigious that Scientology fits into the category of 'religion'. That's the way it should be. NPR isn't taking sides as to whether scientology is right or wrong.

Equally they can simply state that AGW fits unambigiously into the category of 'established science' without taking a side as to whether it is right or wrong. (Yes - established science does get it wrong sometimes.)

But that doesn't change the fact that it really is established science.



I think you misread a lot of reporters' problems with blogs. I am a working reporter. I love blogs. I even write one.

But many bloggers don't do journalism. And what sticks in the craw is when they go off on us for not telling the story they want us to tell.

There's a whole debate about objectivity ad that, and most of us in the profession realize that the concept is sort'a wrong and that you can't be "objective." But you can be fair to people. That's different. That's why you can fall into the two sides trap pretty easily.

But more importantly, the problem a lot of us have with blogs is that often they tell us we're not doing our jobs when they don't bother to pick up the facts. Which may not square with your opinions.

Let me give an example: I was reading the blog "Racialicious" which I really, really dig. A couple of years ago someone wrote that they were upset that a Colorado news station filed a story under "weird news" that had a race angle. So people objected to that, saying that news that affects people of color should not be "weird" and that it was irresponsible for the station to do that.

OK, good as far as it goes. But not one person on the bog staff, not one commenter called the station up to ask what went on. I did. I threw up a bit in the comments with the relevant manager's explanation.

You see the difference? Too many bloggers don't do any reporting which means calling people up and getting the documentation, and asking people stuff. I have to actually call scientists when I write about science. I have to call politicians and spend time getting someone on the phone, to make absolutely sure I give them their say. I have to check my facts.

You understand the difference? That's the issue reporters have with some bloggers, though by no means all the time. There are lots of bloggers who are darn good reporters. But there are many who aren't because it is not what they do. That's okay. It's the nature of the form.

If you think reporting is easy you are welcome to try.

Doesn't surprise me in the least. This is the same Governor Perry who executed an innocent man and then in a live television appearance essentially said he'd d it again if he had the chance.

The man (Perry) is in my opinion a first class asshole.

"I think you misread a lot of reporters' problems with blogs"

Maybe, but most (at least by volume) I've accurately summarised, Jesse.

Most journalists don't do journalism. The vasty majority of them.

And what gets into their craw is irrelevant: you're not doing your jobs. That they want you to cover something is no reason to not do any investigation.

So in the vaccuum of informing the public the bloggers do what they can. Without the contacts, the money, resources and time. They may be doing a half-assed job (but look at Wikileaks for a full-assed job and the journalists being assholes over it), but that's more than journalists are doing.

@WOW - "So when the link to the changes are shown, this isn't proof, Alan?"

No, it only shows they have made some claims. This is reflected in the fact that the word "charges" is a synonym for "allegations". You may have other information that leads you to believe they are true but by themselves they are just hearsay, ie: what he or she said. The language used by NPR is proper in that NPR themselves have not independently verified or refuted the allegations.

I don't see why this is so difficult to comprehend, do they no longer teach due process and "innocent until proven guilty" in the US?

"No, it only shows they have made some claims"

No, they showed the changelogs.

This is called "evidence" even in a criminal court.

But I guess since it is devastating to your case, you object.

"I don't see why this is so difficult to comprehend"

Yes you do. You're just pretending.

"do they no longer teach due process and "innocent until proven guilty" in the US?"

1) evidence is what you need to prove someone guilty.

2) this isn't a court of law. We're not arresting them.

If I quote you saying "I don't see why this is so difficult to comprehend", can you deny you said this by proclaiming the irrelevant point of "Do you not understand 'innocent until proven guilty'"?

Which, by the way is FALSE. It's innocent unless proven guilty.

But here we have evidence.

It's like taking a quote.

It's proof of what was done.

This is evidence that proves guilt. A court is only required to mete out punishment.

PS one reason for Journalists getting a hard time when bloggers seem (to the journalist) to be getting a free pass is that the journalists SHOULD be doing better, COULD be doing better and ARE NOT doing it. It's their frikkin job!

If we didn't think that the profession could do better than a blogger, we'd not be slapping them round the head with their failure.

The NPR's taste for 'even-handedness' continues in other areas. I was listening to Morning Edition a couple of days ago, when a report came on about the shortage of Plutonium 238 for NASA's probes.

Apparently 'lawmakers' had blocked money for further production. A Democrat 'lawmaker' was interviewed about his attempts to get an appropriation passed to get it done, but that was as far as the 'politics' went. The blocking 'lawmakers' were never identified, either by name or by party, although you could probably guess who they were and possibly why (Energy funds should be spent only on porking up the nuclear industry).

The takeaway fact for any casual listener would have been that 'congress' are blocking NASA and science, and that they are all equally useless. Balanced..and yet complete nonsense.

Much as I complain about the BBC, there is no way that 'Today' would have let that slide - they would have had the minister and the opposition spokeman on, to argue it out. Everyone in the studio would then have shown their complete ignorance of science (especially the presenters), but thats another matter.

NPR is basically afraid of its own shadow, and is the poorer for it.