Journalism: A discipline of verification?

By Christopher B. Daly

Journalism has been called (perhaps aspirationally) as a “discipline of verification.” In their very useful book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel devote a chapter to arguing that journalism, at its best, shares a methodology with such empirical disciplines as history, social science, and even the hard sciences. The point is that all those fields are trying to gather true data about the real world, and they all recognize the necessity to test and validate their findings.

Today’s NYTimes op-ed page brings two cases in point.

First, a column by Paul Krugman in which he cites a classic case of verification carried out in the wake of the (official) Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech. Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., related an anecdote about “Bette in Spokane” as a cautionary tale against the president’s signature Health Care program. Turns out, Rep. Rodgers was presenting Americans with what might generously be considered an interpretation of the plight of “Bette from Spokane” — one that omitted some facts.

Some journalists decided to fact-check the congresswoman’s version of Bette’s story, and thank goodness there are some reporters around who can still handle such an assignment. As so often happens, the task fell to the local newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. In a recent story, reporter David Wasson tracked down the Republican poster gal and found the real-life Bette Grenier. So far, so good.

Here’s Krugman’s version of the paper’s findings:

Bette’s tale had policy wonks scratching their heads; it was hard to see, given what we know about premiums and how the health law works, how anyone could face that large a rate increase. Sure enough, when a local newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, contacted Bette Grenier, it discovered that the real story was very different from the image Ms. McMorris Rodgers conveyed. First of all, she was comparing her previous policy with one of the pricier alternatives her insurance company was offering — and she refused to look for cheaper alternatives on the Washington insurance exchange, declaring, “I wouldn’t go on that Obama website.”

Even more important, all Ms. Grenier and her husband had before was a minimalist insurance plan, with a $10,000 deductible, offering very little financial protection. So yes, the new law requires that they spend more, but they would get far better coverage in return.

So, a hat-tip to David Wasson and his paper for supplying the wider factual base from which we can all draw our own conclusions. In my view, it would seem that Bette and her husband were playing roulette with their old policy (with that $10,000 deductible, they were basically un-insured) and that they are now able to do much better.

Second case:

The Times carries an op-ed advocating for genetically modified wheat. The argument is made by a professor from Oklahoma State (Jayson Lusk, a GMO advocate) and a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution (Henry I. Miller, a co-author of a book trying to debunk what he calls the “Frankenfood myth.”)

They are, of course, entitled to their views. But they are not entitled to their own facts. They begin their argument by stating that GMO versions of corn and soybeans are making money for U.S. farmers and boosting the productivity of American farmland. The way those plants to do that is by containing a gene inserted into them by ag-scientists that makes them resistant to herbicides such as Monsanto’s Round-Up.

The authors go on to note that while most corn and soybean have now been modified to allow them to survive herbicide treatments on their fields, wheat has not been subject to genetic modification — for the simple reason that a lot of American wheat is exported, and consumers in other countries don’t want to buy GMO wheat.

The authors go on to make the case for GMO wheat — not, however, on the grounds that it is resistant to herbicides but on the grounds that it is resistant to drought. That may well be true, and I would like to see some facts that bear on the question. But it is not really fair to switch the terms of the argument in the middle. I wish the Times‘ editors had raised some of these questions, and now I hope they will invite an op-ed reply from someone with a different perspective.

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