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Reporters Should Be Subject-Matter Experts and Honest Brokers

Kevin Drum asks:

The Washington Monthly: OBJECTIVITY....Mark Kleiman comments on the convention of objectivity in the reporting of straight news:

A news account isn't an editorial. The ideal-type "reporter" is supposed to give "just the facts, ma'am," and not his or her own opinions.

This creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat....should the reporter "objectively" simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?

Mostly, reporters find it more comfortable either to copy down the b.s. and let the reader sort it out, or to find a source willing to be quoted as saying that the world is round.... So the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth.

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

The problem with the convention of objectivity isn't that no one recognizes that it's a problem. Everyone recognizes that it's a problem. Entire tank cars of ink have been spilled discussing it. The real problem is that so far no one has come up with a solution — a practical, functional, real-world solution — that's broadly acceptable. Any ideas?

The pressure point is "most reporters aren't subject-matter experts." Why not? Replace non-subject-matter expert reporters with expert subject-matter reporters who have reputations as honest brokers. You need both: subject-matter expertise, and a willingness to be an honest broker interested in informing readers rather than a propagandist or a stenographer. The Washington Post should throw Nell Henderson out the window and buy its Federal Reserve coverage from the Wall Street Journal and Jackie Calmes. The New York Times should throw Michael Gordon out the window and buy its Iraq coverage from Steve Negus of the Financial Times and Nancy Youssef and Leila Fadel of McClatchy.