When I was a newspaper reporter, I heard the expression dozens of times a week:
“There are two sides to every story.”
I heard it from sources. I heard it from editors (especially from editors). I heard it from fellow reporters. Hell, I probably muttered those words a hundred times myself. Probably as my lame excuse why I was giving equal weight to a contrarian and probably dubious point of view.
Because there are NOT two sides to every story. There never have been. Sometimes there is one side to story. Other times there are three or four and sometimes even dozens sides. The notion that there are two distinct and equally relevant sides to every issue is ridiculous. But that mentality continues to permeate journalism and the web – especially blogging.
It’s one of the reason why journalism is struggling. As mainstream publications cutback on reporting staff and put more pressure on remaining journalists to produce copy – more he said/she said stories are published. Why? Because they are easy to write. Here is how NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen of ThinkPress describes the fundamental features of a he said/she said story:
- “There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”
This two sides to every story – he said/she said dynamic have produced coverage of:
- “Death panels” for the elderly as part of Obama’s healthcare reform package even though no such thing exists
- Holocaust deniers claiming that one of history’s most tragic events never even occurred
- The birthers movement who are claiming Obama isn’t an American citizen and should be removed from office
Now granted some of the coverage on the examples above is simply propoganda – the spreading of lies even when you know they’re lies. But many mainstream publications and blogs have reported on the issues above giving equal voice to the people who promote these fictional point of views. There is no “other” side of whether or not the Holocaust happened. To even give a voice to Holocaust deniers in a serious news article is to do a disservice to readers – and to society.
But this is what happens in a polarized political environment divided between Democrats and Republicans. The idea gets pushed that there are two sides – and only two sides – to every issue (as if every Democrat and Republican thinks exactly the same and that nuance doesn’t exist).
The job of a journalist should be simple: Discover the truth. Explore all the angles if necessary – giving a voice to dissenters with an opinion based on facts and reason. This could be one side, two sides or many sides. But at the end of the day reporters – those working for newspapers and those working for blogs – need to provide readers with what is real.