Dec 8, 2010

The objectivity canard (updated)

Alan Mutter is a smart man and I agree with much of what he writes. But in a recent blog post, which can be read here, he concedes an argument at the expense of a form of traditional journalism that needs defending (and explaining).

Here's the key line:
It’s time to retire the difficult-to-achieve and impossible-to-defend conceit that journalists are now, or ever were, objective.
The problem here is that "objective journalism" is a straw man that's almost always propped up to be attacked by those who want to do away with a much more defensible practice. (Mutter's ultimate conclusion in the blog post is that journalists should be more transparent, which I sort of agree with, but its an argument that should be made separate from the "objectivity" debate, and not offered as a concession.)

So, let me first agree with two things: Journalists are not objective and objectivity is an unattainable goal. The "objective journalist" is an oversimplified symbol championed by greedy publishers that's supposed to represent the practice of impartial journalism. So let's kill the oversimplified symbol and actually defend the practice.

News reporters who know what they're doing are not striving for the personal perfection of being "objective" - which is chasing rainbows. Instead, they are using techniques and editorial oversight to create an impartial framework that gives one as broad a view of a potential story as possible. It's a practice aimed at avoiding the advocate's framework, which offers a more limited view of what constitutes a story precisely because it wants to accomplish a specific goal.

Impartial journalism is a discipline that, when done right, enables journalists to gather information from a wide variety of perspectives and sources. By avoiding advocacy, a journalist gains access to different sides of a debate, and often to people who are affected by issues who aren't advocating anything. Sources are more likely to speak about their goals rather than waste time trying to convince the interviewer. The reporter is able to hear facts that stray outside one's experience and preconceptions, and so can find stories that don't conform to ready-made agendas. 

It's a process that tries to strip out opinions that obscure or color facts, which, in turn, rob readers of the ability to draw reasonable conclusions. It's a process designed to work against our natural impulse to develop a point of view. This is artifice, which is why it is sometimes hard to defend to people who don't practice journalism. But it's a discipline that a reporter learns through practice; the guidance of editors; the reactions of readers and sources; successes, and mistakes.

It's not a faith-based profession: believe in "objectivity" and it will come.

The impartial framework is designed to keep reporters from adopting the framework of partisans and advocates. It's why partisans and advocates are so dismissive of impartiality, and why they welcome advocacy journalism in place of "objectivity" - they have plenty of points of view ready-made for journalists to adopt or get in a debate over.

 There are limits to impartial journalism, of course. Plenty of reporters mistake it as some form of balancing doctrine - that all sides get equal representation. Plenty of reporters also use the cloak of impartiality to avoid asking tough questions or to be downright lazy. Bad journalism is bad journalism.

Also, a defense of impartial journalism should not be construed as a rejection of advocacy journalism. In fact, the advocates could be doing a better job right now - where are the Hunter Thompsons? But our need for sober, cynical, skeptical voices does not mean we should not shout down the impartial ones - we should figure out how better to use impartial reporters and defend their usefulness. We need reporters who remain open to stories outside their realm of belief, who search for facts and sources that fall outside of their agenda bubbles and emotional attachments. We need to let the narrative unfold through observation, rather than through our personal context or connection. One can still draw conclusions, call out bullshit, challenge authority and avoid manipulation while practicing impartial journalism.

Here's a little more from Mutter:
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.
Fox, Jon Stewart and others do give consumers a point of view that helps them feel they can make sense of the world. But these outlets also depend on impartial journalism so that they can form their commentary and opinions. And impartial journalists will push back against the comforting idea that our point of view is the right one, or that complicated and frightening world events can be made digestible before bedtime. Indeed, impartial journalists are not competing with Jon Stewart or Fox (though their employers probably are), and we should all be thankful that they're willing to be unsettling.

Basically, I say defend impartial journalism, not as the only form, but as a necessary one. And stop asking what the extinction of the unicorn means.

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