Smashing the Myth of Fact-Based Journalism

In journalism, facts and opinions must be kept separate. In this Featured Article, we call into question this doctrine by examining the practice of quoting in Helsingin Sanomat’s reporting of the US presidential election.

The presidential election held in the United States a year ago was an important event worldwide. Although only a few of us in the Nordic countries witnessed the election with our own eyes, we still know quite a few things about it.  This is because the election became an important news event on the global scale. For example, readers in Finland received news about the election through Helsingin Sanomat (HS), which is the largest Nordic newspaper by circulation.

However, the surrounding reality can be represented in many ways, and when certain facts are emphasised through representation, others are played down or excluded. In other words, HS did not report the events as such and no other media are capable of doing so either.

Representations reflect established discourses

While individual editorial choices are the end results of discursive power, discourses that guide their construction are established ways to understand reality. Through recurring representations, they may turn into unquestioned, “naturalised” truths about a given issue.

We investigated what kind of discourses, i.e. ways to understand the world, HS created about Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the month preceding the election. During that period, HS published 37 news stories that, according to our analysis, painted a picture of Trump as a liar who is arrogant and reckless in his actions as well as incompetent and inconsistent. The way Biden was represented, on the other hand, reflected discourses that saw him as the favourite, who is conventional and a safe choice, as well as caring and understanding. (Our yet-to-be-published research is based on a thesis by Aholuoto , the material of which we expanded and analysed further.)

When we carried out the analysis, we noticed in particular that the representations were strongly based on the quoting of individuals, surveys and media sources (for an introduction to journalistic quoting, see Quoting practices in written journalism). This Featured Article will delve into exactly this issue.

Representations are often constructed through quotes

Let us examine first the discourse on the arrogant and reckless Trump. This discourse is mainly constructed using two types of representations in the HS news articles.

The articles refer to remarks by Trump − often through quotes − where arrogance and recklessness emerge as the primary interpretation of him (e.g. HS1  and HS2). Even more frequently, the discourse is reflected in the text by quoting remarks of other people, in which they admonish Trump. These people may include the opposing candidates Biden and Harris (e.g. HS3) or persons in different expert positions (e.g. HS4). In this way, HS can position itself as a mere transmitter of information and not be scrutinised for truthfulness of the information.

With regard to the discourse on the lying Trump, it is worth noting from the point of view of quoting that HS writes directly only once that Trump lies, and in doing so uses a quotation by Biden. (“The fact is that he is an outrageous liar,” Biden said about Trump. [HS5]).

Despite this, the reader easily receives the impression that Trump deliberately presents false information, that is, lies. HS creates this impression on the text level by first presenting Trump’s claim, which it immediately refutes, often by quoting sources, in particular. The following extract, where “fact checking” is sourced to Trump’s physician through the Los Angeles Times, serves as a good example of this method:

Trump told the host of the TV show that he had no breathing difficulties at the hospital. However, the Los Angeles Times points out that according to Trump’s physician Sean Conley the President had previously received supplemental oxygen. (HS6)

It is interesting that the claims presented by others are not scrutinised or questioned to the same degree as Trump’s claims. In the following example, Harris, Biden’s candidate for vice-president, is quoted for claiming that the Trump administration were − nothing more and nothing less − than the worst administration in the history of the United States. This creates a discourse on the incompetent Trump.  The grandiose claim is presented twice, but not “fact-checked” – or at least readers are not aware of this fact checking.

In her speech, Harris called the actions of the Trump administration during the pandemic the “greatest failure of any administration in the US history”.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Harris said right at the start of the debate. (HS7)

Does quoting challenge fact-based journalism?

It is understandable that the representations of presidential candidates are often constructed on quoting sources. These are news articles that are based on the key doctrine in journalism: The story must be based on facts, and if it includes opinions, the readers must be able to separate these from the facts. Quoting, especially, is a “ritual” (as Gaye Tuchman worded this phenomenon five decades ago) to create transparency in the article.

In our opinion, however, such transparency or “objectivity” – the term used in the past – is only ostensible.

Any kind of quoting in an article has been specifically chosen by the journalist. It is the journalist who decides the angle of the article, which perspectives s/he highlights and which interpretations s/he brings to the fore. In this way, the journalists can – and in fact will – include their own views in the story, even though this is not explicit. It is noteworthy that quoted text extracts specifically enhance the article’s credibility, because the conclusions presented by others do not appear to represent the journalist’s interpretation.

In other words, this objectivity is superficial in nature because the numerous (conscious and unconscious) choices made during the newswriting process cannot be assessed exhaustively based on what are facts and what are opinions or value judgements. More information on this topic is available in the research article Problematising the restoration of trust through transparency.

In media landscapes with robust press freedom, the journalist alone selects the perspective of the article. It is their (exclusive) right. However, this exclusive right to make choices becomes problematic if the choices are not journalistically justified but are instead based on personal ideologies, and in situations where the original (discursive) context of the source texts is not sufficiently clear to the journalist.

Where do discursive truths originate?

It is unlikely that many readers of HS had first-hand experience with the US presidential election. If we therefore think of readers who received all of their election-related information from HS, the picture that the newspaper gave of Trump and Biden was true to these readers.

This simplistic situation is of course hypothetical. However, the power of HS is increased by the frequently verified dynamics where the mainstream media in an area influence the agenda setting of the smaller media, even if digitalisation has complicated this interaction in many respects.

How is this discursive truth constructed in HS?

Unlike in domestic news, HS often relies on second-hand information in its reporting on foreign events – a trend reinforced by the coronavirus epidemic. In the news articles included in our research material, the information is mainly sourced to other media, which the reader can usually access through a hyperlink. (It should be noted, however, that by examining finished articles alone we cannot determine their sources with certainty, because not all sources may be mentioned in the text.)

News is an intertextual collage

Sometimes it is easy to follow the way a news story has been constructed on the basis of second-hand media information.

An article that deals with Biden’s remarks in the programme 60 Minutes on TV channel CBS serves as an example. The article has a link to the CBS News website, where the programme and its precise transcription are available for the readers to easily find the parts selected by HS.

Another news story concerning a speech by former President Barack Obama is sourced to CNN. The news item also contains a link to CNN’s article, which the reader can use to access a video of Obama’s speech.

However, the news articles published by HS often resemble collages of reports by US media outlets, mainly the large ones.

On the one hand, by doing so HS can be seen to act more independently than by “only” following the agenda setting of one media operator. For example, one news article includes a reference to eight mainstream media outlets as well as Twitter, voting and COVID-19 infection statistics, exit polls and bodies analysing them.

On the other hand, such “intertextual collages” make it difficult to determine whose discursive truths HS in fact conveys in its election coverage. In addition to obvious news agendas – i.e. which events are “important” at a given moment – HS also follows and strengthens the way in which the source media of its choice attach meaning to the world.

Chain of sources leading to obscurity

The following news story provides an example of this intertextuality. Its headline and lead are based on a remark by the White House Chief of Staff, according to whom the Trump Administration no longer seeks to control the pandemic. The information has been sourced and linked to the CNN website, which contains both the news article and a video lasting four and a half minutes of the journalist interviewing the Chief of Staff.

The remark in question, which CNN has prioritised and chosen as the headline and lead of its article, is uttered approximately halfway through the interview. The CNN article constructs a discourse on the reckless Trump, which HS repeats by directly translating CNN’s headline and lead for its own story.

A piece of information in the same HS article, according to which “at least four other infections” have been detected in the Trump’s inner circle in the White House in addition to the published cases, presents a more complex intertextual network that is more difficult to trace.  This information is sourced to The Guardian through a link. In turn, the words “four others” in The Guardian article function as a hyperlink to a story in The New York Times, in which the information is sourced to several unnamed insider sources.

Hegemonic discourses may go unnoticed

As discussed above, in its coverage of the US election, HS constructed collages of those discourses that the sources used by it reflected in their representations.

This may become problematic for journalistic integrity if the discourses reflected by second-hand information appear to the journalist and the editorial staff of HS as self-evident and without an alternative.  In other words, a problem arises if a journalist does not understand the role of language in creating social reality (i.e. the difference between the social constructivist understanding of language and the referential one where language is plainly seen as a descriptor of reality), realise the presence of hegemonic discourses, and decide based solely on journalistic grounds to promote and strengthen the discourses through the representations chosen for the news story.

In this Featured Article, we have examined news coverage by analysing only published articles. Such an approach focusing on products is not able to reveal any problems related to the production process. This would require further research in which the researcher-analyst’s outside perspective (etic) would be supplemented with the journalist’s inside perspective (emic). As an introduction to this methodological approach, we recommend a research article Etic and emic data production methods in the study of journalistic work practices.

The kind of discourse analysis and analytical verbalising described in this Featured Article would also be good exercises for journalists and editorial staff.

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Illustration: Alvin Eliasson (6 years)