The Watergate Scandal marked a turning point in political journalism, and led to the ‘both sides’ model that so often casts intense heat but little light on public policy. (More)

Informing the News, Part I: Watergate and the Decline of Source-Interview Reporting

This week Morning Feature considers Thomas Patterson’s new book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. Today we begin with how the Watergate Scandal eroded the source-interview model that was the bedrock of political journalism, and spawned the ‘He Said, She Said’ model we see today. Tomorrow we’ll see the limits of ‘He Said, She Said’ journalism, and why generalist reporters are hamstrung by asymmetrical knowledge. Saturday we’ll conclude with what kind of news audiences really want, and how our media might better offer it.

Thomas Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of several other books on politics and the media, including Out of Order, awarded the American Political Science Association’s 2002 Doris Graber Award, and The Unseeing Eye, named one of the fifty most influential books of the past half century in the field of public opinion by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

“Most news is not what happened, but what someone says has happened”

So wrote Leon Sigal in 1973, in Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking. Sigal captured the most basic challenge in journalism, that reporters can rarely witness firsthand the events on which they report. Some newsworthy events happen in private, for valid or self-serving reasons. Others leave no living witnesses, or at least none who want to be honest. And others happen in plain sight, but are so vast and diffuse that no one person could possibly witness all or even a significant sample of them.

Thus journalists rely on sources: second-hand reports from inside private rooms, from investigators examining a crime scene or disaster area, and from pollsters and individuals who offer personal experiences of societal events.

The basic ‘pyramid’ news story

Like most journalism students, I was taught how to interview sources and shape their accounts into an 800-word ‘pyramid’ news story. At the top of the pyramid is the lead – spelled lede in industry jargon – a single sentence that presents the essential facts, ideally in a manner that draws readers into the rest of the story. But even if they don’t read past the lead, we were taught, they should know the Who, What, When, and Where of the event.

For example, a well-written lead would tell you that, in a meeting yesterday (When), your city council (Who and Where) passed a new ordinance that bans women’s health clinics within 1000 feet of a school or daycare (What). Only later in the story – if the reporter included the details and you read that far – will you learn How the new law affects existing clinics, How it may affect women seeking health care, Why four of the seven council members voted ‘Aye,’ or Why the other three voted ‘Nay.’

Yet Dr. Patterson argues that those How and Why details are often the most important elements of a public policy news story. So why are they subordinate in the ‘pyramid’ news story structure?

One answer is that a reporter who sat through the city council meeting can relate the Who, What, When, and Where from first-hand observation. But the How and Why will require a lot more digging. The reporter would have to interview a city attorney who can explain the law’s details, and interview a city manager or review street maps to see what clinics will be forced to close. Next might be clinic spokespersons or women’s advocacy group leaders, to explain how the law will affect women seeking health care, and in which neighborhoods. The reporter might also contact the leaders of the groups who advocated for the new law, if those groups acted publicly, or try to ferret them out if they acted behind the scenes. Then, finally, the reporter would be ready to interview the city council members and ask them to explain their votes.

That’s too much work for an 800-word story, especially if the reporter is expected to cover the two other ordinances the city commission also voted on, and write three other stories about events at city hall that day.

“The air was thick with lies, and the president was the lead liar”

Because reporting is so labor-intensive, and because time and space are limited, journalists must prioritize sources. Dr. Patterson quotes Michael Schudson’s Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press:

The news, explains Michael Schudson, flows from the top down, “favoring high government officials over lower government officials, government officials over unofficial groups and … groups of any sort over unorganized citizens.”

Dr. Patterson writes that this approach once worked well. Journalists trusted officials to be truthful about public news events, and officials trusted journalists not to pry into private peccadilloes. And many reporters still basically transcribe what public officials say and present it as “the news,” especially in local stories.

Then came Watergate where, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee wrote, “The air was thick with lies, and the president was the lead liar.”

Dr. Patterson cites Newsweek’s Meg Greenfield writing that, before Watergate, “the worst thing we could do … was [to] falsely accuse someone of wrongdoing.” But after Watergate, Greenfield wrote, “the worst, the most embarrassing, humiliating thing is not that you accuse someone falsely but that you … fail to accuse someone of something he ought to be accused of.”

“You go shopping”

The result was a more skeptical press eager to publish any breach of the public trust, and more defensive officials anxious to avoid or deflect such reports. More and more, officials and agencies hired public relations experts to both distribute self-serving press releases and coach the principals before interviews. And with ‘objectivity’ as a cardinal value, reporters could not personally challenge public officials’ claims without risking accusations of bias.

As Dr. Patterson writes, that left few tools at hand:

Investigative reporting was not a realistic alternative. Time-consuming and expensive, it was not a type of reporting that news organizations were equipped to do on a daily basis. Reporters needed an expedient alternative and by the late 1970s had devised it. When a politician said or did something newsworthy, journalists reached out to an opponent to attack it. The critical element was supplied not by careful investigation of whether a proposal was sound or sincere, but by seeking out an opponent who would rip it apart. “You go shopping,” is how Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson described the practice. It was as ingenious in its safety as in its simplicity. It allowed the journalist to orchestrate the attack while staying out of the line of fire–politicians would do the dirty work of tearing each other down.

Thus was born the ‘He Said, She Said’ model of political reporting, and tomorrow we’ll see the narrow and counter-democratic limits of that model.


Happy Thursday!