Wednesday, November 12, 2008

objectivity, redefined. again

Editor and Publisher columnist Joe Stupp poses an interesting question today about how, when new media is folded into old, we are forced to reevaluate what we mean by objectivity. He thinks that may be a good thing.

What we now consider journalism has morphed into a digital hybrid of straight reporting, blogging, commentary, and personality journalism -- complete with the dreaded first person -- often on the same webpage. And with one reporter often wearing several of those hats, lines blur.

It's not that the core values of journalism -- honesty, accuracy, fairness -- don't still hold, even when it comes to blogging and commentary, Stupp's piece suggests. But maybe now that one form is bleeding into the other, it's time to throw the old definition of objectivity as a 50/50 balance straight out the window.

And acknowledge that it never really existed anyway.

From the column:
Andrew Malcolm, who has covered politics since 1968 and blogs at the Los Angeles Times' "Top of the Ticket," says he still treats each item like a fact-based story, but with some buzz and style. "Most non-newspaper blogs are committed, one way or another — there is a slant," he says. "They are selling a particular view. Our niche is to be sort of unexpected. But it is possible to be a real professional. Cover something straight and develop a perspective to inform your discussion."

L.A. Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus points out the different views of what is objective. "I think it means presenting every side of an argument fairly in ways that the proponents would accept as valid," he says.

But more and more, both new media and old-fashioned news types are disagreeing with that approach. The growing trend is that the truth must surpass the 50/50 doctrine. "We have gotten it so wrong with the idea of giving equal play to both sides," says Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of and a longtime proponent of trading arbitrary "balance" for truth. "We are not always going to be balanced. Very often, it is one side or the other." She cited the ongoing arguments against global warming, which she contends mainstream journalists allowed for too long to go unchallenged: "We wasted a lot of journalistic capital on global warming trying to be balanced." She says the recent government rescue of financial institutions is another, noting too many mainstream outlets did not question if the bailout was needed: "Those of us who live online already dismissed certain elements of the bailout, such as the lack of oversight."

Adds [
Keith] Woods, [dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute]: "Whether you quote both sides does not change what is the truth. We allow the 50/50 idea to substitute for truth. Where we often fail is when we may get somebody on one side with deep knowledge, understanding, perspective, and credibility to speak and on the other side someone with just an opinion, but they have no credibility."

[Boston Globe Editor Martin] Baron agrees: "We are involved in journalism, not stenography exercises. It is finding out what is actually happening. Balance means every story gets 50/50? I don't believe that."

1 comment:

geewhy said...

I still find it somewhat comical that these views of objectivity are finally dawning on mainstream journalists. And, of course, they expound on it as if it's some newfound idea that they've just discovered. Again, alt weeklies took this approach decades ago and their attitude now permeates the web. It's sort of sad to see so many journalists grappling with issues that many journalists hashed out years ago. And that is one of the reasons traditional media is having so much trouble; they are always a little too conservative and a little too far behind the curve. And they've always been more than a little full of themselves.

Having said that, it doesn't matter who figured what out first when there's no viable business model to pay people to actually do in-depth reporting. Alt weeklies are dying just like mainstream dailies.