Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Crimson editor Linda J. Greenhouse ’68 gave the second of three lectures in her series “Just a Journalist: Reflections on Journalism, Life, and the Spaces Between” on Wednesday.
In her lecture, titled “Stories,” Greenhouse argued that the media’s overemphasis on objectivity diminishes its ability to present issues accurately.
Greenhouse said there are several disturbing trends in the way stories are currently reported. For example, she described the way that journalists distance themselves from their work through tactics such as putting something they believe to be true in the words of someone else.
According to Greenhouse, an even larger problem is the use of what she calls “‘he said, she said’ journalism,” where reporters juxtapose oppositional views, even if the issue cannot be divided neatly into two sides or if one of the views has no merit.
“Presenting two sides without further explication or context…inevitably poses a sense of balance or equivalence,” Greenhouse said. She used the example of the debate over the vaccination of children, saying vaccination opponents who have no scientific basis for their claims about the danger of vaccines are often given equal voice in coverage of the topic.
In contrast, Greenhouse said that the media “rose to the challenge” of covering Carly Fiorina’s statements about Planned Parenthood during a recent Republican presidential primary debate. Instead of trying to create balance, the media made clear that the statements were false.
While noting the repeated use of the same sources to provide the opposing viewpoint on an issue, Greenhouse questioned the media’s reliance on the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation for sourcing. “How does this small organization…manage to get quoted so frequently and paraded as the voice of law enforcement on several different subjects?” she said. “[The leader of the organization] is simply doing a job that the media desperately wants him to do.”
The lecture series is sponsored by Harvard’s Graduate Program in American Studies. In his introduction to the talk, Harvard Law School professor Kenneth W. Mack praised Greenhouse’s deft reporting on the Supreme Court, coverage for which she is well known.“She’s someone that’s not shy about both informing us and making us think when she writes,” Mack said.