Monday, January 20, 2020

Objectivity Is Dead. But Journalism Doesn't Have To Be.

I'm in the final quarter of my journalism program and I have only two classes.  Those classes are "The Art of the Interview" and "Opinion Writing."  Opinion Writing (which gives an overview of subjective journalism such as reviews, personal essays, op-eds, and columnist-style work) is the one I'm most excited for because I have long felt that that a lot of standard news journalism, the stuff you read in the paper, is lacking in any sort of human voice.  In a world where everything is algorithms, I like to think that language and the art of story-telling remains a defining trait of humanity.

In conversations about the future of journalism in a digital world, one of the central linchpins is the public’s trust of the press, or lack thereof. Arguably the public’s increasing distrust of the media they consume is an inevitable symptom of untrustworthy “fake news” that has evolved with the rise of the internet. However, these conversations are predicated on the concept of digital news as duplicitous and consumers as hapless victims. Only a few hinted at the idea of news as a cooperative endeavor, one in which consumers share an equal part of the responsibility for the veracity of the news with the journalists who produce it.

The question of how to resolve or address the public’s growing distrust of the media likely doesn’t have a single answer, but I believe that confronting the inherent bias of reporting is a good place to start. Suggesting that bias in reporting is “inherent” is not a criticism of journalism; I have long believed that objectivity, a worthwhile goal to strive for, is also an unrealistic and unattainable one.  It's literally impossible to cover all viewpoints, and even if you did, giving all viewpoints an equal share of attention it itself biased... because not all ideas are created equal.

Dr. Mitchell Stephens asserts that journalism has only the “pretense” of objectivity, and suggests that such a pretense is harmful to the journalistic integrity of reporting news, as it creates an unachievable goal. Everything from word choice to paragraph organization can reveal a bias, and even a truly neutral reporter could have his articles interpreted as biased by a biased audience. Even the selection of the news itself reveals a bias.

What's more, the bland delivery of facts in news doesn’t make for a good or engaging story, and attempts to hide the human reporter behind a flimsy facade of objectivity is denying the artistic and emotional side to journalism. This "hiding" of the reporter feels dishonest, and perhaps it's part of the reason that the public is disinclined to trust the media. The journalist as a shadowy, unknown figure whose motivations are hidden is not one people are going to put a lot of trust in.

I do not think holding a personal opinion is out of line with reporting the facts; the concept of “truth-telling” is a key principle of the SPJ Code of Ethics and is defined as the “first obligation” in Bill Kovach’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” But telling the truth does not mean one must be devoid of personal investment or opinion. In fact, I would prefer reporting that plainly states its personal investment, to provide context for the work itself. Pretending that a journalist can have no conflict of interest with the topic they are disseminating is holding the journalist to an inhuman standard. A passionate and personal reporter can still be truthful, but by revealing their own voice, I believe that they are disclosing to the reader their possible blind spots, and allowing readers to scrutinize their work more effectively.

Rule 0 of journalism: don't wear a bra. 
This allows readers to scrutinize your work more effectively, if you know what I mean. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

Walter Lipmann's describes journalism as a sort of scientific method, leaving room for a degree of subjectivity or interpretation in reporting. Scientists do not conduct an experiment, put the data into tables, and then publish it without commentary. Every scientific paper includes a conclusion, one that suggests what the data means, how it might be applied, and what further research is needed. Scientists are well within their rights to focus their attention on the most promising experiments, to propose significance, to suggest and even advocate for meaning, based on their evidence. The key is that scientists are founding their "advocacy" on a cornerstone of factual evidence, and are clear when their hypotheses are only hypotheses.

True objectivity is not a single, inflexible, universal truth. Facts are filtered through a personal lens. Having journalists give interpretations of the news is not necessarily mutually exclusive with objectivity; in fact, it can bolster objectivity, by revealing their bias and providing context to the facts they've uncovered.

Of course, this is putting a lot of trust in the readers to exercise their due diligence in consuming the news.  As much as readers don't trust journalists, journalists don't trust readers, either.

Readers who are educated in the ways to spot issues with trustworthiness, transparency, and sourcing are empowered to repair them. Arguably, digital media may be less stringent in its sourcing, relying instead on hyperlinks. But this makes its sourcing more transparent, as well, assuming that the readers click the link. Readers have the ability to hold writers accountable thanks to comment sections online, where they can offer real-time input and corrections. Digital media may have more errors, or, perhaps, its errors are simply more likely to be noticed. But this means they can also be corrected more readily.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor at the Washington Post, wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review titled "Who Cares If It's True?"  The article isn't as dismissive of truthiness as the title implies.  Rather, Fisher’s proclaims that "traditional" fact-checking is increasingly being held to an "impossible standard."  But that "impossible standard" of air-tight fact-checking does not preclude fact-checking from journalism. Rather, it allows for errors to be made, and corrected in good faith. Fisher offers the hopeful viewpoint that modern readership is selecting for more copy-editing and that “the truth emerge[s] from trial and error.” This sentiment mirrors John Stuart Mill’s model of the “marketplace of ideas,” and places a degree of trust in the next generation of consumers to make the right choices in what media they read, share, and support.
Millennials be like...

Bob Cohn, in his article “Old-Media Values in New-Media Venues,” suggests that the gap between print news and digital news is closing, and that journalists are cross-training. I would argue that, as the news and the people who produce it evolve, so do their consumers, and that the readers of the news are themselves “cross-training.” People are no longer interacting with their news passively; they are ceasing to be consumers and instead are becoming participants. And that engagement could be the saving grace of journalism in the digital era.

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