Opinion Laundering

by Henry on February 16, 2009

John’s post below reminds me of one of the odder conventions of American journalism. Because US journalists aren’t supposed to express their own opinions, they often need other people to express those opinions (or the opinions that will ‘balance’ out their story) for them, so that they can use quotes from these people to spin the interpretation of the facts in the one way or another. This leads to some very peculiar interview techniques from journalists. About two out of every three calls I get from journalists have a strong line in directly leading questions of the ‘would you agree that x ’ variety.

This is of course a minor example of a much more general phenomenon. A very large part of the communications and public relations industry is devoted to what you might call ‘opinion laundering’ – the job of disguising the origins of self-interested or otherwise problematic policy positions by getting apparently legitimate third parties to validate and repeat them. Which is why I get nervous every time I see a survey that purports to tell us that academics are the most trusted interlocutors on this or that issue. While this may sound very nice, it increases the relative returns to using academics as flacks rather than some other profession, and hence helps screw up further a set of professional norms that are valuable ones to have.

{ 25 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 02.16.09 at 5:01 pm

You have to play the game as they do. Whenever a reporter asks for a quote, ask to talk to them on background first while you think about it. Get back to them later that day if necessary. Think up exactly one sentence that expresses the exact message that you want them to stenograph. It can be more sentences if you really need to, but each addition on-the-record one vastly increases the chance that they will fit you into whatever narrative they’d started with.

2

Doug 02.16.09 at 5:30 pm

Viewed from the other side of the pond, the tendency of European journalists to express their opinions in the form of assertions that “everyone knows” or similar makes me reach for my revolver question the veracity of nearly everything in the paper. When I see how badly, say, the Frankfurter Allgemeine covers US politics, the value of the other reportage falls dramatically.

There’s not an easy answer here, but each approach has significant drawbacks.

3

Cool Bev 02.16.09 at 6:16 pm

Every seen a company’s press release quote a customer or partner? Did you ever imagine that for a minute that the customer or partner originated that quote, rather than having it handed to them to affirm? Because I did, once.

4

Ginger Yellow 02.16.09 at 10:56 pm

Sean Carroll posted some good advice for scientists talking to journalists a while back, and I’m sure much of it applies to other academic disciplines. I added my perspective as a specialist journalist in the comments at Cosmic Variance.

5

Stuart 02.17.09 at 12:06 am

Reminds me of that scene in Yes, Minister where Sir Humphrey shows how you can get pretty much any answer you want from anyone in a survey if you get to ask leading questions (last quote in the list here)

6

Henry 02.17.09 at 12:36 am

Thanks Ginger Yellow.

Stuart, afair Kieran linked to the YouTube of that some time ago …

7

El Cid 02.17.09 at 1:57 pm

Noam Chomsky used to quip, I believe quoting someone else, that in American journalism there is a prized tradition that ‘you don’t print your own opinion.’

Instead, you find someone who has your opinion, and you print that.

Never is this clearer than when the NYT or WP get on one of their hawk kicks about some leader of another nation they don’t like.

8

anti-semitic troll 02.17.09 at 2:56 pm

deleted post

9

Martin Wisse 02.17.09 at 3:06 pm

Because US journalists aren’t supposed to express their own opinions, they often need other people to express those opinions

You don’t honestly think UK or European journalists are any better, do you?

10

John Quiggin 02.17.09 at 8:44 pm

The conventions are different. In particular, as I mentioned, there’s this odd voxpop thing where a story about, say, increasing unemployment has to include an interview with an unemployed person backing up claims that, say, people who’ve lost their jobs don’t eat out as much as before. But the treatment of experts is much the same in the US as elsewhere.

11

JoB 02.17.09 at 9:37 pm

Doug-2, the “everyone knows” bit comes from the European politicians’ cue of “for the good of the people” which invariably introduces views peculiar to their conviction – or was it vice versa? Lucky for the both I don’t have a revolver ;-(

12

Doug 02.18.09 at 6:40 am

JoB, in Central and Eastern Europe, “everyone knows” also came from the period of samizdat and dissident publications, when there were indeed things that everyone knew but which could not be publicly said. But times have changed, and the journalistic conventions need to keep changing with them. (And they may have; it’s not like I keep up with the Hungarian press these days.)

I don’t know if there’s a happy medium, still less a happy medium that is economically viable. On the one hand, parts of the American press have been hitting the reductio ad absurdum of he-said, she-said for quite some time now. If The Onion hasn’t had a piece with the headline “Shape of Earth: Opinions Differ”, it’s not for lack of recent opportunity. On the other hand, reporters for the Frankfurter Allgemeine, for example, regularly insert opinions into news articles in ways that I think would rightly be a firing offense at a US paper. I don’t have an example immediately to hand, but the basic sin is substituting an opinion for reporting in such a way that the overall article misleads readers.

On the American side, it would be good for reporters to come to a conclusion from time to time, and to do that in plain English, not some code only available to people reading as closely as Sovietologists once parsed Pravda. On the European side, it would be good for reporters to back up their assertions, particularly at papers like the FAZ that have a news hole US journalists can only dream about.

13

JoB 02.18.09 at 12:30 pm

Doug, I was talking about Western Europe (didn’t know that about Eastern Europe, thanks for that) where “for the good of the people” has become the substitute for any argument. I kind of agree on European press: they write as if every piece is, ultimately, an opinion piece. And that’s even worse if you consider their opinion pieces which seldom go farther than reciting clichés of the day (or the voxpop of yesterday). On top of that we can forget about lines of questioning to reveal something we didn’t know: the journalist knows his punchline. (S)he steadily and sturdily works towards it (after which the interviewee can nod in the background). No – Katie McCouric would have no place in European journalism.

Are US newspapers better? Who knows? Does anybody – except the likes of us – bother to read them?

14

Cosma 02.18.09 at 12:33 pm

LF @8: Or perhaps it’s the unitary nature of an industry that is so disproportionately owned and managed by one particular religious-ethnic minority that seems to thrive on keeping its host population disorganized with respect to thought and true analysis.

Calls for cossack rampages belong in another thread.

15

cashandburn 02.18.09 at 12:40 pm

Surely it is not an “odd” convention that US journalists do not tell us their views but a rather good one. The alternative is clearly worse.

And for opinion shopping, again surely it is better that you find someone with a name and a title, because then others can draw their own conclusions about whether that source of opinion is valid or not. It might not be perfect, but again the alternative is worse.

The worst crime in this sense is to use loaded phrases like “the leading academic in the field” rather than statements of fact. See Malcolm Gladwell for repeated errors in this regard.

16

jacob 02.18.09 at 2:27 pm

Cosma- Thanks for that. I was waiting for someone to call LF out on his antisemitism. I’m surprised that it took so long.

17

Watson Aname 02.18.09 at 2:48 pm

Surely it is not an “odd” convention that US journalists do not tell us their views but a rather good one.

Wasn’t the point of discussion above that they do, in fact, tell us their views, they just route them through a source first. If that’s all that is going on (and I don’t believe it is universally) then surely it’s not a good convention — more what the interweb would call “sock puppetry”.

18

BBB 02.18.09 at 4:32 pm

I have never seen ‘for the good of the people’ in any European newspaper – what was the context? Can you cite an example? As a European I find ‘people familiar with the matter said…’ weird, and I always wonder who these people are.

19

cashandburn 02.18.09 at 4:38 pm

surely it’s not a good convention—- more what the interweb would call “sock puppetry

You seem to be falling into the same trap as the main piece – what I sometimes call the lure of the false comparator.

The choice (we) journalists have is not between the perfect, objective quote from an untouchable, authoritative source, but between many different imperfect options.

How about stories with no quotes? Just bare lists of facts and journalists’ presumptions?

How about stories with lots of conflicting quotes and views? How long would people continue reading them?

To an extent ‘sock puppetry’ is just bad journalism, but having actual quotes from actual people in real time is what makes journalism different from blogging.

There’s a world of difference between thinking something and writing something chatty about it, and trying to find stories, cajole people to go on the record, get certain views said out loud (rather than in private, amongst themselves). One has consequences, the other likely not.

20

anti-semitic troll 02.18.09 at 5:09 pm

deleted post

21

Henry 02.18.09 at 5:20 pm

Sorry about the anti-semitic troll – I try to read all comments on my posts, but sometimes miss one (and when it’s one like this, people should feel free to email me to bring it to my attention).

22

Doug 02.19.09 at 2:40 pm

c&b, in a media landscape that has Josh Marshall winning a Polk Award, political blogs with more readers than medium-sized metro dailies, America’s most prestigious dailies putting their institutional muscle behind numerous blogs, and on and on, I don’t think that the dichotomy you propose between blogging and journalism holds up anymore (if indeed it ever did).

23

c.l. ball 02.19.09 at 10:00 pm

The 2 paragraphs are discussing different practices.

“Balance-seeking” drives journalists to call people until they get a counter-perspective for the story, and ‘would you agree that x ’ is the fastest way to get those. The problem with this is that it assumes clear dichotomies exist. There are many cases when there are more than one alternative position, and those are not necessarily compatible. Take the Obama “more troops to Afghanistan” stories. The counter-view is from leftist anti-war groups, but this ignores the rightist opponents of the Afghan war (e.g., Michael Scheuer types). To the thoughtful interviewees, the journalist is not asking their expert views, but asking them to express an almost-obvious point. They are not “spin[ning] the interpretation of the facts”; they are setting up an often simplistic dichotomy.

“Opinion laundering,” as Henry describes it, is different. If the journalist (be it blogger, columnist, reporter, or anchor) wants to disguise the origins of a position, he or she is not seeking balance but seeking a false “neutral” party. Rather than have, say, a PR flack from the AMA or the SEIU argue over whether a single-payer healthcare system is good or bad, two academic healthcare “experts” are brought into the fray, each expected to advocate his or her line to the hilt.

The real problem is the lack of an arbitrator. The reader, listener, or viewer is presented with expert saying “x” and another saying “not-x” and is expected to just decide. The value of interviewing academics ought to be that we can say evaluate the pros and cons, and suggest what the trade-offs are.

24

roac 02.20.09 at 3:18 am

Ever seen a company’s press release quote a customer or partner? Did you ever imagine that for a minute that the customer or partner originated that quote, rather than having it handed to them to affirm?

Huh. My agency puts out press releases all the time, and they invariably state that “the political person in charge said ‘What the defendant did is very bad and we are determined to stamp it out, bla bla bla.” I always ask, “Did you hear her say that? So why are we saying she did?” As though the first thing the boss does every morning is pick up a sheet of paper with a list of high-minded sentences, and read each one to the empty air. Enunciating clearly and distinctly.

25

raivo pommer 02.20.09 at 12:08 pm

VW BANK Krise

von Raivo Pommer

Der oberste Bankenfonds-Kontrolleur beschwert sich, dass die VW-Bank unter den Rettungsschirm darf. Die habe da nichts zu suchen.

Aus den Medien musste Albert Rupprecht (CSU) erfahren, dass jetzt offenbar auch Autobanken unter den Bankenrettungsschirm des Bundes schlüpfen dürfen. Man darf sagen: Einverstanden ist der Vorsitzende des parlamentarischen Kontrollgremiums für den 480 Milliarden Euro schweren Rettungsfonds Soffin damit nicht.

Die VW-Bank soll offenbar staatliche Garantien im Gegenwert von zwei Milliarden Euro erhalten. “Das war so nicht abgemacht”, beklagt sich Rupprecht in einem Schreiben an Soffin-Chef Hannes Rehm und den Vorsitzenden des entscheidenden Lenkungsausschusses der Bundesregierung, Finanz-Staatssekretär Jörg Asmussen.

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