He Said, She Said


HE SAID, SHE SAID….Ezra Klein provides an example of news media “faux objectivity” outside its normal haunts of political reporting:

Take, for instance, this (very good) New York Times review of two books on meat. In the first paragraph, we’re told, “Raising and processing cattle on an industrial scale is an environmental catastrophe (among other things, the United Nations has accused the world’s livestock industry of being responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation fleet).” Emphasis mine.

The UN didn’t “accuse” the livestock industry of anything. They published research showing that livestock production is a more significant contributor to carbon emissions than transportation is. If the author has methodological problems with the research, he should say so. If he accepts the research, then he shouldn’t suggest it’s an accusation — it’s an empirical conclusion.

This view has become so widely accepted among blogosphere press critics that I feel like it deserves at least a little pushback. The problem here is obvious: the impact of livestock on GHG emissions is a complex subject, and for reviewer Michael Shae to take a firm position on the methodological precision of this UN study might well require weeks of research. Maybe more. And in the end, it might turn out that no firm conclusion is even possible. But for present purposes he’s just writing a book review, and the UN report only takes up one sentence of his review. So unless he’s already very well versed in this topic, he only has two choices: (a) leave out the anecdote entirely, or (b) tell his editor he needs a few weeks to check out a fact. Since (a) poorly serves his audience and (b) just isn’t feasible, his only real choice is to note the report and its provenance without taking an authorial stand beyond that.

This kind of thing happens all the time in news stories. Maybe the word “accused” was a bad choice in this piece, but any replacement would only be marginally better and still wouldn’t provide a firm take on the issue — because that’s the one thing Shae really can’t do. Quite often, the best you can do is to simply report various takes on an issue and leave it at that.

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate