Forensic journalism: How to tell reporter’s true views on story

Two NYT reporters think so.

The objectivity of print journalists in this nation is an object of endless contention. But I’ve long wondered why people who read newspapers every day haven’t mastered lesson No. 1 of Forensic Journalism 101. What is the ostensibly neutral reporter’s point of view (or his or her editor’s)? Check the last paragraph. It’s what the journo(s) want you to take away from the story. And so while I thought President Obama’s speech Tuesday in Kansas was slippery junk that tried to say income inequality and the rotten economy were basically the same issue, that’s not what New York Times reporter A.G. Sulzberger (publisher’s grandson?) thought, based on his final paragraph.

“We’re doing what the middle class has always done in this country,” said Ms. Harrison, 51, who works at a nearby bank, shaking her head. “We work hard. We teach our kids to work hard. But it’s very hard for us to keep our heads above water these days. And it’s even harder for our kids.”

In other words, Obama is right.

Forensic Journalism 101 doesn’t work on every story. To avoid tipping my hand, when I was a reporter, I sometimes tried to end my stories with a neutral sentence — “County supervisors will discuss the issue at their Dec. 17 meeting,” etc. Other reporters also end with neutral prose. But this Forensic Journalism 101 way of figuring out what a journalist thinks often works.

Here’s another example from the NYT about the deeply aggravating tactic of the Senate blocking judicial nominees of a president if the Senate is controlled by a party different than the president. Both parties do it to each other depending on who can stymie whom, and it’s hypocritical as hell. Reporters Charlie Savage and Raymond Hernandez deftly make that point in their last graph:

Of the seven Republican senators who were part of the Gang of 14 [that once fought for a compromise on judicial nominations], four — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — are still serving. All voted against allowing a vote on Ms. Halligan. Mr. Obama, who was a senator from 2005 through 2008, was not one of the Democrats in the Gang of 14; he voted to filibuster several of Mr. Bush’s nominees.

But more often than not, the last paragraph isn’t used to give incisive context as your last impression of the story. It’s to side with a point of view expressed in the story — such as in the L.A. Times’ coverage of Obama’s speech Tuesday. Reporter Christi Parsons’ last four paragraphs want you to leave the story concluding that Obama is both right in his analysis and reasonable, ending with this:

Dave French, a former middle school history teacher here who said he splits his votes between the two parties, found Obama’s approach appealing. The nation’s burden currently rests too heavily on the backs of the middle class and not enough on the wealthy, he said. “I don’t think it’s fair right now,” said French, sitting with his family in the high school gym where Obama spoke. “We’re all Americans, and everyone needs to pitch in and do their share.”

Too bad for readers we don’t have more Savages and Hernandezes and fewere Sulzbergers and Parsons.

I want to elaborate on the point I made upfront about the last paragraph not necessarily being the reporter’s POV but the editor’s. I think some in the public would be shocked at how much rewriting the news and copy desks do at big, ambitious papers. Over the years, I’ve seen reporters go to The New York Times, and all of sudden their copy has that arch, above-it-all tone the NYT so often does. It’s fair to think this enforcing of a uniformity of tone might lead some editors to enforce a uniformity of political tilt.

But not all the editors at the NYT. Go back to that last paragraph of the Savage/Hernandez story about Washington’s bipartisan hypocrisy on Senate filibusters. Specifically the last sentence:

Mr. Obama, who was a senator from 2005 through 2008, was not one of the Democrats in the Gang of 14; he voted to filibuster several of Mr. Bush’s nominees.

It all but screams “You Big Phony You!” at the top of its lungs.

Or at least it does after you understand Forensic Journalism 101.


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