The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Margaret Sullivan.

Journalists often want to be as objective as possible. But when does it lead to false equivalence in reporting?
There’s a whole issue about whether voter IDs should be tightened up in order to prevent fraud. But in fact, there has been very little detectable voter fraud. So when proponents of this reform say, “Oh, we must do this because there’s terrible fraud out there,” it’s really important for it to be countered, for the reporter or the news organization to simply say in their own voice, “Actually, there’s no evidence of this.” They don’t have to quote somebody to counter it. I think it has bearing in the campaign as well. All the candidates should be treated fairly, and with a certain amount of open-mindedness, but it’s extremely important to hold them accountable as well, and that may mean different things with different candidates. To bring the exact same approach to everyone actually doesn’t work very well in a campaign in which the candidates are so unlike each other. In the reporting on Trump University, there was an effort, and I think this was fine, to get somebody from the Trump campaign to respond to these criticisms. One of their responses was, “Well, yes, this is a tiny minority of people who weren’t happy, but there are many, many more people who were thrilled and happy.” So that was a sort of he-said-she-said, and you don’t know where to come down. And there’s another element to this that I’m seeing in some news reports now that says, “Well, actually the extremely positive responses were, if not coerced, there was pressure to write them a certain way.” So this was an element that didn’t seem to be explored at all. So again, you’re left with, “Well, there’s people complaining, and then other people really liked it, and the Trump campaign says there were even more people who really liked it, so I don’t know what to think.” The way you try to look objective and fair is to try to be even and balanced. But sometimes the balance is false, because, really, what you ought to be trying to do is serve the interest of the news consumer, rather than try to be objective. So if you switch your goal from trying to be safe and trying to look objective to what really serves the citizen who’s looking for information, then you get a different kind of result that isn’t just “Well, we’re going to split it down the middle and call it a day.”

How does this affect readers?
I think readers get frustrated, and it’s one of the many reasons that there’s less trust in the media than there should be. Because what you’d like is authoritative information that you can take to the bank. And when you get the sort of, “Well, there’s some of this, and there’s some of that, and we really don’t know,” it makes you throw up your hands and say, “Well, I wish I could get some decent information here.” Or you might simply be misled. In the world of soft science, you see a lot of this. As a coffee drinker, I’ve suffered whiplash. I’ve seen surveys that say, “Coffee is terrible for you,” or “No, actually it’s good, it will extend your life.” “No! It will kill you.” With some things, there is no final, established truth, and it’s not reasonable to expect it. But one of the things that frustrates me is when a reporter says, “The situation is complex,” or “This is a complicated subject.” A lot of times, what that means is, “I don’t really understand it well enough to explain it, so I’m going to try to blame it on the fact that it’s complex.”

What are some of the particular problems with political reporting?
I think there’s a tendency to overcover the horse race and undercover the issues. It seems very interesting in the moment to write about the latest poll, who’s ahead, who scored points in the debate. And all those things are fine. But when you’re doing that to a fault, or overdoing it, you may neglect some of the things that are more substantive, and that would actually be more useful to people. I did a little analysis at the Times, maybe a couple of months ago, of horse-race stories versus issues stories. For one thing, the sheer number of stories about the presidential campaign was just mind-boggling. And the percentage of them that could be described as horse-race stories was extremely high. And it’s important to know that those horse-race stories were very, very popular with readers. So it’s hard to not keep doing them. And maybe if you do the sort of broccoli story of “Let’s compare and contrast the candidates on their foreign policy,” which is of course very important, it may not drive traffic the way the horse-race story does. But I think we need to do them anyway. I also think there’s a desire on the part of the campaign reporters to write these stories. Reporters are interested in that story and so are editors, so they don’t really want to abandon it. We’re just as interested in it, or maybe more, than the public is. So it’s very hard to say, “We’re going to leave that to the wire services and use our resources elsewhere.”

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know