Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jay Rosen on objectivity

From Pressthink, NYU prof. Jay Rosen's take on what "objectivity" is all about. What it isn't about is lack of opinion and the I-word. Journalism, after all, is the process of editting and choosing. What you leave in, what you leave out, what questions you ask, what you cover, what you don't.

Objective journalism is a form of persuasion, he writes, and what it is really about is damn good reporting -- and a lot of disclosure:

1. “Grounded in reporting” is far more important than “cured of opinion.” What editors and news executives should worry about is whether the news accounts delivered to users are well grounded in reporting. That’s the value added. That’s the sign of seriousness. That’s the journalism part. Original reporting and the discipline of verification—meaning, the account holds up under scrutiny—should be strict priorities. Whether the composer of the account has a view, comes to a conclusion, speaks with attitude (or declines these things) is far less important. Here, looser rules are better.

2. If objectivity is persuasion, it’s possible that its power to persuade can fade. This is particularly so because of what I said earlier: every act of journalism is saturated with judgment. By not disclosing such acts, “just the facts” sows the seeds of mistrust. All it takes is an accumulation of users who want to know where these judgments arise from. Ostensibly “objective” accounts will fail that test. Mistrust will rise. As the clamor grows, journalists may misidentify it as a demand for even more objectivity. Now you have something that looks a lot like a death spiral, at least for those users who are no longer persuaded. (In part because audience atomization has been overcome by the Internet.)

3. Disclosure sets the fairness bar higher. James Poniewozik of Time magazine was seeking an escape from that spiral when he said that reporters should disclose their political preferences:

Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality—which few believe anyway—and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters’ preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.

In this sense neutrality can hamper credibility because it masks the hard work of proving you can be fair despite the fact that you have your views.

4. The View from Nowhere may be harder to trust than “here’s where I’m coming from.” Objectivity is often seen as safer by self-styled traditionalists in the mainstream press. But I like to put the accent on what’s tendentious about it. So I make use of my own term, the View from Nowhere, to describe the ritualized uses of objectivity and suggest that there is something strained about them. Easing that strain is not impossible. It means shifting to a different rhetoric: “Here’s where I’m coming from,” sometimes called transparency. This is a different bid for trust. Instead of viewlessness, “You know where I stand; judge accordingly.”

5. In deciding what the rules should be, the wise newsroom will trade polarity for plurality. Lose the binary! Instead of two rigid poles—neutrality or ideology, news or opinion, reporter or blogger, adults or kids—I recommend a range of approaches that permit journalists to report what they know, say what they think, develop a point of view in interaction with events, and bid for the trust of users who have many more sources available to them. A plurality of permissible styles recognizes that trust is a puzzle unsolvable by a single system of signs.

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