On Language

Ombudsman On Air: WMRA's Virginia Insight with Tom Graham

On-Air i
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On-Air
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Yesterday I was invited on air to comment on the state of political journalism for WMRA's Virginia Insight, a call-in show broadcast out of Harrisonburg, VA. Host Tom Graham and a few callers quizzed me on the ethics of political reporting and media bias. Below, you'll find the audio and a few excerpts from my interview.

First, though, I want to share a quote from another guest on the show, the venerable Ed Wasserman, a columnist for The Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers and Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University. In recent posts, I have addressed the issue of fact checking in political reporting. Wasserman here really captures the nuances and how the matter is not as clear cut as we'd like it to be. He said on the show:

The problem with authorizing or empowering or charging reporters to do all the fact checking on the fly is that great many things that sound like factual assertions really are characterizations. I think that in the case of Romney's false statement that Obama's gone around the world apologizing for the U.S. He's really I think saying something else. He's trying to distinguish his approach to foreign policy from Obama's. He's trying to say—I mean—anybody who has been married for any length of time knows that there are many different ways to apologize without ever saying you're sorry. And when you bring up things that you did wrong in the past, acknowledge wrongdoing, and express a desire for conciliation, and to go on a new path, it's not unreasonable to see that as containing some element of apology to it.

Certainly I was among many people who applauded Obama's attempt at harmonizing and conciliating and sort of talking about things like the revolution that we fomented in Iran in the 1950s and referring to those things regretfully and it went over very big in the Middle East. I'm not sure that saying, "oh, well, he never said I'm sorry." And the reporter saying, "Oh, he never actually apologized." You could dispute Romney's characterization. You could dispute where he is going with that characterization and the kind of foreign policy it implies, but I'm not sure it really clarifies things to call Romney a liar.

Here are some excerpts from my interview:

Edward Schumacher-Matos: I think the reporters here run into the same problem that Ed Wasserman pointed out. They toil about just how far they can go. I find that even when they do their own investigations, often times they want to let the facts tell themselves as opposed to draw conclusions—about just what all this means, what are the consequences of their own findings. I have written that I think they should do that. I think that they have to turn the corner, particularly when they in fact have done all the analysis that allows them to say that something is true or false.

Tom Graham: So, is there a difference in reporting on politics than reporting on most anything else, on science, on nature, on family relationships? Are there certain rules that apply to when you have competing political points of view, how you can delve into them and how you can't?

Schumacher-Matos: I think, two things happen: One is a lot of political stories are much shorter, because you're on the campaign trail, you know, it's a daily story, it's several stories being told at the same time. But secondly, I think reporters—and you can understand it—are hesitant to take on a public figure and say that he or she is saying that that's not true—and you can imagine that dynamic. But, that said, the stories are done. The second-day stories, the analytical stories, the separate stories on what are policy issues, to try and get at the truth and to try and get at those sorts of nuances, like the one Ed Wasserman pointed out about Obama's foreign policy and whether Obama has apologized abroad.

I invite you to listen to the full audio of the discussion.

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