Thursday, December 02, 2010

‘Objective’ journalism is over. Let’s move on.

It’s time to retire the difficult-to-achieve and impossible-to-defend conceit that journalists are now, or ever were, objective.

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.


Blogger Unknown said...

I'm very open with readers about who I am and what I believe -- including that I don't believe in objective journalism.

The consistent, across the spectrum feedback I get is that The Batavian is more trusted and seen as less biased than our "objective" newspaper competitor.

Even in coverage where I think I have a clear POV, I'll get praise from both sides for my honest and fair coverage.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very open with readers about who I am and what I believe -- including that I don't believe in objective journalism.

The consistent, across the spectrum feedback I get is that The Batavian is more trusted and seen as less biased than our "objective" newspaper competitor.

Even in coverage where I think I have a clear POV, I'll get praise from both sides for my honest and fair coverage.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Syed said...

"well publicized national registry"
--Great idea. I'd like to build this national registry. What do you think is the best way to publicize it and convince journalists (and their employers) of its importance and necessity?
Would you be available for feedback on what what a registry should look like?

6:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...

Although I agree with both your call for transparency and your doubt that journalists ever were "objective" in the past, I disagree that "the biggest reason distrust in the press has increased is that a growing number of journalists ... are expected to inject personality, passion and even partisan spin into their work."

IMO, the biggest reason for lack of trust is that the public, now more media-savvy than in the past, finally saw through the sham of objectivity and now better recognizes existing bias for what it is. I think that audience response to journalists who openly acknowledge their leanings is a combination of (1) easier and more frequent self-filtering of sources, long recognized in communications research, and (2) audiences finding the openness to be a refreshing change from the status quo.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You make some decent points. But calling someone fat is hardly a way to build your credibility, even among those who lean in your political persuasion or tend to rally around your POV.

It's true we read news with various levels of POV and from various political directions. And I think news consumers are able to process it adequately, taking into account the source, etc. All the more reason to be up front and honest (as Howard in the comments points out).

Still, your attack on Ailes is a perfect way to illustrate that readers might withstand your POV to get to the point, but they'll also take your *personality* (petty) into account as they draw conclusions.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think your concept is good, but the idea of a national registry seems a tad on the creepy side.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think it's an overreach to conclude that intelligent and fair-minded journalists cannot approach objectivity, we're nonetheless heading in the direction you describe. (And while most newspapers are ultimately doomed in any event, the well-established pattern of newspapers replacing substance with flash has only been hastening their demise.)

On full disclosure, consider AOL's Patch, the spreading hyperlocal network. Each local Patch editor posts a statement of personal believes and interests — including (heaven forgive them!) their POLITICAL affiliations and RELIGIOUS beliefs.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Ron judd said...

Nice idea, to "have every journalist publish a detailed statement of political, personal and financial interests at her home website."

Care to provide an example? What's a "personal interest," and where does that stop? Ship-in-a-bottle builder? Did some things she regretted once in college? Has a thing for women's shoes?

What about financial information? Should journalists disclose how much money they have in which mutual funds, the fact that their father was a major stockholder in 3M, or that they bought four boxes of school-fundraiser M&Ms last week that might have indirectly benefitted some local teacher's union?

Religion? How can a nationally registered Buddhist write fairly about Christianity? Can a registered aetheist or agnostic write about it at all?

Politics is equally murky. Say I don't support either party, because I think the system is fundamentally flawed. Would you have a checkbox for that? (Any journalist who identifies him/herself publicly with one party or the other might as well hang it up. Would you instead suggest people post their voting record or local ballot?)

Being just a little facetious here, and I agree with your main point about the value of transparency in building credibility. But without some real-world parameters, it's all just a lot of wind.

Bottom line: Journalists should be forthcoming with any entanglements that might create perceptions of conflict. But overreaching the other way would make their jobs impossible. They also deserve the same rights to privacy for personal information as any other citizen. If not, good luck recruiting the best and brightest of the next generation. They already can look forward to long hours, lousy pay and public derision. You're asking them to add to that moving through life in the equivalent of a TSA body scanner.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Howard said...

Is there a link to your disclosures, Alan?

9:29 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Everything you need to know about me is posted in the bio in the right rail, which has been there every day since I started blogging in December, 2004.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Terry MAGUIRE said...

I think a good place to begin this is in making sure that there is a link to a basic bio from every reporter name that appears on a newspaper website. That does not go as far as Alan would go, but it at least gives the reader a sense of who the reporter/writer is. Better yet, include a contact option of some sort in case a reader wants to pose a question that the reporter can answer, or not.

Only 2 of the commenters ahead of me on this post disclose who they are. I always wonder why people do this. Are they afraid to stand behind their words? Prefer to play games? I disregard comments that don't tell me something about who wrote them, and that point sure is relevant to the reporter one Alan makes above.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, I agree with many of your points, but I think you underestimate the type of impact that the kind of disclosure you advocate would have. If a journalist talks about their religion or political philosophy, then anything they write on that subject will be instantly discredited, it would read almost as a statement that personal views dominate the discussion of a particular matter. In that regard it would make the problem you identify worse, now better.

And, with all due respect, your bio hardly approaches the level of disclosure you are demanding. I gather just from this piece, for example, that you are not a fan of Fox News, thus I would gather that you are a Democrat. Why is this not disclosed? Further, to say that you consult for unnamed companies in this space but will disclose who they are only when you judge it to be relevant raises more questions than it answer.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Howard said...

I appreciate that, Alan, but it doesn't look like a "detailed statement of political, personal and financial interests" to me.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This idea is a little muddled. Ron Judd is partially on target, but I don’t think “full disclosure” as Kara Swisher does it tells us much about her biases and proclivities, unless she starts writing about gay marriage. We don’t know from her statement which companies she tends to look at favorably, which device types she’s partial to. If this were a political reporter, knowing how she voted would be crucial.

But more important, it would devalue insight based on experience and research. I’ve written about stories ( that identify groups as either liberal or conservative. I think conservatives tend to dismiss the viewpoint if it comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and liberals discount the Cato Institute. Why not let the point of view stand on its own? I’d rather see a reporter challenge views with facts or compelling information. For example, if a politician says (and I think I’ve heard this once or twice) that higher taxes will cripple the economy, a good reporter would present information disputing that view. That’s what an objective reporter does, in my opinion.

Space limitations may make this suggestion impractical. The impact of taxes isn’t black or white. How much room for nuance can there be? And of course there is competing research. But most of what I read about politics would not be enhanced by full disclosure. What is being proposed here may be that we simply do away with “he said, she said” journalism and replace it with analysis and full disclosure. Again, with the caveat of an ill-defined disclosure, that has merit.

I have found that I learn more about the facts of an issue by reading op-eds than by reading “objective” stories where I am left wondering whose talking points are valid.

The biggest problem isn’t the lack of disclosure. It’s the lack of meaningful journalism.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Racoon said...

"the public, now more media-savvy than in the past, finally saw through the sham of objectivity and now better recognizes existing bias for what it is"

Mencken dissents.....

Your "media savvy" is another man's "poisoned".

6:43 PM  
Blogger Racoon said...

"you are not a fan of Fox News, thus I would gather that you are a Democrat"

That may have more to do with one's level of intelligence, experience and wisdom.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Just an observer said...

"The 'Hood's" analysis is on track. The biggest problem is lazy journalism, and bias shows up most in the choices of what not to report. Presenting "all sides" doesn't mean anything when it's just a clash of quotes from axe-grinders. There are things such as facts, and it is the reporter and editor's job to bring them to light. The Internet will allow readers to confirm them, and build confidence in the journalists' work.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Neale Adams said...

No one is purely objective but some reports are more objective than others. I still value reporters who strive for objectivity -- being careful with facts, getting the names right, fairly presenting points of view, giving sources, etc. The NY Times, for example, tries to be objective; Fox News doesn't. Because Fox News may attract more viewers than the NY Times attracts readers doesn't mean we should abandon the striving.

10:07 PM  
Blogger davidcay said...

Part II

Alan, dig out the late David Shaw's Page One LATimes piece maybe 30 years ago in which he compared for a month or so the front pages of the staff-written NYT, WP, LAT (and maybe some others) and showed that when you control for what the President did and major disasters their news judgements were stunningly different.

That doesn't mean they were subjective. It means that their objective decisions about what was important differed because different people in different cities with different audiences had different perspectives on what was significant among the staff written stories available to them.

These objective differences illustrate why monopoly newspapers are a problem and why reading only one newspaper or watching only one TV channel for news, it can be empirically shown, is not going to make one well informed.

But even reading and watching many news organizations with the same point of view will distort understanding, especially if those news organizations (like Fox) are primarily subjective in their choice and presentation of news with flagrant disregard for the first two rules of journalism.

3:07 AM  
Blogger davidcay said...

Alan, you have created a straw man through misuse of the term "objective."

To understand that, let's look at the antonym: subjective, which means "influenced or based on personal opinions or feelings or tastes."

Objective means dealing in facts without regard to personal opinion, subjective values or tastes.

The first two rules of journalism are about objective reporting, in its actual meaning:

1. Check it out; if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

2. Cross-check repeatedly until you have a rounded understanding.

Objective reporting consists of empirical facts presented in a way that each participant in a news event gets their side told and, in a perfect story, told in such a way that each side feels their position was described as well as everyone else's. Space, time and human frailty come between the perfect and the published.

Instead of a straw man, Alan, how about dealing with real issues like:

-- the amount of "journalism" that is little more than regurgitating what politicians, businesses and celebrities say

-- the loss of skepticism, including journalists who are in disfavor for being skeptical (see Rule #1)

-- the growing problem of reporters (and editors) who write about things with no understanding of the issues, something I explore in the next issue of Nieman Reports, such as not understanding that juries, grand and petite, hand verdicts UP and that convictions require unanimous decisions

-- the lack of substance in much local government news, such as not examining how government spends our money; see 1970s LATimes layouts on the county budget (available online for a fee) and compare them with today's drivel on the county budget where you live.

-- the failure by most journalists to make ANY independent use of the vast, deep troves of data on the performance of government, the economy, incomes, workplace safety, the state of infrastructure (I could go on here for a book of examples).

3:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Ron Judd's idea, a full disclosure on a case by case basis. Kind of like Jim Cramer when he recommends a stock and has to disclose that he owns that stock. Information is a commodity and should be treated as such.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Ramblin' Man said...

I've always said that every paragraph, every sentence, every placement of a story on a page belies a prejudice. The key is fairness.

I always told my reporters, if a story is going to float, it needs a RAFT.

If it helps to remember it, you can FART it instead.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Terry MAGUIRE said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Jan Schaffer said...

I would suggest that so much more is broken about "journalism" than objectivity and television/ radio talk shows.

I think the very conventions of journalism on auto-pilot need to be reexamined because they are equally offputting to audiences:

1) Why do we only define "news" as conflict? What does journalism even look like that validates consensus as well?

2) Why all the scorecard journalism? (who's up or down today? who won or lost?) I suggest that news consumers are not keeping score -just the journos.

3) We are such prisoners of false equilibriums under the excuse of
"balance" that we are reluctant to call out lies when we know they are lies.

4) We have not developed useful conventions for accommodating multiple "truths" (other than he said/she said) because truth in this world is no longer a singular word.

5) In traditional coverage, we strip out any semblence of "outrage" at outrageous conduct because emotion makes us squirm even though our audiences are clearly concerned and enraged about many things. Hence the growing value of op-eds and the spewing commentators.

6) What does an "attached" objectivity vs. detached objectivity look like?

Much room for experimentation here.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Terry MAGUIRE said...

I think a good place to begin this is in making sure that there is a link to a basic bio from every reporter name that appears on a newspaper website. That does not go as far as Alan would go, but it at least gives the reader a sense of who the reporter/writer is. (Better yet, include a contact option of some sort in case a reader wants to pose a question that the reporter can answer, or not.)

Why more newspapers don't assume that readers might like to know who the writers are is a mystery to me. It should be one of the great differentiators between newspapers and many others - the stories behing those bylines.

Most of the commenters ahead of me on this post do not disclose who they are. I always wonder why people make this choice. Are they afraid to stand behind their words? Prefer to play games? I generally disregard comments that don't tell me something about who wrote them, and that point sure is relevant to Alan's post. What we don't know usually makes us wonder a lot!

If more newspapers start doing this sort of bio linking, the next step toward Alan's disclosure proposal would be a lot easier to take!

10:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The human lens is essential; there's no such thing as "just the facts, ma'am." I can understand how in the past, it was a bad idea to inject yourself into a news story, but given that we have growing numbers of media options, that human lens is required to sift through it all.

My online journalism professor calls this sifting "the Magic Collection." Basically, by using google alerts, merging RSS feeds and search engine optimization, a journalist can stay on top of what is being said about a particular issue, and call draw upon that when writing stories. It's my belief that we're reaching a point where there is so much info out there, that in order to be objective, you wouldn't be able to have daily news anymore (because making sure your objective bases are covered gets more time-consuming each time a new form of media is added to journalism).

I don't agree with a National Registry, however. The human mind is a dynamic thing, capable of changing on a whim. Having to backtrack and explain a different view/interest from present day would definitely come up, and, at least from my current perspective, that would seem like a waste of time (fairly certain this is akin to what Sarah Palin would call "Gotcha" journalism).

12:15 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

To elaborate on David Cay and Jan Schaffer's comments but as a reader, not a journalist.

The biggest problem I encounter is the "he said, she said" reporting that creates a false equivalence. Every complicated story should have a standard set of facts that must be included with any reporting on that story, especially the internet version of a story, possibly in the form of standard paragraphs of context at the bottom of the story as well as sentences that provide context within the story.

For example, the health care legislation from last year and one piece of that debate, the public option. I don't recall reading that Medicare covers dialysis because private insurers would not cover it in the 1960s and 1970s when Medicare was created. So the government added dialysis to Medicare coverage. Yet in the debate about different health care options, that bit of crucial context went missing. It would've supported those pushing for a public option for additional cases where private insurance would not cover the condition and/or would charge too much in premiums. Instead of a contextualized debate, we got "lefties are for a public option" while "conservatives are for private insurance."

In the same way, when the President canned the public option, readers should have learned that private insurance only works with strong regulation, as it does in Switzerland, but the US has an uneven track record with respect to regulation (historically Congress decides whether to gut or strengthen regulations).

In this narrow example, voters would have been better served by journalists if both these contextual facts had been included in reporting on the health care issue, especially internet versions of stories.

Another quick more obvious example are journalists like Matt Bai at the Times claiming the public supports deficit reduction in high numbers when an 11/16 CBS poll and other polls show voters by almost 10 to 1 (56% for jobs and 6% for deficit reduction) support job creation over deficit reduction. In this case, editors should demand journalists like Bai prove their statements instead of publishing it as fact.

I don't know, as a reader, if journalists calling out their biases would be useful. For example, I doubt many people know Chris Matthews and other political journalists in Washington, DC make millions of dollars (best case) or mid to high six figures (worst case). This matters because looking at their reporting you wonder if they know or have ever met anyone who makes less than they do. In that case, telling viewers the talking head is a multi-millionaire might make a difference.

I also question if readers are looking for someone to tell them what it all means. Perhaps readers with an authoritarian bent. But most readers would, at the least, appreciate lots of contextualized facts presented as facts, not the horse race or "he said, she said" or stenographic reporting we currently get. I also suspect reader respect for journalists and journalism would go way up.

Last, in terms of your history, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine did a lot towards changing the news dynamic from a public service to a more purely commercial and opinionated service. Instead of newspapers and TV stations being allowed to use a scarce resource, managed by the government on behalf of all citizens, the dynamic changed to businesses controlling and monopolizing scarce broadcasting resources for their own corporate and personal gain. That's a key change to note.

So, useful discussion. But I would focus on getting rid of the false equivalence, "he said, she said" reporting and replace it with thoroughly researched and well contextualized reporting, not just in one article but across all articles on a given topic or event.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Paul Gillin said...

Is it a bit of a contradiction to criticize Fox News for its raw partisanship while suggesting that readers would be better served by journalists who disclosed their biases? I'm no fan of Fox, but one thing you have to admit is that their biases are fully disclosed.

The registry idea won't work for a variety of reasons other comment-writers have noted, but I commend you for the suggestion that journalists voluntarily disclose their backgrounds, preferences and tactics. I'd like to see an organization like the SPJ get behind an idea like this and issue examples and guidelines for self-disclosure. All media outlets should have a place on their websites for this kind of background information.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Gary Scott said...

I second what David Cay Johnston (davidcay) said. The objective/subjective debate is red herring that leads us away from a hard discussion about what we need to do to improve a vital form of journalism.

Yet, it's the debate people in power want us to have because it further weakens the resolve of journalistic institutions and tells reporters that adopting the framework provided by paid strategists is logical since, hey, you agree with what they're saying anyway.

Indeed, I find it remarkable that we're told to believe that impartial reporting is self-serving; but injecting one's own opinions, however ill informed, is necessary for the common good.

I'm all for subjective reporting/analysis, by the way. I just see it as another form of journalism, not something that should edge out the impartial kind.

11:59 AM  

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