Reader Andy Parx, commenting on one of my recent columns on source “pollution,” lamented the pervasive use of “he said/she said” sourcing in journalism.

In another recent column, I also argued that objectivity really is not the stated goal of journalists today. Objectivity remains important in the way people think about and practice journalism. But the primary targets are accuracy, fairness and, ultimately, truth. Unequal ideas — from this perspective —  do not warrant equal treatment.

President Barack Obama, along these lines, has criticized journalists who are content to provide “false equivalencies” and who don’t pursue the tough questions. The journalist’s job involves much more than just “handing someone a microphone,” Obama lamented.

That sentiment was raised as well by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, as an extension of the thoughts of economics professor Jesse Shapiro, at Brown University. Shapiro documented the playbook of special interest groups that, as a way to confuse the public, manipulate the American media’s impulse toward objectivity.

As reported by the New York Times, President Barack Obama last month excoriated journalists for their shallow coverage of election politics.

As reported by the New York Times, President Barack Obama last month excoriated journalists for their shallow coverage of election politics.

New York Times

Instead of seeking mindless neutrality, what we desperately need journalists to do is to help us see through the mass-messaging haze on all sorts of complex societal issues, such as the proposed NextEra merger’s potential impact on our energy infrastructure, construction costs and delays on our elevated rapid-transit line and homelessness in Hawaii.

This column doesn’t intend to fully analyze all of the local media coverage about energy infrastructure and NextEra’s proposal to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries (and virtually our entire electrical grid). Instead, it tries to show the empty nature of “he said/she-said” journalism, using the energy-infrastructure example to illustrate how such shallow practices leave us confused, wanting more clarity and feeling powerless.

Sometimes, of course, journalists do have legitimate reasons to seek cover in the safety of a “he said/she said” neutral zone, such as when news is developing extremely fast, when high-quality sources are hard to find and when issues are too complex for them to apply everyday practical knowledge immediately.

Asking ‘Why?’

Yet what about the cases in which the news isn’t breaking, high-quality sources are plentiful and the complexities of a situation gradually could be unraveled through everyday journalistic questions? In many cases, breaking our  habits of “he said/she said” simply involves asking, “Why do you think that?” and repeating that question until the answer either hits bedrock or air.

In the “he said/she said” wormhole of journalistic neutrality, I opened the Star-Advertiser’s Money section, about a year ago, and noticed a photograph of Joseph Israel, then-CEO of Par Petroleum Corp., looking like he took public relations training from George W. Bush’s team during the “Mission Accomplished” era.

The headline of the piece stated “Oil – not renewables – touted as isles’ linchpin.” So, yes, technically, this is just a person “touting” something, if you read closely enough; but by giving such touting prominent space with a flattering photo, The Star-Advertiser also communicated that the article had validity beyond just Israel’s personal viewpoint.

In that article, author Kathryn Mykleseth paraphrased or quoted Israel as saying that  “Hawaii’s renewable energy goals are unrealistic and that the cheapest source for the foreseeable future is oil.” And, “All of this discussion about clean energy, for me (is) categorized as nonsense.” And, when compared to solar electricity and wind power, fossil fuels remain the most affordable solution.”

OK, those are provocative perspectives, worthy of deeper thought, especially when thinking beyond the bottom-line profits for the fossil-fuel companies and holistically including the environmental, social and other indirect costs.

Plug In Here

Yet instead of questioning any number of Israel’s eyebrow-raising statements, Mykleseth used the “he said/she said” technique and simply plugged in a paragraph on the jump page (the part of the story inside the section rather than on the cover) that provided a summary of Hawaii’s push toward fossil-fuel independence.

That brief section was followed by a “he said/she said” exchange between Israel and Hawaii Gas spokesman Alan Tang about the viability of using liquefied natural gas as a fossil fuel replacement. Israel turned that debate into a Trumpian dismissal, by flatly declaring liquefied natural gas as “a much higher level of nonsense.”

End of discussion, I suppose; what more could we readers possibly want to know? Well, actually, a lot — which is why I’d argue that this piece didn’t uphold best practices by presenting a fair portrayal of the situation; and readers were the worse for it. 

Such dead-end stories, leaving readers more confused than when they began, similarly taint my perspective of the NextEra coverage across the local mediascape, including print, radio and television journalism.

Of the countless examples I have spotted of this “he said/she said” news coverage related to NextEra, one of the most curious ones also was published recently by the Star-Advertiser, which reported “Hawaiian groups support NextEra, HEI deal.”

The reporter, Mykleseth again, rewrote and reworked the NextEra press release, which did some touting of its own. Why did these organizations come together at this particular moment to make this endorsement? What specifically do they like about NextEra’s proposal?

Sooner Versus Better

Instead of holding off on this “breaking news” story – to conduct interviews, and ask a few questions – Mykleseth instead quoted another press release, from Deborah Ho‘okano Nishijo, president of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce.

Ho‘okano Nishijo wrote, and the Star-Advertiser printed, that the chamber supports NextEra’s proposal because it ensures “proper” investments in Hawaii’s future, and “This merger is the right direction for a clean energy future.” We don’t know what Nishijo means by “proper,” “right direction” or a “clean energy future,” because she wrote it in a press release, and a journalist can’t question a press release.

The article then offered a few paragraphs of text about how executives Alan Oshima, of Hawaiian Electric Co., and Eric Gleason, of NextEra Energy Hawaii, were “grateful for the support,” because, dear reader, you might be wondering about their level of gratitude.

The article concluded with a rough estimate of how many groups oppose the NextEra proposal (about 25), compared to how many support it (about 70). From the “he said/she said” equality paradigm – in which all opinions and perspectives are roughly equal – the NextEra proposal doesn’t seem to be much of an issue to anyone at all then. Does it?

The Duty To Provide Context

Mykleseth and the Star-Advertiser are responsible as flag bearers for journalism in Hawaii. They often do good work. They often uphold journalistic standards. The intent here is not to pick on them individually, but to use these stories and this issue as an example of when we fall short. I easily could have plugged in the name of other journalists in town, and other media organizations, covering this same story.

Whether the piece is on the front page, or in the business section, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code is not something to follow most of the time; it is something to follow always.

Media organizations such as the Star-Advertiser are gatekeepers. They are responsible to vet information and allow into public discourse only what readers can trust as true. Their reputation is on the line every day, every story, every sentence.

If those gates get leaky, and unchecked information seeps into public discourse – especially through the open mic philosophy, of “he said/she said,” – then, as Shapiro of Brown University argued, readers suffer. People today generally don’t need more raw information; they need to know what is objectively true, what is tainted by special interests and, ultimately, what they can believe.

When someone makes a claim, the modern journalist needs to do more than just reprint it and leave it at that. The journalist needs to document the claim and then determine if it is warranted, with enough evidence. The journalist needs to include conflicting perspectives, to help round out the thoughts and give the reader the foundational tools to assess the claim — to give context.

If the information just doesn’t pass the basic smell test (or just seems wrong, or incomplete), the journalist and the media organization should practice restraint and not print it. That’s the duty. That’s the SPJ code.

“He said/she said” might have been sufficient in less media-rich times. Some information, on the American frontier, for example, was better than nothing. Readers today, though, are exposed to a fire hose spray of information.

They don’t need more. They need better. They should expect – and should demand – something more than equal time on stage.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.