Left, Right, and Off Target

PEJ report’s misguided focus on “ideology” in nonprofit journalism

A new report on non-profit news startups from the Project for Excellence in Journalism has been attracting a little bit of attention in media-critic circles since its release Monday morning. (Well, a little bit of the attention not devoted to Murdochgate, anyway.) And the report is worth a quick read for the cautions it raises about the transparency, or lack thereof, surrounding funding sources at the 39 state and national non-profit outlets it analyzed.

But less useful, if perhaps more revealing, is the way the report’s authors handle what might be called the “objectivity issue.” Though the freighted O-word is never actually used, the report is shot through with a circa-1991 sensibility that what makes journalism trustworthy and valuable is a commitment to “balance.” (That’s a word that is used, repeatedly.) It’s a blinkered approach, and one that leaves the PEJ study often seeming oblivious to what is good, and what is not-so-good, about the new non-profit ecosystem.

The tone is set in one of the opening paragraphs, which asks (emphasis added):

Who are these new players in journalism? Are these sites delivering, as they generally purport to be, independent and disinterested news reporting? Or are some of them more political and ideological in their reporting? How can audiences assess this for themselves? In short, what role are these operations playing in the changing ecosystem of news?

And later:

The study finds that the fact that a news site is a non-profit does not define what kind of news it produces. Some fit squarely into the traditions of independent news gathering, which dictates offering a wide range of perspectives and ideas about current events. Others fall more closely toward what might be considered partisan news or even political activism.

…Many of the sites examined here, moreover, purport that they were started precisely to fill the gap left at the state level from cutbacks in traditional media, especially newspapers, and thus present themselves as functioning much as traditional media once did.

The idea seems to be that nonprofit sites that report the news from a particular ideological perspective have worked some deception on the public, perhaps on behalf of shadowy funders with political motivations. The concerns about funding and transparency are not unwarranted, and CJR has written about those issues before.

But the notion that when nonprofit news sites work from a particular political perspective—just as political magazines have done, well, forever—they break some implied promise is, as new-media scholar Chris W. Anderson notes on Twitter, a little perplexing. For example, the American Independent News Network (AINN), deemed one of the most “ideological” news sources in the PEJ sample, writes on its own “About” page that its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare”—so the fact that the network’s stories tend to highlight the virtues of government programs, or the peril represented by cuts to those programs, is hardly surprising.

The deeper problem, though, is that the study defines “ideology” in a way that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about the quality of the reporting being analyzed—and it’s quality, measured in terms of accuracy and honesty, insight and significance, that we should be worried about.

The report’s discussion of ideology depends heavily on judgments about whether stories capture multiple viewpoints, or whether, by weighting one view more heavily, they favor a preferred theme. (Including multiple viewpoints, and a balance between views, is clearly the correct way to do journalism, in the eyes of the report’s authors.) That sounds good, and indeed the sites that score as “non-ideological” under PEJ’s framework—which include ProPublica, California Watch, and The Texas Tribune—do outstanding work.

But the limits of the authors’ approach become clear when they apply it to individual stories. For example, they write:

Some sites commonly offered multiple points of view. A Sept. 16 synopsis of a gubernatorial candidates’ debate in MinnPost, for instance, featured three candidates from three different parties—a Republican, a Democrat and a member of the Independence Party, and gave roughly equal space to each of the three candidates and their differing points of view.

Assuming this is the story the report is referring to (the PEJ report doesn’t embed links to the individual stories it mentions), that’s a fair description. And, in fact, MinnPost writer Doug Grow’s account of the debate is a good piece of journalism. But the “roughly equal space” given to each candidate is unremarkable, and has very little to do with the article’s quality. Most debate stories give roughly equal space to each candidate, after all, and most debate stories are also turgidly written and deeply unilluminating. Grow’s piece is good because it rejects the traditional debate write-up formula in which all the reporter has to do is devote an equal number of grafs to each candidate, and instead offers critical analysis of the exchanges between the candidates and the moderator. Whether that analysis is “ideological” (in this case it’s not, especially) is a less interesting question than whether or not it’s honest and intelligent (it is). But that latter question goes unasked throughout PEJ’s report.

Or consider this passage, from the report’s discussion of “story themes”:

One theme common in the coverage on sites that leaned in a conservative direction was the idea that government regulation hurts economic growth. An example is a Sept. 2 story in the Nevada News Bureau about a group of Nevada business leaders opposed to federal labor legislation they thought would stifle job growth. While supporters of the legislation were quoted in the piece, most of the article gave voice to opponents of the bill. “Adding burdens, expenses and red tape onto Nevada’s job producers is the fastest way to destroy jobs, not create them,” declared business leader Clara Andriola. Assertions and quotes echoing ideas such as Andrioloa’s outnumbered those on the other side in the story by a ratio of five-to-two, and the story was deemed to reflect primarily a conservative idea.

The favoring of a particular theme seems to distress the report’s authors. But the real problem with the story in question is that it’s just not very good—it’s a recitation of boilerplate quotes from one side (in this case, anti-union folks), leavened with a few boilerplate quotes from the other side (in this case, pro-union folks). Metro dailies have been producing exactly this sort of not-very-good article for decades—including, in many cases, apparent preference for pro-business or pro-labor themes—so it’s hard to see how the blame lies with the NNB’s status as a non-profit start-up. It’s also hard to see what more “balance” would have achieved. Had the number of quotes on each side been made even, but the level of pressure brought upon the talking heads remained negligible, would the story have become good? Hardly.

The tendentiousness of the report’s framing is further illustrated in its note that an AINN “story” that claimed that the expiration of unemployment benefits would push more people into poverty “contained no assertions to counter the idea that government is a force for good in society.” The “story” turns out to be a blog post that consists almost entirely of an excerpt from a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank. Yes, ideologically-aligned news sites publicize the work of sympathetic think tanks. No, they don’t get perfunctory comments from people who hold ideologically opposing views for each blog post. And no, those posts don’t carry the journalistic authority of longer, more deeply reported stories, nor do they pretend to. None of this is remarkable, nor will it deceive any sentient reader.

Meanwhile, the possibility that reporting from a specific ideological perspective might, at times, be helpful, goes unmentioned in the report. The Washington Independent, AINN’s now-defunct flagship, produced lots of excellent work that stood apart from the output of commercial media, and was informed by the outlet’s liberal leanings. (See for example Annie Lowery’s August 2010 article, “Death and Joblessness.”) And the watchdog.org family of sites, classified as ideologically conservative by PEJ, uncovered widespread errors in the official data on federal stimulus spending. I’m not a close reader of the Watchdog sites, but their impact seems thin overall; the importance of those errors turned out to be overstated. But if that’s the case, it’s not because there’s an inherent problem with a right-leaning news operation dedicated to exposing government waste and inefficiency. It’s because the sites need to do better work. (In fact, ideology can be an important motivator of valuable investigative journalism.)

The PEJ report is suffused throughout with a sense that it’s the obligation of the new non-profits to reincarnate as best they can the status quo ante, when newspapers around the country sought to deliver, to lift a phrase from the report, a “high level of neutral reporting.” But it’s worth remembering that, in many times and many places, the status quo ante wasn’t all that good. Investigative reporting was rarely written and rarely read, too much political journalism leaned on a he-said-she-said formula, policy was often poorly understood, important stories went untold.

Today, many non-profit sites are working in that tradition of “neutral reporting.” At their best, they do outstanding journalism—often, better than what many readers had access to in an earlier era. Other non-profit sites are working from clear ideological perspectives—and at their best, they too produce reporting that can stand up to anything, and brings value to readers and the democratic conversation.

Isn’t that something to be happy about?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: ,