Fact-based journalism

Journalism Takes Too Much Time

Washington Post reporter David Hilzenrath called me last week after I sent him an email asking if he was going to look into claims that “regulations kill jobs.” (see also and here) He and Phil Rucker had written a front page story that included a statement by the reporters that no one making those claims could provide any evidence. Yet for about 1600 words Hilzenrath and Rucker allowed mostly those asserting the claim full rein.

In my talk with him I characterized it as a “he said, she said” story. He took umbrage at that, but we did find common ground. Rucker had stated in an email to me that they would conduct their “due diligence” to fact check the claim. But Hilzenrath said that would be unlikely for the simple reason that it would take too much time to examine the veracity of the claim. He also said it may impossible to verify it or disprove it.

I agree it would take some time and no definitive answer may be possible, but what he said speaks to the sad state of journalism today. Even the best newspapers, such as The Post, can’t do their job of seeking truth, as the ethics code of the Society of Journalism sets out as one of the profession’s guiding principles: to seek the truth. They are short-staffed and must stick to reporting what happens with little examination of the claims of either party.

Even on the big issues, fact checking is too slow. As Mark Twain once said, a lie will go around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on. I recalled a conference I attended years ago in which Mike Shear, then a Post  reporter covering Virginia state government, admonished bloggers for reporting rumors. I pointed out to him how The Post  had allowed the rumor, false as it turned out, by the “Swift Boaters” against Sen. John Kerry, to receive coverage in his paper for more than a week before it refuted the rumor. He conceded my point. The best known recent example is Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” still believed to be true by nearly half of all Americans.

Yet it requires “too much time” to verify the truth. Are readers being well served? And is it any wonder that newspapers, where we expect to find the “first draft of history,” are dying. Fewer people trust the information they get from mainstream media. Seventy percent of respondents to a CNN poll said the media was “out of touch” and from 1972 to 2009 those who have confidence in the mainstream media fell from 68 percent to 45 percent, according to a Gallup poll.

So here’s a suggestion for The Post. For national political reporting (its bread and butter), contract with another news organization that covers the back and forth of Congress and the White House. Maybe The National Journal, AP or Roll Call. Ask those news organizations to provide short stories about what happened on the Hill or at the White House briefing. These stories would be no more than a couple hundred words that would say this is the issue and here’s the spin from each side. No quotes, just synopses of the issues and the spin. These stories could be on page 2 or 3 and graphically laid out to be quick reads.

That would free up Post reporters to dig behind the spin. That analysis of the issue may not be produced the same day in some cases, but as issues percolate, reporters could be working on the different issues encompassing the political story. In the “regulations kills jobs” scenario, reporters would be looking at questions such as:

  • Has this issue been studied by a reasonably non-partisan group and what were the findings?
  • Which type of regulations create new jobs and which ones simply cost money?
  • What regulations are truly silly or address a problem that no longer exists?
  • Which regulations seemed to be put in place to help a special interest?

With each hearing or press conference, AP, Roll Call or the National Journal would summarize the tit for tat or any new development and the Post would provide the context.

There are too many smart people at newspapers throughout the country to waste their talents being stenographers of the political process.

Who You Calling Liars?

All the more reason we need journalists who fact check.

Politick calls Republicans liars at three times the rate they call Democrats liars. Naturally, someone has a problem with that. In this case, Eric Ostermeier, a researcher at the University of Minnesota and author of the Smart Politics blog.

Politick, the high profile political fact-checking operation at the St. Petersburg Times, has been criticized by those on the right from time to time for alleged bias in its grading of statements made by political figures and organizations.

Ostermeier questions how Politick determines which statements get evaluated, suggesting the website authors seek out more damaging GOP statements than Democratic ones. He notes that the site evaluates as many GOP statements as Democratic ones, but that’s not good enough.  Apparently he wants some kind of algorithm to prove they are being fair.

Whatever. Best part of this confusing post is this quote from Politifact editor Bill Adair:

"The media in general has shied away from fact checking to a large extent because of fears that we’d be called biased, and also because I think it’s hard journalism. It’s a lot easier to give the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand kind of journalism and leave it to readers to sort it out. But that isn’t good enough these days. The information age has made things so chaotic, I think it’s our obligation in the mainstream media to help people sort out what’s true and what’s not."


h/t Political Wire

Do Regulations Kill Jobs?: Q but no A

Well, the Washington Post  has made a feeble attempt to weigh in on this question but in a way that makes one wonder why. As I wrote on Monday, a front page story that day had at least 13 references to jobs either in quotes or attributions that made the claim that “regulations kill jobs,” exactly the message Republicans want delivered. Even though the reporters of that story admitted in it that those making the claims didn’t provide evidence that it was true, Post reporters David Hilzenrath and Phil Rucker gave a big megaphone to that claim.

When I sent my Monday post to Rucker, he responded that “we will do our due diligence to fact-check industry’s claims.” Perhaps today’s article is that “due diligence.” If so, it is thin gruel served up not on page one in a 1,500+ word story as was Monday’s, but on page A13 and in less than 600 words. And it makes no effort to fact check.

In fact, the story’s headline sort of promises something the article doesn’t deliver. In the print edition this morning, the headline is “Panel: Do regulations kill jobs?” Hilzenrath then spends the first part of the aisle quoting from a clearly partisan report by the staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Republican California Congressman Darrell Issa. All the quotes or attributions are unsubstantiated.

"Many regulations that appear to impose a large burden on the private sector, while providing a dubious benefit to the public, still remain on course and on the books," the staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says in a report prepared for a hearing Thursday on complaints from business groups.

The report is part of a broad review of federal regulations by the new Republican leadership in the House, spearheaded by the chairman of the oversight panel, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.).

Issa asked business groups to identify regulations that have hurt employment, and the report draws on more than 200 responses addressing rules in areas such as the environment, workplace safety and Wall Street.

Though Issa’s staff has said it is still gathering information, some conclusions appear in the report.

"There is some evidence that regulations affecting the financial services industry may limit the job creation and growth capabilities of the U.S., reducing economic growth by as much as 4 percent," the report says.

The report cites Environmental Protection Agency standards for industrial boilers as "an example of the Agency getting the cost-benefit balance wrong."

It cites the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as arguing that "industries are effectively regulated out of business."

And it highlights the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process by which natural gas deposits are extracted. Some communities have protested that the process can contaminate drinking water.

The staff report says fracking "is crucial to accessing enormous deposits," and it says the EPA’s approach to the issue "could be a precursor to full-blown EPA regulation of this job-creating domestic power resource."

Similarly, the report expresses concern about potential regulation of the ash created when coal is burned to create electricity. "The substantial costs of handling coal ash as hazardous waste would be insurmountable for many power plants," it says.

Hilzenrath then turns over the last part of the article to arguments from folks with a different view. They say regulations may spur innovation and create jobs in new fields, or that lack of regulations actually hurts the job market, i.e., insufficient financial regulation costs lots of jobs, and not just in the financial sector. Former labor secretary in the Clinton administration Robert Reich argues colorfully.

"Presumably, we could generate a lot of jobs by getting rid of all regulations and working for $2 an hour in dangerous and fetid working conditions in cities whose air could hardly be breathed and spewing out products that one in 10 consumers might die from."

So the article itself never answers the question in the headline. In fact, the headline is misleading as the panel didn’t pose the question as much as gave a one-sided partisan answer. Granted reporters don’t write headlines and headline writers all too frequently seem not to read articles. But the bottom line is that this is just another “he said, she said” article.

Here is another way of getting to the question.

I grant you that it would be pretty easy to argue that regulations cost businesses money. A particular business hit with regulations may be poorer for it and may consequently, not hire as much as they would if they didn’t have to spend the money complying with regulations. However, even that conclusion is suspect. How do we know that the cash saved by not having to comply with regulations won’t simply go to shareholders as higher dividends or executives in the form of higher pay?

And what about the jobs that regulations create. Certainly someone has to work on the regulations and enforce them. And regulations that might hinder one industry create opportunities for other companies in competing industries.

But I don’t think that’s what regulatory critics are arguing. They are referring to jobs in their companies or industry. But is that what is most important for the common good, or as the U.S. Constitution puts it, are the regulations designed to “promote the general welfare”?

After more than 2,100 words from The Post, we still don’t know.

Evidence of Regulations Killing Job? Anyone?

I just discovered what could be a terrific website called Remapping Debate. It launched last October.

The heart of our work will be original reporting.  We take seriously the idea that the job of journalists is to question and to illuminate.  We believe that we need to question ourselves as much as we question others.

We think we need to reject the mental borderlines that leaves "mainstream" reporters generally speaking to "mainstream" sources, and "alternative" reporters generally speaking to "alternative" sources.

We insist that it is probing – not stenography – that can illuminate and inform, and that challenging a policy maker or policy advocate to engage with alternatives to a pre-scripted sound bite represents not commentary but an essential element of real reporting.

While exploring the site, I found this article, which argues that those claiming “regulations kill jobs” clearly have no evidence to back up their claim. Apropos of my post two days ago on this question, the article illuminates.

The idea is widely taken for granted. “Job-killing regulation” has become not only a mantra of today’s Republicans, but also the marketing pitch for a host of plans to have Congress exercise preemptive powers over federal rule-making and enforcement efforts.

It turns out, however, that it is easier to generate provocative rhetoric on this topic than to provide historical evidence for the proposition that regulations do, in fact, kill jobs. Through repeated inquiry, Remapping Debate established that, at least in Washington, vociferous opponents of regulation are often unable or unwilling to offer any such evidence, even in the area of regulation — environmental protection — that is the ground zero of current Republican fury.

The article gives numerous examples of statements on this issue by people who can provide no evidence to back up their claims. I sent it on to Phil Rucker, one of the Post reporters who responded to me when I sent him my post. He said The Post will fact check these claims in future articles.

In this sidebar below, Remapping Debate summarizes the responses it received after asking for the evidence that EPA regulations kill jobs. Note that Congressman Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who is leading the charge against regulations, is among them.

Show us the evidence

Remapping Debate invited several prominent opponents of regulation, in and out of government, to provide evidence of EPA regulations that “killed” jobs. Each of the following was apparently unable or unwilling to do so:

  • Margo Thorning, chief economist of the American Council for Capital Formation and the author of a 2010 study that predicted a loss of 2.4 million jobs if the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill were enacted and implemented.
  • Rosario Palmieri, vice president for infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which commissioned the ACCF study and which, on its website, declares the EPA’s proposals a threat to "manufacturers, businesses and jobs throughout America."
  • Nicole V. Crain and William M. Crain, co-authors of a widely cited study — done for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy — putting the total annual cost of all regulation at $1.7 trillion — a figure far higher than most such assessments.
  • Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the new chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, who has announced an inquiry into the "impact of government hyperregulation on job creation."
  • Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY), the prime House sponsor of the REINS Act, which, by requiring congressional approval of every major rule " before it could be enforced on the American people and businesses," aims to "rein in the costly overreach of federal agencies that stifles job creation and hinders economic growth."
  • Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), whose Free Industry Act would amend the Clean Air Act to declare that nothing in that law "shall be treated as authorizing or requiring the regulation of climate change or global warming."

This letter to the editor of Remapping Debate has at least two credible examples of regulations killing jobs.

Strong Support for Healthcare Reform

My headline is not one you’re likely to see in mainstream media headlines.  Not because it’s false; actually, it’s true. But the mainstream media wants a couple of things:

  1. Continued access to Republican sources; ergo,
  2. MSM will continue to report GOP talking points, even when they know they are not true.

A recent poll by The Washington Post and its reporting makes the case. Here’s the headline: More Americans oppose health-care law, but few want a total repeal.

More than what, you ask?  More than ever? More than the last poll? More than support it?

Actually, the simple answer is the third option. Simple, but incorrect, as interpreted by most people. And no where in the article does it explain what the headline means.

Republicans are forever saying that “the American people don’t support this healthcare bill,” or words to that effect.  They then say that’s why they want to repeal it.

As The Post reports, few really want repeal, but you will forever see the GOP make that false claim, false but duly noted by the press.

But to the question of support for the healthcare bill, The Post’s Jon Cohen buries the lede in the penultimate paragraph.

Another factor in the debate is that a quarter of those who oppose the health-care law say the legislation is faulty because it did not go far enough, not because it pushed change too far.

So if you add the number together from The Post’s poll, 45% support the bill, and about 2513% of those who opposed it (13% overall) wish it went further, meaning 58%, a sizable majority (a landslide in electoral politics), either like the current healthcare overhaul or wish it would go further, and in all likelihood that means arguably not in the direction the GOP would take it.

Yesterday’s poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press confirms this interpretation.

The public continues to be divided over what it wants to see done with the health care law – 37% favor its repeal, while nearly as many (35%) want the law expanded, and 20% would leave it as it is.

Which again gives us 55% of Americans wanting the law as is or expanded.

Complicating my view are the results from two other polls this week.  A CNN poll doesn’t ask the question about whether opposition is because the law doesn’t go far enough, and its topline support/oppose is the same as the other polls, a slight plurality opposed.  But when forced to choose to either keep it all or repeal it all, 50% say repeal it all with 42% say keep it all.  One would think that if a majority liked the law or wanted it to go further, the “don’t repeal” group would be closer to 55%, not 42%.

But I think another question, asked in this week’s  CBS/New York Times poll, puts the entire debate into perspective. When asked if any of the provisions that have already taken effect (keep children on policy until age 26 or that children can not be rejected for insurance if they have a preexisting condition), apply to the respondent, we learn only 13% have benefited from the law yet. Once people start seeing the benefits to themselves, support could grow.

Another key issue is this from the CNN/NY Times poll:

Those who support repeal were asked whether they would continue to do so if it meant that insurance companies were no longer required to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions; 52% said they would, but 35% said in that case, the law should not be repealed.

Someone (the Press? the Dems? Both?) have not done a good job of explaining the bill.

A critical question is this” Should it be the media’s responsibility to explain the bill. That depends on what one think the media’s role should be. If it is to simply report what is happening or whether it is to find the truth. I believe it is the latter and cite the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization to which, admittedly, not all journalists belong.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

…Journalists should:

Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible. [emphasis added]

Journalism, 30 Years Later

Tim McGuire, who teaches journalism ethics and on the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently asked some journalists about today’s business, compared to 30 years ago. Some excerpts:

One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

…As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. …Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

–Pam Fine, University of Kansas journalism professor


We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate.

–Arnie Robbins, St. Louis Post Dispatch editor


I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done

–Gregory Favre, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute


Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide.

In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments.

–Rick Rodriguez, faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. –—Len Downie, former editor, The Washington Post

[All emphases added]

Fact Checkers

This is amusing. Writes the AP in a story about how Obama caved to those who continue to fear monger about “death panels,”

The original House version of the overhaul legislation sought to expand coverage, allowing for discussions every few years. But the plan was dropped after Sarah Palin and other Republicans raised the specter of "death panels" deciding the fate of vulnerable seniors. Those charges were later debunked by several non-partisan fact-checking groups.

Shouldn’t journalists be card-carrying members of “non-partisan fact-checking groups”?

Richard Cohen is not amused.