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Evidence-based vs. accusation-driven reporting

My exchange with a journalist at USA Today illustrates what a struggle it is going to be to get this distinction established in news coverage after the 2016 election.

byJay Rosen 30 Likes57,383 Views

  1. This article in USA Today came across my social feed a few days ago: Trump supporters target George Soros over protests. It's about the accusation in some quarters on the right that Soros is behind the protests that sprang up after the election that made Donald Trump president-elect. On Apple News the headline was: George Soros blamed for secretly funding Trump protests.

    None of the 1,300 words in the article presents any evidence that this charge is true. (Seriously: none.) The entire "plot" of the piece is that accusations have been made, the people accused say the charges are baseless, and USA today found zero evidence to undermine their defense. The accusers include some of the least reliable people on the internet, including the notorious fantasist, Alex Jones of the Infowars site.
  2. If you are evidence-based you lead with the lack of evidence for explosive or insidious charges. That becomes the news. If you are accusation-driven, the news is that certain people are making charges. With the details we may learn that there's no evidence, but the frame in which that discovery is made remains "he said, she said." (See my 2009 post about that.)

    After the 2016 campaign, in which the winner routinely floated baseless charges — including many about the press — the unsuitability of accusation-driven news coverage should be obvious to mainstream journalists. It should be, but it is not. Watch as a USA Today tech editor responds:
  3. This is just one exchange with one editor, so I don't want to make too much of it. But I don't want to underplay it either. The takeaway is that some journalists may be completely unprepared for what's coming, even after Donald Trump used "people are saying" to such insidious effect.

    Instead of defining public service as the battle against evidence-free claims, they will settle for presenting the charge, presenting the defense, and leaving it there, justifying this timid and outworn practice with a "both sides" logic that has nothing to do with truthtelling and everything to do with protecting themselves against criticism in Trump's America.