He Said, She Said

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HE SAID, SHE SAID….Ezra Klein provides an example of news media “faux objectivity” outside its normal haunts of political reporting:

Take, for instance, this (very good) New York Times review of two books on meat. In the first paragraph, we’re told, “Raising and processing cattle on an industrial scale is an environmental catastrophe (among other things, the United Nations has accused the world’s livestock industry of being responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation fleet).” Emphasis mine.

The UN didn’t “accuse” the livestock industry of anything. They published research showing that livestock production is a more significant contributor to carbon emissions than transportation is. If the author has methodological problems with the research, he should say so. If he accepts the research, then he shouldn’t suggest it’s an accusation — it’s an empirical conclusion.

This view has become so widely accepted among blogosphere press critics that I feel like it deserves at least a little pushback. The problem here is obvious: the impact of livestock on GHG emissions is a complex subject, and for reviewer Michael Shae to take a firm position on the methodological precision of this UN study might well require weeks of research. Maybe more. And in the end, it might turn out that no firm conclusion is even possible. But for present purposes he’s just writing a book review, and the UN report only takes up one sentence of his review. So unless he’s already very well versed in this topic, he only has two choices: (a) leave out the anecdote entirely, or (b) tell his editor he needs a few weeks to check out a fact. Since (a) poorly serves his audience and (b) just isn’t feasible, his only real choice is to note the report and its provenance without taking an authorial stand beyond that.

This kind of thing happens all the time in news stories. Maybe the word “accused” was a bad choice in this piece, but any replacement would only be marginally better and still wouldn’t provide a firm take on the issue — because that’s the one thing Shae really can’t do. Quite often, the best you can do is to simply report various takes on an issue and leave it at that.

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