‘Objective’ journalism is over. Let’s move on.
Let’s replace this threadbare notion with a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting.
This not only will make life easier for scribes and the public. It also could do wonders for the sagging credibility of the press. I’ll provide a specific suggestion for doing so in a moment. But first, let’s see how we got here:
It is preposterous to think anyone ever believed that journalists – who, for the most part, are restlessly intelligent and relentlessly skeptical individuals – actually were able to intellectually neuter themselves when they sat down at a keyboard or stepped in front of a camera.
So, the first step in being more transparent with readers, listeners and viewers is to be honest about the fact that the idea of objectivity is really more of an exception than the prevailing standard in the two centuries that journalism has been practiced in the United States
For most of the history of the republic, political partisans typically funded newspapers for the express purpose of promoting their friends and pummeling their enemies. Objectivity was not their objective.
As the newspaper industry began consolidating in the 20th Century, the sole surviving publishers in most markets realized they could sell more papers (and therefore, more ads) if they purged partisanship from their columns. Some publishers were more assiduous than others, but most of them played it relatively straight in the era after World War II.
Broadcasters embraced the concept of neutrality in the interests of building the largest possible audiences for their shows (so they, too, could sell more ads). As a welcome side benefit, this avoided potential unpleasantness with the federal officials who doled out broadcasting licenses.
This all worked fine until the Internet came along and provided self-appointed critics of every stripe with unlimited opportunities to vent their misgivings about the news – and the messengers delivering it.
Confidence in the media eroded accordingly.
A recent Gallup poll found that a record 57% of Americans said they had little or no trust in the mass media vs. 44% who were skeptical in 1999. While I don’t believe the traditional news media are materially less trustworthy today than they were 10 years ago, faith in the press has faltered, in part, because so many people are picking at it.
However, I would submit that the biggest reason distrust in the press has increased is that a growing number of journalists – particularly those on Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio and other popular venues – are expected to inject personality, passion and even partisan spin into their work.
This trend is unlikely to abate, as long as Fox News – which is about as fair and balanced as Roger Ailes is fit and trim – can pull a larger audience at 10 p.m. on election night than each of ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC. If anything, the passion for passion is likely to grow.
With on-air histrionics at a fever pitch, distrust has spilled over to the print media, too, contributing to a pernicious decline in newspaper readership that has dropped circulation by 37% in the last 20 years. Today, only one in three households actually takes a newspaper.
Unsettling as the punditization of the news may be to old-school journalists, there is a powerful cultural reason why Fox, Jon Stewart and other news-with-a-view productions have caught on: Consumers are so overloaded with information that they want someone to tell them what it means.
No fewer than 92% of Americans today “use multiple platforms to get their daily news,” according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center. However, 70% of respondents felt the volume of news was overwhelming and 50% said they looked to others to help them divine its significance.
This represents a golden opportunity, if you believe, as I do, that journalists not only possess valuable insights into the matters they cover but also have an absolute obligation to share their perspectives with the public after diligently gleaning all sides of a story in an ethical and open-minded manner.
For journalists to be able to report effectively on the news and its significance, we have to replace the intellectually indefensible pretense of objectivity with a more authentic standard that journalists actually can live up to.
The way to do that is to treat the public like adults by providing the clearest possible understanding of who is delivering news and commentary – and where they are coming from. Hence, the following proposal:
Let’s take advantage of the openness and inexhaustible space of the Internet to have every journalist publish a detailed statement of political, personal and financial interests at her home website and perhaps even in a well publicized national registry. Full disclosure would enable consumers to make their own informed judgments about the potential biases and believability of any journalist.
This standard will work as well for journalists and media outlets committed to down-the-middle reporting as those desiring to express a point of view.
A superb example of how detailed disclosure could work can be found at AllThingsD.Com, where co-editors Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg unsparingly bare their personal interests.
Swisher’s ethics statement covers everything from how she buys computers to how she manages her finances to her marriage to Megan Smith, a top Google executive. Mossberg readily admits that his disclosure “is more than most of you want to know” but adds, incisively:
“In the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.”
It’s time for everyone else to do likewise.