In Journalism, There Is Such a Thing as an Accurate Story

Perhaps PBS is doing the best it can with only 12 percent of its revenue coming from federal funding, but I expected better -- in some important respects -- from its new team on NewsHour.

As a result of interference by billionaires and what appears to be a strategy for pleasing as many people as possible, "balance" has become a frequent substitute for accuracy. As any regular viewer of NewsHour can attest, the favored approach is to present "both sides" of a story without telling us the real story.

There is the general absence of attention to significant expertise in subject matters being covered. Titles of guests are usually excluded. They are referred to by their first and last names, repeatedly and awkwardly, throughout interviews. Decades of work that one guest has invested to become an expert in a given field are ignored so another view (often from a politically based "institute") won't be diminished.

One of the very few stations where there is any hope of learning what really happened in the "news" on a given day now hosts a myriad of mind-numbing point-and-counterpoint techniques that suggest balanced reportage while rarely providing viewers any information to determine which of the opinions or reports presented is more credible.

PBS journalists used to research, investigate and report. Some still do. That's what has set them apart from lightweight network news shows. Their Supreme Court coverage is high level. Shields and Brooks present opinions in thoughtful, informative ways, reminding us that subjectivity when presented as such is not without merit. Margaret Warner is thorough and provides educated insight into disparate views -- without ending her reports with a shallow and convoluted summary indicating how both sides of the issue consist of well-meaning people who are doing equally good things.

Don't get me wrong; balance is not without its merits. Some point-and-counterpoint is fine. Balance is not, however, the same as objectivity or accuracy -- although it makes a nice, easy, inexpensive stand-in for what might otherwise be a real, difficult, comparatively expensive attempt to report what is actually going on.

As if these bad habits weren't enough, flaccid phrases add insult to injury. "Some people say..." "It's been said..." "People think..." "One study says..." are common on network news. These and others should be banned from PBS -- and from any self-respecting televised or radio news show. Who are "some people"? Why should we care what "some people" say? How do we know whether what "some people" say is the real "buzz" or merely a poor excuse for actually researching a topic? It's an abominable habit that insults audiences and contributes to the dumbing down of America. Pay some more investigative journalists and let's get to the bottom of things.

If PBS were to become more serious about accuracy, Sesame Street characters could regularly ask, "Who are the 'some people' who supposedly said that?" and "Which people by name think that?" Kermit or Elmo would be great at this. It would go a long way toward preventing another entire generation from growing up failing to question the veracity of what they're being told.

A lot more reporters asking similar, probing questions might begin to return lost but much-needed integrity to electronic journalism and more honesty to our homes. We might actually go to bed some nights knowing what really happened that day rather than having our minds full of drivel "some people" were invited to waste everyone's time telling us.

Kathleen also blogs about persuasion and politics at work here. Her latest book and debut novel is the mystery-thriller Shadow Campus.