Monday, January 10, 2011

What is the Objective?

Objectivity, that favored newspaper theme, has been taking hit after hit. It was surprising to me when Rem Rieder of American Journalism Review sort of joined in, in his column in the Winter issue.

Rieder quotes Peter Goodman, now of the Huffington Post, saying, "It's sort of the age of the columnist... old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on."

No offense to Goodman, but -- think about that for a moment. (And forget that for years, a large number of reporters have always felt, "I really should be a columnist.")

Rieder continues: "There has been something downright liberating about the emergence of so much lively, engaging, freewheeling writing. It makes the traditional straightforward story seem awfully vanilla... In the face of a Wild West world where so many outlandish charges, many of them based on absolutely nothing, are cavalierly tossed around, the old he-said, she-said approach seems bankrupt. If you are giving equal weight to truth and nonsense, you really are in the stenography business."

No offense to Rieder, but -- think about that for a moment as well.

We used to be in the "first rough draft of history" business. Now we're to be in the "we know the truth" business? Yet tons of our former readers say they've been tired of us lecturing to them what the truth is.

Rieder takes great pains to note that a news organization should not become partisan -- as Fox and MSNBC have become. But I read his use of "partisan" as meaning only identification with a political party rather than identification with a core set of beliefs, the "faction, cause, or person" of the Merriam-Webster definition, though I may well be wrong. In that sense, is there a nonpartisan truth these days? We used to think of science as nonpartisan, but global warming is partisan. Stem-cell research is partisan. Exactly how do journalists say, "This is truth and this is nonsense," when there is no societal agreement that there even is "truth" -- that some feel truth is relative and others feel truth is unchangeable? I may believe my opinion is right, but does that make it true?

OK, so this is just going back to journalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it makes life a lot harder for copy editors, which may be why they are in less demand. OK, it's more fun to write -- we all did it in high school, when we knew we knew the truth and the assistant principal was just a bluenose hypocrite. OK, there's no market for old-style objectivity these days. And Rieder closes by saying, "A news organization that wants a large, general audience has to steer clear of the partisanship trap. It has to ... be willing to call out those who are playing fast and loose with the facts. But it has to hold everyone and every position to the same standard." True enough, but again:

If climatologists generally agree that human-caused global warming is real and a large group of meteorologists believes that it's merely a historical fluctuation and a large group of conservatives believe that even if the climate is warming, it's just being used as a club by people who believe everyone should drive Smart cars and live in houses the size of nine tatami mats -- how do I, as the journalist, determine truth?

If I hold everyone to the same standard, no one is going to agree with me on what that standard means. So I'm left with what I believe, which if I'm a good journalist is based not just on my own prejudices but on research, interviews, and fair play -- but if I believe it's important for America to have vital urban centers and not just be a nation of suburbs, even if I accurately present the views of Joel Kotkin, I'll figure Richard Florida's interpretation is the truth. He'll get the summing-up graf at the end of my story, and Kotkin will fall into the "some disagree" section of the story. But are either of them really true? This is why journalists fall back on hypocrisy so often. We don't really know what's true, but we do know when X contradicts Y.

We all start with what we believe. We tell readers what's going on based on what we think is going on as balanced with what we are told is going on. It was easy to objectively report in the old days on break-ins and car crashes. Whether they constitute a trend or a crime spree is probably not objective and never was, but we all trusted authority a lot more back then when they said it was. (Now, we'd simply assume they were looking for clips to accompany a request for additional federal funds to combat the crime spree.) Journalists aren't omniscient. So how in the end does John Q. Journalist differ from Hannity or Olbermann? Unless they've become simply entertainers, those guys also want to tell people what they think is going on, truth instead of nonsense. You can't go down this road without being on the same road, unless you simply assume that everyone who thinks differently than you is simply a windbag propagandist peddling things they know aren't true. And then, you have taken fairness out of your quiver as well.

I'm not sure there ever was "objectivity" -- there's nothing new about that thought, of course. What there was was, at some point, a sense that trustworthy authority could settle it, a real meaning to "officials and experts agree." Journalism was once part of that authority. And isn't that what the tea partiers look for in the Constitution, and that the Christian right looks for in the Bible -- an answer that can be said to be ultimately true? So yes, Rem, objectivity is probably dead and journalists have to take another road. But we can't call it "truth" without walking into the traps our opponents lay. Maybe it's just "what we think is right."


Doug said...

A useful point is made in the "Elements of Journalism" that objectivity was never really intended to apply to the presentation, but to the gathering of information.

If the gathering is done with a sense of objectivity - which implies seeking the whole picture with neither fear nor favor - then it might well be possible for the journalist to make some judgments in presentation.

Many of our shortcomings have their root in failing to recognize or acknowledge that most things have more than two sides - and so we start off with a finger on the scale.

Anonymous said...

Mr.Doug Fisher makes the point when he writes,"If the gathering is done with a sense of objectivity - which implies seeking the whole picture with neither fear nor favor -"

We readers can accept the work with confidence if it's close enough to truth. If you have hard facts use them and let the reader make the judgment call.

Otherwise,keep the finger away from the scale and call the rest of the story 'opinion'.

And hung in there, we need your best. You are greatly valued by us. And that's the truth.