Looking into the guts of journalism

Paul Bradshaw, as seems to be his way, is totally on the money when he points out that the Washington Post’s leaked social media strategy is heavily influenced by the brand’s need to preserve an image of objectivity.

Objectivity in journalism may be a honorable aim but, if you’re going to be pragmatic about it, the idea that it exists in reality is total bunk.

Transparency, Paul argues, is a much better aspiration:

Transparency is hastening the demise of the already crumbling notion of journalistic objectivity; but it also represents the best hope for journalistic integrity – and ultimately, for many journalists that was what the pursuit of objectivity was about.

On a personal level  I feel much more comfortable and honest attempting to make as much of the process of news production transparent. I try and do it for myself as much as I can.

The problem, I think, is the power of the “objectivity” lie.  However and for whatever reason it was created, people do seem to cling to it.

Media-savvy commentators like Paul know that this industry is a system of complex interests and it is made up of many well-meaning, bright, motivated and, ultimately, falliable human beings. But does everyone else?

My experience is that many people massively overestimate the ability of journalists to create “objective” news stories. However, when their experience demonstrates to them that this is not happening, they move to the other extreme and assume we are all guilty of consciously peddling outright lies.

By opening up the guts of the journalism process through true transparency – not a faux version designed to placate disgruntled readers – a news organisation may find that in the short-to-medium term the policy creates little more than a swathe of disillusioned readers.

That’s a scary prospect for any news brand, especially if you consider competitors such as the BBC will not be dropping their objectivity claims any time soon.

I guess anyone brave enough to go through such a change would have to be very clever about how they nurture, educate and explain the process to their readers.

I would, of course, love to hear from anyone who has gone through it.

17 thoughts on “Looking into the guts of journalism

  1. That’s entirely fair comment. As a journalist I get called upon to be objective but I’m not, I’m biased on behalf of the readers. For example I’m writing at the moment about some computer peripherals. The readership are business owners so I’m going to be favouring low running costs and low prices plus reliability. If I were writing for a dealer magazine I’d value joint marketing and plentiful supplies better. If I were writing for something the shareholders would see I’d be commending retained profits and value for the manufacturer.

    Objectively, as long as my own printer is working, I don’t care about any of this. I might even theorise that nothing you write if you write only for payment is actually objective.

  2. I think this is a fascinating area and a very timely post. Last year I blogged about how the Trinity papers in Liverpool had used a liveblog and video to open up the process of a day to the world (it’s here in case you are interested).

    I think Guy’s point is a good one – journalists try to represent their readers and that is a subjective standpoint. We all know that certain papers have a political viewpoint, and that is fine if you share their world view.

    I like the idea of it being like in maths – show your working out. Some journalists have been using their blogs to do this, a very interesting way forward in my book.

  3. Transparency is more important to me than objectivity – people will always question the impartiality/loyalties of a journalist so, for me, the best answer is to show clearly the steps we followed to reach a conclusion. And to make sure the story doesn’t end there – that the options to comment, add to, share and use that information are available.
    Journalists should strive to be fair, open, accountable and approachable rather than objective – at least we have half a chance of achieving those goals.

  4. As much as I agree with everything that everyone so far has said here, I cannot let go of this: I have a strong suspicion that people do not like objectivity. As you have said on a different subject, they like the theory of objectivity but not so much the practice of it. People will very often say something is objective while they actually mean it fits in with their own views (that they perceive to be objective).

    Take, for instance, The New York Times. Here it gets a lot of criticism for not being objective enough. As R Berke points out, the fact that people from both sides of the conflict criticise the newspaper means that it is not actually favouring either side. However, for all their efforts people still perceive them as biased.

  5. Thanks all for your comments!

    @Dilyan

    I don’t think it’s that people don’t like objectivity. I think it’s actually the opposite! Most people love the concept. It’s quite a lazy way to avoid questioning your own world view and those of others. However, differing versions of what does and does not constitute objectivity demonstrates why it can not really exist.

    Your NYT example better illustrates what I was trying to say in the post. As soon as people feel that an article does not play into their personal idea of objectivity then they instantly assume foul play.

    BUT, while we continue to have an audience that says they value objectivity in a news brand, then it is a brave news organisation that turns its back on that myth.

    Imagine if news brands – from independent blogs to the BBC – became utterly transparent overnight. Imagine if all the day-to-day wheeling, dealing, compromise and concession was made public. What would happen? How would people react? I suspect their wouldn’t like it. It would be seriously disillusioning.

    The myth of objectivity is too powerful, too convenient to both news orgs and audience. We are all complicit in perpetrating it.

    @Alison, @Glyn, @Guy

    I think we’re all in the transparency over objectivity camp when it comes to theorising ethics.

    I guess my question to you all is this: in a world where people think the pursuit of objectivity is essential to your job, how easy/practical is it to practice true transparency?

  6. Jo, to answer your last question: It is as easy as being ethical. You say total transparency will be disillusioning. Why? Because people will find out that not-completely-ethical things are being done in the name of objectivity? If you do nothing that you can be ashamed of, there is no reason why you cannot be transparent.

    (Just so we are clear: I am not suggesting you are doing something unethical. And I can see why a transparent behavoiur in a journalist could cause antagonism in others who are not on par with the same high standards.)

  7. Like you, I thought Paul’s post very timely and found the David Weinberger quote particularly pertiunent:

    “Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?”

    That idea of ‘web of evidence’ would seem to hold the key – regardless of how partisan the conclusion might be, having a clear audit trail on that decision-making process would seem to allow something more valuable than an objectivity wrapped up in a belief, or trust, in values represented by a brand.

    You ask if anyone has achieved this – I’m not sure I’ve seen many examples but am fascianted to see what emerges.

    As you say it will be a brave move, after all, how we all tittered earlier this week when the leaked Polanski internal memo http://www.defamer.com.au/2009/09/aps-notes-on-roman-polanskis-arrest-leak-onto-news-wires-everywhere hit the retweets of all. In the world of true transparency wouldn’t this form of publically accessible communication become commonplace?

  8. @Dilyan

    I don’t agree and I think you’re missing my point. A news org may have nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t mean an audience weaned on the objectivity myth is going to see it that way.

    Sarah’s link was an excellent example. I don’t see anything to be too ashamed of in AP’s leaked notes. Yet those who republished them couldn’t help but intimate that something about them stunk.

    A news organisation that embraces total transparency puts itself at the mercy of such critics. Whilst I believe a policy of total transparency would, in the long term, be better for journalism, the pragamatist in me suspects to execute it any time soon would be suicide.

  9. I’m also in favour of transparency over objectivity. Much also depends on what we’re writing. News reporting should always be as free from bias of any sort as possible. Background pieces, features and reviews are inevitably going to be coloured by something of the writer’s own views. That’s most apparent in op-ed columns, of course, but even a feature of some sort – say, a piece on single mums study at university – is going to be shaped even before writing by the journalist’s approach to it. Then there’s the importance of declaring any interests – the Guardian has strict guidelines, for example, about not interviewing family members or stating if you have a connection to a company. That kind of transparency goes a long way to offsetting criticism or suspicion that a journalist may have an agenda of their own. Guy’s comments about being biased for a readership also hold true. This certainly makes a huge difference to the reviewing I do for several clients.

  10. @Joanna

    I stand corrected. You are right, of course, there is a risk that transparency can turn to bite your ass.

    But I have to say I think the AP was laughed at because they were seen to have disclosed that memo by mistake. If they had published it with an intro explaining how that way they were bringing readers closer to the process of journalism… well, they’d probably still get thrashed because the blogosphere hates them. But you see what I mean, right?

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  13. “In a world where people think the pursuit of objectivity is essential to your job, how easy/practical is it to practice true transparency?”

    Frankly, it’s very difficult, not least because when we mess up online there will always be the school of thought that says ‘midnight burial – Now!’.
    The medium allows us to change the message as radically as we want, or simply to make the message disappear.
    But, aside from all the ethics of the debate, I just think it’s confusing for readers when we simply change stories online without showing how these changes have been made.
    And reader comments can often end up looking irrelevant, or just plain odd, as an article updates and the point they are responding to is lost.
    I like the idea of transparency but if I’m being realistic, as newsrooms slowly evolve in a digital age, I guess it’s going to be more a case of striving for an ideal that we probably aren’t always going to achieve.
    This isn’t just an issue for the news industry either. I don’t think anyone is objective in their job; we are all partial and see things from a point of view.

  14. I agree with Guy Clapperton’s point that journalists write for their readers, but so many stories, especially in hard news, are written to inflame readers’ base instincts rather than inform them.

    This leads to right of reply that’s buried in the bottom of the piece, an agressive headline that bears no relation to the facts and ‘framing’ of stories that misses out so many facts either to appeal to readers’ anxieties or to fit something juicy into 300 words or a 3 minute report.

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  16. “In a world where people think the pursuit of objectivity is essential to your job, how easy/practical is it to practice true transparency?”

    Frankly, it’s very difficult, not least because when we mess up online there will always be the school of thought that says ‘midnight burial – Now!’.
    The medium allows us to change the message as radically as we want, or simply to make the message disappear.
    But, aside from all the ethics of the debate, I just think it’s confusing for readers when we simply change stories online without showing how these changes have been made.
    And reader comments can often end up looking irrelevant, or just plain odd, as an article updates and the point they are responding to is lost.
    I like the idea of transparency but if I’m being realistic, as newsrooms slowly evolve in a digital age, I guess it’s going to be more a case of striving for an ideal that we probably aren’t always going to achieve.
    This isn’t just an issue for the news industry either. I don’t think anyone is objective in their job; we are all partial and see things from a point of view.

  17. I agree with Guy Clapperton’s point that journalists write for their readers, but so many stories, especially in hard news, are written to inflame readers’ base instincts rather than inform them.

    This leads to right of reply that’s buried in the bottom of the piece, an agressive headline that bears no relation to the facts and ‘framing’ of stories that misses out so many facts either to appeal to readers’ anxieties or to fit something juicy into 300 words or a 3 minute report.

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