Can News Media Outlets Afford Truthful Reporting?

I am very much with Michael O’Hare in liking the idea of news media avoiding objective-on-the-surface “he said, she said” reporting. Too much media coverage is along the lines of “Some people think Obama’s health reform law includes Islamic-inspired death panels run by Socialists, but other people see it differently”, with no accompanying commentary on the fact that “some people” are lying and “other people” are telling the truth. Instead, each side is implicitly presented as having an equal claim to the truth. NPR, with praise from heavyweights like James Fallows, wants to move beyond such “false equivalence” and instead make a careful assessment of which side has a better claim to the truth.

So far, so good, but let me bring this home in a personal way to show how hard it will be to achieve.

I have worked with a tripartisan group of British politicians for the past 18 months to bring the successful 24/7 sobriety programme to the UK. My role has been mainly to do presentations summarizing the growing scientific evidence on 24/7 sobriety and similar programmes (e.g., HOPE Probation). An increasing body of evidence shows that these programmes help substance-misusing offenders while reducing both crime and incarceration.

Happily, the necessary legislation was passed by Parliament last week. Here is BBC coverage of the new programme. It’s classic “he said, she said” reporting, with people who “believe” in the programme set against someone who labels it a “populist gimmick.”

Think how much work it would been for BBC to find out that one side in this debate is backed by randomized clinical trials, population epidemiology studies, and practical experience in a number of states. Even if someone had given the reporter my name, he or she would have had to track me down before whatever deadline was looming (which would have taken the reporter time) so that I could go through the evidence in detail (more time). The journalist would also need to do spade work on me to find out whether I was credible or not (more time) and also to understand what clinical trials are and how they can be interpreted (yet more time).

In contrast, telephoning someone with no knowledge of the evidence and having that person rubbish it probably took less than 15 minutes. Work minimized, deadline met, and on to the next thing for the BBC reporter.

False equivalence is, to put it baldly, cheaper than truthful coverage of policy debates. And unless there is a market penalty for “he said, she said” stories, news media outlets which aspire to truth rather than false equivalence may struggle for economic viability.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.