Ombudsman Asks, Should Reporters Draw Conclusions?

by Matthew L. Schafer

Over at NPR, Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos recently asked readers and journalists to respond to a variety of question that arose out of a NPR investigation into the practices employed by the Mall of America police force.

“The two-part series, titled ‘Under Suspicion,’ was either hailed for exposing violations of civil liberties or condemned for undermining the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts,” Schumacher-Matos wrote, responding to listeners who felt the reporter either went too far in drawing conclusions or not far enough.

This led Schumacher-Matos to the now troubling questions facing journalists at news organizations around the country: “How far should [journalists] go in giving [their] own context and conclusions on what the consequences of [their] investigation might mean . . .?”  Schumacher-Matos then asked several other questions pushing the reader to consider competing considerations.

“But does [this all] mean that at no point should the story try to make bottom-line sense of it all for listeners? Is this taking “we report, you decide” to false limits?  I am not suggesting that the reporters give opinion, but should they turn the corner on their own investigation and themselves analyze what it means? We trust them more than any one source,”  Schumacher-Matos continued.

First, its necessary to clarify Schumacher-Matos last point, “We trust [reporters] more than any one source.”  First, there is no data that supports the proposition that people trust reporters more than any single source.  Indeed, someone who has more confidence in government may, in fact, trust a government official in a news story more than the reporter himself.

Moreover, as the Pew Society for People and the Press recently pointed out, only 25% of the American public believe that the media get the facts straight and 66% say that stories are not accurate.  So, it’s important to move forward with the understanding that the press, generally, are facing endemic trust issues.

Second, there is no clear explanation of how a reporter himself “analyze what [a story] means” is any different from the reporter offering his opinion–a proposition that Schumacher-Matos discards.  Indeed, Schumacher-Matos stated in no uncertain terms, “I am not suggesting that the reporters give opinion.”

Schumacher-Matos further suggests that reporters should adopt the “to be sure” standard where journalists should tell “the audience the significance of what we know and, just as important, don’t know from the presented story.”

Yet, Schumacher-Matos suggesstion seems over-simplified and impractical in practice.  First, it’s not an answer.  Instead, it just asks more questions:  What is significant?  Significant to whom?  Signficant from what perspective?  Indeed, such an approach leads a journalist into the dangerous enterprise of unknowingly injecting himself into the story.

In such a situation, Anita Dunn’s charge against Fox News is no doubt to follow: “It’s opinion journalism masquerading as news.”

Jay Rosen, NYU professor and media critic, threw his hat into the ring also, arguing that journalists should undoubtedly draw conclusions from their research.  Thus, he and Schumacher-Matos seem to fall in line generally.  Rosen even made a wish for NPR, writing that journalists should simply say:

Having investigated this and talked to a lot of people, having done the reporting and thought about it a lot, I would like to share with you some of the conclusions I have come to. I do not present them as facts. For they are not facts. Nor do they represent the position of NPR. As you know, NPR doesn’t take positions. Rather, these are my own takeaways, an NPR reporter’s “key lessons learned.”

Rosen went on to point out that NPR is too damaged currently to take up his charge of “interpretive journalism,” and closed by writing, “[NPR] sees not coming to conclusions as… well, as some kind of virtue, but this is a mistake.  Not coming to a conclusion is a virtue only when you have not done the reporting to support those conclusions.”

I disagree with both Schumacher-Matos and Rosen.  Late last night, I sent Schumacher-Matos my response, which read as follows (with slight altercations and ommissions):

I value objective journalism, and I think there is a place for objective journalism in the world.  The question, however, is what do we mean when we say, “objective?”  At its most basic, there are two conceptions of objectivity.  First, there is procedural objectivity; that is, a reporter cites competing opponents and leaves it up to the reader “to decide.”  This is that kind of objectivity that is still taught in journalism schools across the country.  Second, there is substantive objectivity; that is, a reporter researches a topic, or perhaps a fact that has been launched into a debate, and comes to a determination as to the validity or draws some other conclusion based on that research.

The question, if we believe that journalism betters democracy, is which one is better?  The answer is likely: it depends.  Indeed, I do not share Jay Rosen’s assertion that “Not coming to a conclusion is a virtue only when you have not done the reporting to support those conclusions.”  Not coming to a conclusion can be a virtue in a whole myriad of instances–even when you have done extensive reporting.  There is no absolute in journalism.  Take for example politicians arguing over obtuse points as to the “correct” way to fashion a solution to the economy.  Here, there should not be any conclusions drawn.  Indeed, reasonable economists disagree as to what the best policies are for exiting the recession.  Therefore, to expect a lay reporter to come to a conclusion as to what his “take away” is is to tread on dangerous ground.  Moreover, to make a conclusion in this situation, deprives the listener of his own conclusion.  Whether the reader is an economist or not, NPR should be able to present him with all suggestions being made, and leave it up to the listener to decide which one seems to be the best answer–and forward democracy marches.

On the other hand, however, there are those instances where a journalist should come to a conclusion.  A journalist should come to a conclusion when a journalist can research a topic and either debunk one assertion or clarify a complex problem by relying on verifiable fact.  Indeed, a journalist need not defend a determination that goes beyond the reflexivity of the he said, she said reporting style when that journalist literally can hide behind the facts.  When there are answers, the journalist should not be afraid to present them as such.

Of course, there is grey area in this dichotomy.  Not every case will be clear cut.  Yet, I see no reason why, in those grey cases, a journalists should not be able to couch his report in context–context, however, does not mean drawing conclusions on behalf of the reader.  Context simply means going beyond the confines of the story itself, and placing the story in a frame.  I see no problem with such an approach.

There are no clear answers to guide journalists through all the potential stories they may confront.  This does not mean we cannot fashion rules for those situations that are clear cut, and make suggestions as to the way ahead in the grey cases.  Moreover, with the press already in a precarious position of trust, it should be careful when injecting itself into heated debates–this only puts a target on its back.

Flickr/Kevin H.


About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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One Response to Ombudsman Asks, Should Reporters Draw Conclusions?

  1. Pingback: Digging deeper into The New York Times – Nieman Journalism Lab |

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