In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree” — as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?
I don’t want to totally lump reporters and pundits in together, right? It’s kind of venial sins versus cardinal sins basically — right? — where reporting is very, very important and journalism is very, very important, and there are some things about campaign coverage that I might critique. Whereas punditry is fundamentally useless.
Since the politically unengaged were not “sufficiently politically equipped to guide their judgments and actions by self-organized mature knowledge, the news article reinforcing political participation exerted profound pervasive impact on their behavioral intent,” the research concluded.
Should journalists be allowed to have opinions? If so, when and where — and how — should they be allowed to express them? Such questions have been a thorn in the side of the traditional media industry almost since the web was invented, and they have become even more irksome now that Twitter and Facebook and blogs give everyone the ability to publish with the click of a button. Although it involved an open microphone rather than social media, the latest example of a journalist being fired for making an offhand comment is Yahoo’s former Washington Bureau chief David Chalian, who was dismissed for a remark he made about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But social media or not, the underlying question remains the same: why are we trying to pretend that journalists of any stripe are emotionless robots?
Matthew Ingram, GigaOm. Why can’t we just admit that journalists are human?.
Ingram argues that the more we know of a journalist’s opinions, the better: “We need to encourage more transparency rather than less, because there are so many sources of information now that the old “journalist as impartial oracle” approach, or what Jay Rosen calls the “View From Nowhere,” simply no longer works (and was a fiction in any case).”
Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.
No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket, or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.
One of the biggest complaints readers have about my work is that I don’t tell them often enough what they can do. I do think this is an area where journalism sometimes falls short. We describe a really grim situation but don’t really explain to people what they can do about it. So, a few years ago I started doing a year-end list of amazing charities. The first time, I had real anxiety about whether it was appropriate. But the response was so overwhelming, it seemed to be a real service to readers and I’ve continued to do it. It also happens when I’m not especially encouraging people to give. For instance, a few months ago I profiled a group called Room to Read and I later learned they raised $700,000 as a result of people hearing about them from my column.
Thanks for writing in. You make some good points but I think you are misreading, or overreading, what Jay wrote.
He does not ask for NPR to come down on either side of the abortion debates. What he does say, and believes listeners deserve an answer to, is who has more truth on their side with this specific piece of Kansas legislation.
Listen (emphasis ours):
My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.
According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do! And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.
You are correct that journalists and journalism don’t have a priestly hold on capital “T” Truth. Nor would we want it.
But Jay’s critique isn’t about that. It’s about the truth of demonstrable ideas and policies. There’s a difference here.
We believe doing a proper newscast and telling the story correctly, great storytelling in the tradition of 60 Minutes, are the kind of things that are going to bring in a wide, wide section of the public. Every single day we get together and ask, ‘What are the most important things that happened in the world today? How can we cover them? How can we tell the story and give it a unique insight?’ Those are the standards we use. We do not sit around asking ourselves, ‘Is this going to appeal to a 19-year-old?’ or, ‘Is that going to appeal to a woman?’ We are covering the news.
Scott Pelley, CBS News, Journalism holds up a mirror, tells us the facts
The newest addition to the CBS evening news offers his opinion of how the news should be. While other networks gravitates toward opposing extremes, Pelley aims for the middle where objectivity, fairness and accuracy lie.
First, we should redefine, not abandon, objectivity as one of the principles that define responsible journalism. Second, we should develop ethical guidelines for specific forms of new media — guidelines that are consistent with general principles such as truth-telling.
Does new media require a new definition of objectivity? In this article, Stephan Ward argues that, yes, it does. Ward suggests that in order for ethics to prosper, objectivity must be redefined within the constraints of a new domain. In this case, new media journalism.
The decline of traditional media and the rise of viral emails and partisan Web and cable TV platforms has meant the near-collapse of common facts, believed across the political spectrum.
From Politico, “A new era of accusation and innuendo” by Jonathan Martin and John Harris
There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.
The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.
John Swinton, circa 1880, when asked to give toast in praise of an independent press. At the time, Swinton was an editorial writer for the New York Sun. Previously, he had been the chief editorial writer for the New York Times.
Christopher Ketcham, Truthdig, Intellectual Prostitution and the Myth of Objectivity
We have to reject the tired notion that objectivity means the reader can get all the way to the bottom of the story and not know what to think.