October 2, 2013

Don’t call it an impasse, or a stalemate, or a standoff.

Yes, it’s a shutdown. But accurately describing how our government arrived at this point requires more than one word.

To suggest that this current government shutdown is an example of Republicans and Democrats simply unable to reconcile their differences is to ignore the facts of how budget appropriation bills are passed.

Dan Froomkin points this out in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera. James Fallows calls it out in The Atlantic. And Greg Mitchell screams about it in the The Nation.

Bill Adair, the Knight Professor at Duke University and the founder of PolitiFact, told me Wednesday during a phone call that if he were editing reporters, he would insist they use more words to describe exactly what happened, rather than allowing them to reduce the government shutdown to a deadlock, a political stare-down, or gridlock, all of which imply mutual responsibility. Making it seem like the House and the Senate simply couldn’t agree is just untrue. Instead, there is a faction of Republicans operating outside the normal appropriations process.

“I would urge reporters to avoid terms that convey a sense of equal blame on both sides and instead use precise descriptions of what has happened,” he said.

Accurately describing political machinations has always been a critical function of journalism. But speaking and writing with crystal-clear precision and authority on confusing issues is even more important in our modern information ecosystem, where there are so many voices tossing around contradictory messages.

Journalists have a moral obligation to use language that accurately describes what has happened. And that doesn’t mean they are choosing sides. You can still argue about whether the Republicans were justified in shutting down the government as a last-ditch attempt to derail the Affordable Health Care Act before it went into effect. You just can’t forget to mention that that’s what happened.

It is not accurate to simply describe Congress’ failure to pass the appropriations bill without describing how House Republicans deviated from the standard procedures by including language in the bill that would change a current law that has nothing to do with appropriations.

Adair thinks journalists need to go even further and describe what has happened to the entire progression of appropriations in Congress.

“The process is broken,” he said. This Politico story describes the buildup.

The current bill that Congress failed to pass was simply a bill to authorize the government to continue running at current levels. It didn’t actually change anything about the government’s responsibilities. There are a dozen appropriation bills every year and Congress is passing none of them, Adair said.

“Specificity is the way to counter false equivalence,” Adair said.

Reporters covering the shutdown must competently describe how it happened. Using vague throwaway terms is misleading, inaccurate and undermines the core journalistic value of seeking the truth.


“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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