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Posted on October 27, 2019 at 8:13 PM

Written by Neil Levy

It is an entrenched and central principle of journalistic ethics that the subjects of stories must have an opportunity to respond to them; comment must be sought. These comments are then published in any resulting story.

For example, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics requires journalists to “[d]iligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing”. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ Statement of Principles for Investigative Journalism sets down a similar requirement slightly more fully:

We will give individuals or organizations that are publicly criticized an opportunity to respond. We will make a genuine and exhaustive effort to contact them. Where possible, we will give them an opportunity to respond before the story is published or broadcast.

While the principle does not mandate that the comments provided are published, in practice they almost always are, if only to show that the principle has been abided by. I want to suggest that this practice should be abandoned.

Neither organisation offers a justification for this kind of principle. The Canadian Association categorises the principle under the heading “fairness”, which suggests that they think it’s main justification is that it allows those who are criticised to put their own side of the story. A more obvious justification would turn on fact-finding: it may be that a journalist’s sources are deceptive. Contemporary journalism emphasises – some would say fetishizes – balance, and a commitment to balance can also justify the principle, on the grounds that ‘both sides’ should be heard.

In practice, though, the comments that politicians, corporate spokespeople and public servants in their official roles consist almost entirely in obfuscation and talking points. Typical exchanges run like this:

Q: Won’t Brexit damage are economy?

A: We have a plan to deliver Brexit. Or: The public wants us to get on with it.

The closest that we get to a response to the question, typically, is something along the lines of “the public isn’t interested in that” which (a) is often false and in any case never justified and (b) not an answer to the question.

Or we get Trump’s diatribes and mumblings. Better prepared politicians come equipped with a list of ‘talking points’, provided by their party, and are trained to respond to every question by shifting to the talking point they want to highlight.

Asking for comment leads to us being swamped in a deluge of bullshit (both in the technical sense of information delivered without a concern for truth and in the colloquial sense). At best, the responses provide free advertising for the political party (that’s why the media advisors distributed the talking points). At worst, the comments add nothing. Of course, sometimes a politician answers a question. Sometimes they provide useful and honest information. But this is rare enough that these few occasions are easily outweighed by the opportunity costs entailed (all that time that might have been devoted to something worthwhile), not to mention the costs of providing free advertising to those in power.

Of course, one motivation for seeking a response is sometimes the story accuses the person of wrongdoing, and there is a strong intuition that when someone is accused, they are owed an opportunity to respond. Very often, though, the responses offered are simply instances of the Mandy Rice-Davies principle: he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Journalists should stop offering people an opportunity for free advertising and time and column inches to empty content. The principle that comment must be sought and published provides politicians with a free kick. The journalist might approach them with an accusation or a criticism, but the politician has the chance to set, or at least bend, the agenda, because they know that their response will be published no matter how irrelevant it is.

One consequence is that journalism becomes bland, filled with the same talking points. Journalists are complicit in this emptying out of diversity of content, and sheer point, from the public debate, because they always provide the platform for talking points and obfuscation. As it is currently understood, the idea that comment must be sought helps to enforce this complicity.

Journalists can do better. Perhaps they should continue to seek comment when a politician or a public figure is accused of wrongdoing or merely faces criticism, but they should not be required to publish the content when its irrelevant, empty or a repetition of talking points. Politicians should not be given the opportunity to appear on flagship programs until they agree to answer questions (perhaps interviews should end with the first refusal to answer, as judged by the journalist, and refusals should result in bans for an extended period of time).

The roles of journalists are supposed to include holding the powerful to account. Right now, they are failing to play this role, and the principle that comment must be sought and published is actually an obstacle to doing better. It should be rethought to allow journalism to fulfil its function better.

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