The Journalistic Confidence Scale

by Dave Schuler on February 5, 2014

In decreasing order of confidence:

  • “X today presented evidence…”
  • “X today said he was in possession of evidence…”
  • “An unnamed person said she was in possession of evidence…”
  • “This newspaper has received evidence…”
  • “X today told this newspaper that evidence exists…”
  • “An unnamed person told this newspaper that evidence exists…”
  • “Evidence exists…”
  • “Evidence exists…” (followed by a disclaimer from the newspapers ombudsman)

For background see this column by James Taranto at the WSJ.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

... February 5, 2014 at 8:39 am

I would put the fourth bullet point ahead of the third one, but that is picking nits.

PD Shaw February 5, 2014 at 8:51 am

Similarly, if one reads many of the court cases arising out of the ACA, one can often find a point where judicial confidence becomes uncertain:

* The law states . . .

* The Administration claims that the law . . .

This is true even of legal provisions that are not disputed in the case, and I strongly suspect that the judges know that future issues may arise due to the uncertain relationship of various provisions and the does not want to appear to know the final answers.

Dave Schuler February 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

I can think of other gradations on that scale:

- references to Continental law
- penumbras and emanations

just to name two.

jan February 5, 2014 at 10:11 am

Sullivan’s approach, at least in this case, is to ignore it entirely–even though she includes this antagonistic quote from Jamieson: “The Christie administration is attacking our story to change the conversation.” But if the Times had gotten the story right at the outset, there would be nothing to talk about.

The simple kernel of truth comes at the end of this yarn. Reporting the news, though, seems to have become a speed-reading interpretation, filtered through the lens of one’s own ideology. In the case of the Times they tend to embolden the issues that negatively effect one side of the aisle, while showing great investigative restraint, if not entirely dismissing gritty items reflecting badly on the other side of the aisle.

Dave Schuler February 5, 2014 at 10:22 am

A portion of that should be understood in the context of the new journalism writing style. The 5Ws (who, what, where, when, why) have been replaced with “point of view” narrative. It is inevitable that the writer’s own point of view will creep in and, since hiring at major news outlets notoriously leans towards Democrats, the point of view does, too.

I frequently find myself re-writing news reports from the incomprehensible point of view narrative presented by the writer (how do you write a point of view narrative on a subject about which you know nothing, have no opinion, and have talked to no one?) into a 5W format.

jan February 5, 2014 at 10:48 am

The 5W’s was a initial format of writing in school. It prods a person into clarity, and away from assessing the subject matter at hand purely through emotion. IOW, such a template puts an emphasis on facts over feelings, which, IMO, gives a more objective story, rather than merely an extension of one’s personal POV. One journalist who seems to manage such a feat is Jake Tapper.

PD Shaw February 5, 2014 at 10:59 am

The New Yorker recently had a piece on a study showing that only about four percent of the American population are active news customers, meaning they read at least ten substantive news articles and two opinion pieces in a three-month period. That suggests the customer base news organizations cater to is quite small and no doubt weird.

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