So given the undeniable murkiness of the situation, what sort of context should reporters provide to their reporting? Via e-mail from Camp Blackhorse in Afghanistan, the LAT’s Barnes wrote the following about his article:
In my mind, this story had some news that was valuable on a daily basis—that the Pakistanis were providing help to the Americans in the search for the captured soldier. As a result I turned around a quick story.
The perfect news story would indeed have more outside perspectives. But I do not think, necessarily, that all stories must cover all perspectives, as long as over time a newspaper reports from a variety of viewpoints. That is not a brief for biased or unbalanced stories, and to be sure our Islamabad correspondent provided some thoughts from Pakistan in an attempt to give readers some broader context. But my story was only attempting to report on the current thinking of the national security establishment.
That’s a perfectly reasonable response, as far as it goes. In this arena, relaying the perspective of one side—as both stories do—can provide real value. And as Barnes explained, he “turned around a quick story,” and anyone who has worked at a daily newspaper understands the many and varied shortcomings of the genre. But the trouble with the LAT’s story, in particular, is not that it doesn’t devote more space to Pakistan’s perspective, but that it does not go deep enough in explaining why American officials might have been especially eager to say kind things about the relationship with Pakistan. As a result, it sometimes teeters on the edge between relaying the thinking of American officials and actually affirming that thinking. Addressing these concerns wouldn’t require mind-reading or editorializing—it would just entail reminding readers what the underlying structural incentives are.
And yet. A sophisticated reader—one who has learned to look at datelines and sourcing, and who knows that just because “officials say” doesn’t make it so—might not need this guidance. The idea that someone might say nice things about another person in the hope of getting what they want from them, after all, is a pretty elementary insight. Still, there’s no reason for readers to have to read between the lines this way. Spelling out the context a bit more always makes a story stronger—and in this case, would have made them less discordant.