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Time for journalism schools to unpack the tension between objectivity, subjectivity

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Q: What’s the most effective way to piss off a journalist?

A: Lie to her.

Result: Moral outrage on her part – followed by determined, disciplined digging into why the lie and who benefits from it. And outrage, being an emotion, often leads to subjective judgments.

Finding lies and telling people about them are what good, progressive journalism programs must teach, even the programs with a conjunction and the word communication (mass, strategic or otherwise) in their names. Communicators, be they journalists, public relations practitioners, advertising agency executives, government or corporate representatives, or bloggers should not get away with lies. Or prevarications. Or evasions. Or deceits. Or no comment.

But we all know that someone with an agenda, someone who is willing to break the spirit or letter of the law, will lie to protect that agenda or advance it. It takes an experienced, well-trained journalist to detect the lie and find a truth in its stead. (Yes. I know: People who are bright and observant but who are not journalists can detect lies, too. But do they do it for a living? Make a career of it? For low pay and a lack of respect from the people who benefit from being told of the lies?)

Enter the journalism schools – the really good, properly focused ones, the ones not preoccupied with teaching the latest social media techniques, or having the best possible technology, or demanding faculty spend more time cranking out papers for peer-reviewed journals rather than teaching how to detect the lies.

Yes, yes, all that other stuff is important. But a vibrant journalism and (mass, public, strategic, etc.) communication program must have a moral core that values the training of skilled, ethical communicators more than it does the need to chase competence in the latest technologies of information transmission.

But there’s one shadowy issue good journalism programs must face. And it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with technology. Those who’ve spent sufficient years in a newsroom know this. Good faculty know this, too, but I’ll bet it’s rarely discussed in most writing and reporting courses let alone faculty meetings.

Every judgment a journalist makes is subjective.

The myth of objectivity permeates all levels of journalism and journalism instruction. That myth is implied in the ethos of The New York Times. A 1997 proxy statement defended family ownership of the paper, arguing it kept The Times “an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.”

Of course, that statement was made before The Times’ flawed coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war and before the Internet cut into The Times’ profitability, leading to downsizing nearly half of the journalistic talent in its newsroom. For the past half decade, any newsroom in America is far from fearless. It is possible, even likely, that journalistic judgments have been made on the basis of journalists’ concern about their economic survival. After all, more than 20,000 journalists at America’s print dailies have been fired to maintain high profit percentages on declining revenues. Investors demand short-term results. Think that fact subjectively influences newsroom decisions?

Journalistic objectivity has a variety of definitions with various flaws. Here’s one: “Publish the best available version of the truth.”

Corporate owners have cut thousands of highly experienced journalists. Face it: fewer of the really good ones are left. Do those remaining, paid less with fewer benefits and working more hours to produce one-source stories, have the skill, incentive, and time necessary to ferret out the “best available version”? Even before the revenue crunch put so many journalists out of work, doesn’t “best available” represent a series of subjective judgments – with the most significant being “that’s enough”? No more phone calls? No more emails? No more interviews? In a newsroom, time available is often the most fundamental element of subjective decisions.

It’s a sad irony that many of the professionals who were best equipped to find and publish that “best available version of the truth” now work for public relations firms whose task is to deny journalists that “best available truth” by offering instead their clients’ “most saleable (and profitable) version of the truth.” As the number of journalists has declined, the chattering class has added an army: Since 1980, “the number of public relations specialists and managers [has] doubled from approximately 45,000 to 90,000 people.”

Sadly true, too, is the end of deadlines. For online publishers working for audiences demanding their news right now, time available literally no longer exists. At a panel on incorporating new media into traditional media, a news director said: Deadlines are dead. The deadline is now!

Surely that subjective post it now! attitude drives new- and old-media journalistic decisions. Add this: Information is a commodity to be bought and sold. Concern over the profitability of content by media owners surely influences newsroom decisions about the content most profitably published. Enter subjective limitations on story assignment and selection. Enter subjective hiring decisions. Should we shit-can political reporters in Washington, D.C., to afford more entertainment reporters in New York City and Los Angeles? Reflect on corporate decisions on newsroom personnel hiring patterns over the past few years.

Another definition of objectivity stresses avoiding bias and infusion of disinterest: “Do not have an interest in the outcome of a story. Have no bias. Be disinterested in that outcome.” In simpler terms, don’t care one way or the other.

First, that’s rather heartless. Built into the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is a simple, humane precept similar to that found in medicine: Minimize harm. Words in the code require subjective judgments: “show compassion,” “be sensitive,” “show good taste,” “be cautious,” “be judicious,” “balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.”

Second, that don’t-care attitude produces the worst kind of journalism: the dreaded “he said, she said,” story, even if the he or the she represents only a tiny minority’s viewpoint, thus artificially magnifying the importance of that viewpoint. Christiane Amanpour, formerly of CNN and now at ABC News, once said, “Objectivity means trying to give all sides a hearing. It does not, in my view, mean treating all sides as equal.” Her second sentence requires subjective decision-making. And those hacks who pointedly measure column inches (or segment times) to insure equal treatment for “he said” and “she said” introduce a flawed standard of objectivity and fairness. A seasoned, subjective judgment, such as Amanpour suggests, would serve readers and viewers better.

But the most common kind of objectivity is often the result of complex socialization among influential individuals in a newsroom. Freelance journalist Kéllia Ramares described it this way: “[O]bjectivity is best described as a group agreement on what a particular set of facts is telling us about a person or a situation. And all too often, that group agreement, like history itself, is written by the victors.”

The case for making objectivity the focal point of a credible education in journalism is shaky – especially in this era in which many younger, less experienced reporters post stories online with only scant editing, an era in which bloggers (often hiding behind anonymity) offer a loud but untrained subjectivity.

A progressive journalism program interested in recruiting, retaining, and training competent students to fully understand the myth of objectivity should make bold curricular adjustments.

This does not mean that lower-division courses in writing and reporting should lose their important focus on stressing accuracy in all matters. Any good communicator, such as a journalist, must know how to observe astutely, record accurately, analyze rigorously, organize thoughtfully, and present compellingly information she has gathered. Those are skills requiring repeated exercises in attention to detail, common sense, and disciplined, intelligent effort. Such training requires “reps,” the repetitions found in course assignments and internships. In the new “deadline is now” era, she must be able to work effectively and efficiently to be recognized as a productive, competent professional.

But early in her college experience she needs to clearly understand the myth. Perhaps faculty will develop a course called The History and Myth of Objectivity and the Rise of Subjectivity. At my university, Pulitzer Prize winner John Hanchette teaches The Politics and Economics of the Press. In that course he unpacks the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity and the factors that impact both.

I teach opinion writing, covering traditional print editorials and op-eds. But I will add a course that explores the role of subjectivity in online writing such as blogs. It’s long overdue.

The questions that will arise soon, if they haven’t already, might be these:

What constitutes responsible subjective journalism? What would be its hallmarks? Can it be taught? Should it have a code of ethics? Who should create that code?

But the question for readers and viewers who buy – or seek for free – information provided by mainstream media, or non-profit investigative-reporting organizations, or the nutjob next door who blogs in an incomprehensible stream of consciousness is simple:

Who will you find credible? And why?


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

November 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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