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AP’s New ‘Accountability Journalism’ Is a Sham

Amidst charges of bias, the AP decides to put even more opinion in its articles.

by
Steve Boriss

Bio

July 25, 2008 - 12:00 am

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for — you just might get it. For all those who have been concerned that the AP has not been fulfilling its mission to provide “unbiased news,” be assured they have heard you.

Now we may be getting something much worse.

The AP has decided it will now practice something it calls “accountability journalism.” But it has nothing to do with being “accountable” to readers seeking unbiased news. Instead, it seems to be more about holding politicians accountable to the personal conclusions of reporters.

If that seems like a stretch, here are some real-life examples of sentences found in articles practicing accountability journalism as collected by Politico:

  1. “John McCain calls himself an underdog. That may be an understatement.”
  2. “I miss Hillary.”
  3. “Obama is bordering on arrogance.”
  4. “The Democratic nomination is now Barack Obama’s to lose.”

As you can see, reporters are being asked to write in the first person, giving them permission to call it as they see it. They are also being encouraged to use language filled with emotion. This is such a vast difference from previous practices that it is even controversial within the ranks of the AP. It is the brainchild of the AP’s new Washington bureau chief, Ron Fournier, but anathema to his predecessor, Sandy Johnson, who has expressed concern it might destroy the bureau.

How can this style of writing and reporting be justified? Not easily. It requires a lot of words that take your mind in one direction, but fall apart with a small amount of analysis.

In an essay about accountability journalism that Fournier wrote last year, he outlined its four cornerstones. But each of the four begs the question “what’s accountability got to do with it?”

First, Fournier writes that accountability journalism means thorough follow-up. For example, he wants reporters to determine after the fact whether bills actually worked and to make sure promises were kept. This sounds good, but is this really a formula for accountability? For just about any program, those in favor will be able to produce arguments and statistics showing it worked, and those against will do the opposite. To which will politicians be held accountable?

Second, Fournier says that accountability journalism means that reporters should commit politicians to the truth. He talks about exposing lies, spin, and distortion. But let’s face it: absolute, out-and-out lies are a rarity. Politics is mostly about putting the best spin on statements to maximize the support of supporters, and minimize opposition among those normally opposed. Just about any statement from a politician can be dissected for spin and distortion, so just about any statement can be condemned for not being the truth. That creates a lot of competition for reporters trying to hold politicians accountable.

Third, Fournier believes accountability journalism is about making broad use of sources to identify government failures and where “the truth” is distorted or hidden. This is less of a principle than a tactic, and one that adds little to the notion of accountability. Since sources are often partisan themselves, we can expect each to provide opposite accounts as to whether politicians’ programs are working and the truth is being told.

So, we’re zero for three so far — three concepts that purportedly are about holding politicians accountable, but really do not and cannot.

Unfortunately, the fourth and final cornerstone is no better than the others — accountability journalism means reporters writing with authority. It is about reporters not being afraid to clearly state who is right and who is wrong. That is, in their own opinion.

Accordingly, we are back to where we started. Accountability journalism is about holding politicians accountable to the personal conclusions of reporters. It is about reporters getting the opportunity to call it as they see it, liberated from the need for equal treatment of all sides, weasel words, and even the pressure to accept politicians’ statements at face value.

Now, it’s one thing if individual newspapers suddenly decided that their reporters could express their opinions. After all, with the Internet, readers can now find a myriad of sites that more closely express their worldviews.

But it’s quite another thing for AP articles to take positions. It is rapidly becoming a monopoly source for the top national and international stories. It is a pooled reporting operation whose membership consists of virtually all the major papers, and has 3,000 of its own journalists and 243 bureaus in 97 countries. As newsrooms shrink, papers are outsourcing more and more of their national and international news to the Associated Press.

Should accountability journalism take hold at the AP, and their reporters provide their own views in their articles, one question remains. Who will be held accountable when we receive only one version of the nation’s top stories, and it is not much more than the opinion of an individual reporter?

Steve Boriss teaches the class "The Future of News" at Washington University in St. Louis, blogs at at TheFutureofNews.com, and offers services through The Future of News, Inc. to help news organizations, corporations, and agencies succeed in the emerging news environment.
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