Objective Failure: Why the debate about media objectivity threatens the viability of general-interest news outlets.

In the midst of a crisis threatening the very existence of the journalism industry, it might seem like an odd time to debate the merits of objective news reporting. But the doctrine of objectivity, a canon of professional journalism since the early 20th century, is at the center of the debate about the future of journalism. Some commentators claim objectivity is the source of the mainstream media’s failure to connect with the public, while others argue it is the noble ideal that will save the professional press.

Whether they deem objectivity a problem or panacea, both schools of thought subscribe to the mistaken notion that journalists must choose one of two options – embrace opinion journalism or renew the commitment to cultivating the image of objectivity. Under either scenario, general interest news sources are unlikely to survive.

The conventional wisdom about today’s communications ecosystem is that we have entered an unprecedented era of partisanship. The commercial success of MSNBC and FOX News and the popularity of blogs are held up as evidence that times have changed, and the public is more polarized, more ideological, and more opinionated than ever. In general, two major narratives about the mainstream media have emerged in response.

The first narrative labels the doctrine of objectivity an outdated relic that keeps the mainstream press disconnected and irrelevant in our increasingly partisan culture. Some in this camp, like former newspaperman Alan Mutter, lament the loss of objectivity but view the change as a commercial necessity. Writing about the need for the press to abandon objectivity on his Newsosaur blog, he sounded almost defeated, “The first business of a newspaper is to stay in business.” Others, like Michael Kinsley , celebrate the rise of opinion journalism for its authenticity and see the abandonment of objectivity as a step forward. Regardless, in this worldview, press advocacy is the way of the future.

In the alternative narrative, political polarization is degrading our popular culture, and the objective professional press is the one beacon of hope. In other words, the neutral press stands proudly above the debased, polarized fray, doing its best to lead the public to “the truth.” As the future for newspapers becomes increasingly bleak, this type of soaring rhetoric about the virtues of objectivity has reached a fever pitch. In his recent book, Losing the News, Harvard’s Alex S. Jones wrote, “[I]f [journalism] is viewed as just another collection of facts assembled by someone with a political agenda, then one of the most important supports for our democracy will weaken, and the conversation may well become more of a cacophonous Tower of Babel.”

These competing narratives share a binary worldview where news is either partisan or objective. But neither advocating a position nor taking pains to feign neutrality will help the mainstream press sustain a general-interest audience in today’s media environment.

It is tempting to think professional journalists could become more relevant by giving in to our so-called partisan culture and expressing their opinions. The problem is, despite the commercial success of some partisan news outlets, the public itself is not nearly as partisan as conventional wisdom suggests. A 2009 report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the number of political independents is growing steadily while party affiliation is declining. According to the survey, the proportion of political independents is the highest it has been in 70 years.

If the mainstream press starts spouting opinions, it will alienate the bulk of its audience immediately. A 2007 poll by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that more than two-thirds of the American public prefers news without “a particular point of view.” There is little reason to think partisanship would do anything other than reduce an already dwindling audience. Likewise, there is little reason to think advocacy journalism would have a different effect, even if the press limited itself to advocating relatively non-controversial policies.

In the recent September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham wrote a plea for the mainstream media to begin taking a stand in its reporting, while maintaining its expansive and diverse audience. In other words, he was calling for the impossible – a press that stakes out policy positions but magically avoids narrowing its market and influence by becoming an opinion news outlet. It is not a coincidence that mainstream general-interest news organizations have a wider reach than the opinion press. The larger influence is a byproduct of not making reporting an exercise in advocacy. People do not look to the mainstream press to be persuaded; they seek to be informed. If the press resorts to partisanship or advocacy, general-interest news outlets will gradually disappear.

Perhaps, as William Powers argued in The Atlantic in 2005, we should resign ourselves to the death of the mainstream media. After all, Powers wrote, the mass media is a fairly recent phenomenon made possible by the particular commercial circumstances of the 20th century. The Internet now creates an endless array of information sources, and the result is a niche-driven information market. It is reasonable to predict that the glory days of the mass media are over for good.

Nonetheless, there are significant reasons to make an effort to preserve some general-interest news outlets within our fragmented media landscape. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has explained how the loss of general-interest news sources will have an impact on the way in which our democracy functions and our culture evolves. As he wrote in Republic.com 2.0, “A society with general-interest intermediaries, like a society with a robust set of public forums, promotes a shared set of experiences at the same time that it exposes countless people to information and opinions that they would not have sought out in advance.” These social and political benefits are important enough to give us pause before we seal the fate of the mainstream press by calling for a turn to advocacy or partisanship.

The doctrine of objectivity was designed to minimize the risk of offending the public with opinions and political bias. For this reason, it might seem like the perfect antidote to audience fragmentation. The glitch, of course, is that the public finds the concept of objectivity laughable. People across the political spectrum think the press is biased. In September 2009 , the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 60 percent of people think that news organizations have a political bias.

It is not hard to understand why the public is so suspicious of claims of press neutrality. The idea that anyone can be truly impartial is a fantasy. Everyone has a set of life experiences that affect how they see the world and interpret events. Reporters who consistently cover particular people and issues are particularly susceptible to prejudice because naturally, the more you learn about a topic, the more likely you are to form opinions about it.

Further, unlike doctors or judges, journalists are not members of a true professional class. No special training or knowledge is required, and there is no oath to take. Reporting the news is fundamentally nothing more than learning about the world and communicating what you learned to the public. As with any skilled craft, it is difficult to do well, but the act of reporting is not a professional endeavor in the classic sense. In this context, striving for the impossible ideal of objectivity is particularly futile and unconvincing to the public.

The mainstream press largely responds to the failures of objectivity by tightening up formalistic measures that keep up the charade of neutrality. In September, the Washington Post amended its newsroom guidelines on the use of social media tools after a reporter posted comments on Twitter that revealed his political leanings. The new guidelines prohibit reporters from posting anything online that expresses a political or other bias in order to avoid what the Washington Post ombudsman deemed a “perception problem.” His candid words were illuminating.

Objectivity has become a matter of perception. It is a means to protecting the brand of the Fourth Estate as the all-knowing conveyers of truth. Maintaining the image of impartiality requires habitual use of the rituals of objectivity – the use of quotations, the inverted pyramid format, balance – and constant suppression of personal opinions. Occasionally, a journalist like Leonard Downie comes along who believes his role as a journalist even trumps his rights as a citizen and therefore chooses not to exercise his right to vote in an attempt to maintain absolute impartiality. Most journalists don’t go that far, but the objectivity ideal nonetheless requires a continual effort to mask the personalities, opinions, and biases of individual reporters.

There is a serious cost to these efforts at journalistic detachment. Maintaining the appearance of neutrality by stifling normal human behavior has a dehumanizing effect on reporters. Instead of a voice, the reader often gets a mechanical regurgitation of facts and quotations. The journalist remains a detached “other.” This artificiality breeds cynicism and distrust from the public, and it alienates the press from modern culture by creating a distance between reporter and reader that is completely foreign to digital natives. Our lives are increasingly lived online, where the line between personal and professional is blurred, where we interact, engage, critique, and express opinions to friends, colleagues, and strangers. The stark contrast between the interactive, informal web and the formal, dehumanized mainstream media makes the disconnect more pronounced than ever.

Those in the pro-objectivity camp believe this divide is not only acceptable, it is essential. In this view, adhering to principles of objectivity is a means to distinguishing professional reporters from bloggers and the partisan press. It is a survival mechanism. While it may be tempting, using the gloss of objectivity to artificially differentiate those who engage in journalism is not a long-term survival strategy. It is undisputed that the public is unpersuaded and even disgusted by claims of journalistic neutrality. Why, then, should we rely on this failed doctrine to save the mainstream media?

Objectivity has largely been a failure, but journalists are reluctant to give it up, primarily because, as Brent Cunningham wrote in 2003, “nothing better has replaced it.” It is this fascination with finding a replacement for objectivity that is preventing the mainstream media from moving forward. Journalists do not need a novel doctrine or philosophy to replace objectivity. Rather, they simply need to give up the act. We all know journalists are human with opinions, emotions, and biases of their own. Good journalism requires the discipline not to hide those biases, but to challenge them, to examine opposing views, to think critically, and to remain skeptical. Credibility comes with intellectual honesty, not the charade of objectivity. Undoubtedly, there will always be some who claim reporters have a political agenda no matter what they write or say. But abandoning the myth of the press as a neutral bystander to world events will go a long way toward reconnecting journalists with their audiences and with reality.

Contrary to popular wisdom, it is possible to give up on the doctrine of objectivity without resorting to partisanship or advocacy. The best reporting tells a story rather than making an argument or attempting to persuade. It is authentic and human without being emotional and one-sided. These qualities are critical to maintaining an audience of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Some will say that these values – critical thinking, non-partisanship, integrity – are what actually constitute “genuine objectivity.” According to this view, objectivity has been distorted by he-said/she-said reporting and contrived balance in news stories, but rather than abandoning the doctrine, we should redefine it. But journalists have been rethinking, redefining, and revamping the doctrine of objectivity since it became the journalistic norm in the early 20th century. Still, we find ourselves with no clear definition of what it means to be an objective reporter. Amidst the confusion, the ideal has become permanently entangled with notions of neutrality, which, in turn, breeds the formalistic efforts at detachment that undermine quality journalism.

There is no reason to cling to the canon of objectivity. The doctrine has become a crutch, which not only excuses lazy reporting, but also fosters the notion that journalists are different and separable from the rest of us. At this point, the doctrine does more harm than good.

Without the veneer of impartiality, journalists are more vulnerable. They must compete with the rest of the world on everyone else’s terms – without a philosophical shield to differentiate the press as an institution. But this is how people who successfully make a living practicing a craft – like art or music – survive. They simply practice their craft better than everyone else. This solution may provide little reassurance to an industry in the throes of upheaval, and many news organizations will opt to distinguish their brand with partisanship rather than taking a chance by competing on quality.

Yet, news outlets that speak to all of us, rather than catering to particular parties or ideologies, serve a valuable role in society. They create a common dialogue and expose people to issues and topics they might otherwise not have sought out. The future of these general-interest news sources depends not on objectivity, but on finally having the courage to move beyond it.

Comments

I find this article dismaying, especially because it was written by someone who should know better. Beneath the passive voice and the academic argot, it poses the question: are people interested in reality anymore?

Journalists are honest brokers of information, nothing more, nothing less. The clamor for prosecutors and defense attorneys is loud but limited. When the car bomb was discovered in Times Square did people turn to Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Keith Olbermann?

Sotto voce: no.

People have never wanted to think for themselves, preferring to receive in their mandibles the pre-chewed thoughts of others. The Internet and cable television makes that laziness easier. Fine. The Republic won't fall.

But at some point they need and want to find out what happened. Substituting Michelle Malkin for The New York Times is not only laughable, but would make for a serious case of civic disorientation and aphasia. Reality is what's left over when you've stopped believing in it and the pundits disappear in a puff of their own smoke.

Thanks for the comment, but you clearly didn't read very far into my (admittedly long) blog post. If you did, you would see that I specifically reject partisanship as an answer for the general-interest media. If you read my full argument and have further comments, happy to discuss.

My apologies. I failed to see the turn of your presentation at paragraph 11 and the nub of your argument in the last paragraph.

"The best reporting tells a story rather than making an argument or attempting to persuade. It is authentic and human without being emotional and one-sided. These qualities are critical to maintaining an audience of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives".

"Rather, they simply need to give up the act. We all know journalists are human with opinions, emotions, and biases of their own. Good journalism requires the discipline not to hide those biases, but to challenge them, to examine opposing views, to think critically, and to remain sceptical. Credibility comes with intellectual honesty"

I'm not clear if these two positions are contradictory. Over the last year I have been listening to and reading about " how people who successfully make a living practising a craft – like art or music – survive." from artists and musicians. Throughout this my critical response has been governed by how far the consciously or unconsciously the techniques of their practice to manipulate me especially when they exploit narrative but of course not only this. How far are they purveyors of fiction by constructing something that tells a STORY which is authentic and human'. Some protect themselves by claiming what they do is ironical or even satire (if you are in on the tricks) For others the emotional engagement (and perhaps then regret on the part of the recipient of the aesthetic 'machine' is what is intended. In the light of this I find it difficult to believe a STORY can be told without or received without a viewpoint or emotional engagement. Maybe a good exercise could be to rewrite Charles Dickens's opening passages on Coke Town in @hard Times' according to your rubrics. I have chose this because in is the model of a scene setting entry to a STORY written by a master journalist.

Thanks for writing. I do not doubt that you are right that everything we write or communicate reflects our point of view whether we realize it or not. That is why I believe true "objectivity" is impossible.

What I am trying to advocate (perhaps ineffectively) is coming at stories with as much of an open, critical mind as possible. In other words, to give it a concrete example, I would argue that the work of someone like the New Yorker's Jane Mayer is a much better model of quality general-interest journalism than someone like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. It is a subtle distinction because I think most people would find neither of them to be truly objective/neutral.

Hopefully that helps explain my position. Thanks again for writing.

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