If someone were to create a media criticism version of Family Feud*—and if, during an episode of that show, one of the questions asked was, “What is the most flagrant flaw in the way the media cover the news?”—I’d bet that the most popular answer, by far, would be “he said/she said stenography.”
The repeat-accusations-without-determining-the-greater-truth brand of reporting—which has been, whether out of fealty to fairness or a lack of confidence or pure laziness, a mainstay of political journalism in particular—infuriates us critics precisely because, at its most permissive, it creates a false equivalence between rumors and truth. And it is a brand of reporting that, most recently, has allowed the ridiculous rumors making their viral way through the healthcare debates—“death panels,” etc.—to realize their infectious potency.
Well, then—critics, professional and amateur alike: today is a day of jubilee! Smack in the middle of the front page of today’s New York Times is an article about those very death panels—and the originators of the propaganda that they represent—headlined “False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots.” The piece calls out lies! It takes a stand! It uses the word “false” five separate times!
Sure, you could say, given all the instances of reductive stenography that have made their way to the Times’s front page…too little, too late. Still, though: this is a big, bold step in the right direction. Here’s hoping for more.
*Seriously, someone should.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.