Can we expect any news organization to be fair and balanced? Is objectivity an unattainable goal? More important, does the quest for objectivity require the American press to become not only neutered but lacking in any useful information and reluctant to declare anything true or false?
David Folkenflick has what is described as the first in a two-part series examining such questions on this morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” (The article on the website follows closely the audio story but isn’t verbatim from the ME report. Listen to the story from the link at the website.)
Basically, he reports that British newspapers, while striving to be accurate and fair, do not try to hide their point of view. Anyone who’s ever read, say the Guardian or The Telegraph would recognize the different takes on the same event.
"In Britain, we feel that it’s better to know where people are coming from and then to make up your own mind about what you think, because the truth is nobody can be completely impartial and objective," Boles says. "I mean the idea [that] The New York Times doesn’t have a political point of view — it’s ridiculous. It does, but it twists itself into knots in an attempt to pretend that it doesn’t."
This idea of transparency among reporters is one explored in depth by Jay Rosen of “PressThink” and others. It has been suggested that reporters should reveal their biases for everyone to know, so we can make a judgment about their reporting.
Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that British papers give more room than their American counterparts to voices that challenge conventional wisdom.
"I think it’s quite a striking thing about the British press that you get this polemical battle over the basis for what news is, which I feel is to a large extent missing in the American scene," Rusbridger says. "No judgments are free of ideologies, so who you choose to quote and how you structure stories are highly political judgments. I think that’s the problem with trying to place too much faith in something called objectivity."
I disagree, perhaps because I have a different definition of objectivity. (However, I agree that American mainstream media typically rely on the “usual suspects” and often little opportunity for views outside Washington conventional wisdom a voice; but that’s another topic.) Objectivity does not mean that you give both sides of an argument equal voice or that you make no judgment about an argument. It does mean, to me, that you give both sides a chance to explain themselves but that a reporter should be free to express a judgment on those arguments. All too infrequently, you’ll see a reporter say that something isn’t true or misleading. But it should happen far more often. For example, the GOP argument that taxes hurt the economy or job creation is not one that many informed economists will make. The CBO reported last year that of 11 ways it studied to improve the job market, tax cuts were the least effective. It’s OK to allow one to make a claim once, especially if the reporter doesn’t know if it’s true. But a good reporter will try to gauge the accuracy of a claim and at the very least suggests in her reporting that the claim is suspect and point to informed sources as evidence. That’s objective reporting, which is to say reporting that objectively strives for truth. It’s what’s required for a democracy to function, that is, an informed voter.
Which is what I think this Labor member of Parliament is getting at.
In the Palace of Westminster lobby, surrounded by marble statues of prime ministers that date back centuries, Anne Begg — a Labor member of Parliament who represents the south part of Aberdeen, Scotland — says she reads British newspapers every day, but finds them wanting.
"One of the concerns I have with some of the print media is that it’s almost all comment, which is always partial and is always partisan," she says. "In that respect, I don’t know if you could call them newspapers anymore — they’re perhaps comment papers."
In fact, if you remove quotations from many news stories you end up with a very short story. Still some would stand on their own without the quotes. Read a story sometime and imagine what it would be like without the quotes, which typically are often misleading spin. If reporters were tasked with writing stories of substance that don’t rely on spin from both sides, we’d have a better product.