Objectivity vs. Balance

Journalism, 30 Years Later

Tim McGuire, who teaches journalism ethics and on the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently asked some journalists about today’s business, compared to 30 years ago. Some excerpts:

One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

…As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. …Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

–Pam Fine, University of Kansas journalism professor


We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate.

–Arnie Robbins, St. Louis Post Dispatch editor


I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done

–Gregory Favre, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute


Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide.

In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments.

–Rick Rodriguez, faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. –—Len Downie, former editor, The Washington Post

[All emphases added]

The View from Somewhere Isn’t Where It’s At

Part two of David Folkenflick’s excellent report on the news media is online. And indeed Jay Rosen, who I cited in yesterday’s post, makes the case for reporters revealing more of their beliefs. In fact, it is the focus of this report.

"If they’ve been covering a beat for a while, I’d like to know what fascinates them about their beat, what they think are the biggest challenges facing the nation, who some of their heroes and villains are, and any convictions — deeply held convictions — they’ve developed by reporting on the story over a long period of time."

"We can tell where the person is coming from and apply whatever discount rate we want to what they’re saying," Rosen says. "I also think that it’s more likely to generate trust. And this is the main reason why I recommend ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ replace ‘the view from nowhere.’ "

I agree completely with Rosen’s critique of today’s media and the “view from nowhere.”  Peter Goodman, who recently left the New York Times to become business editor at the Huffington Post describes the problem pitch perfectly.

"This is not about ranting; it’s not about working for a particular partisan interest or set of interests; it’s not about getting individuals elected," Goodman says. "It’s about the same mission that I think has been part of quality journalism forever, which is uncovering truths that aren’t so easy to uncover."

He says The Times gave him great leeway to follow his reporting, wherever it led. But Goodman says his reporters at the Huffington Post will have some liberties other news organizations might not afford.

"I don’t want them feeling like they have to hand in [stories that say], ‘Well, these people said this, those people said that; here, dear reader — you know, you figure it out,’ " Goodman says. "I would like them engaged in a process of getting to a satisfying conclusion." [emphasis added]

In other words, “he said, she said” journalism, another phrase that may be Rosen’s.  While this type of journalism is well accepted in America (and in the NPR report former Post editor Len Downie vigorously defends it) to other western countries it is laughable.

"I’m rather extreme on this subject," says Simon Jenkins, the former editor in chief of the center-right Times of London who now writes columns for the liberal Guardian. "I find American newspapers boring — and biblical. I cannot believe how dull they are. These are news sheets for a genre of readers who want vast slabs of information and get entertainment in a different way. And they are micro-monopolies, all of them."

Still, I can’t bring myself to agree with Rosen’s conclusions. I object when reports describe even institutions as “liberal” or “conservative,” “left” or “right.” What that does is signal the reader to be ready to discount or embrace the following viewpoint because it tracks (or doesn’t) with their view of the world.  Labeling these institutions really does nothing to combat the rampant “view from nowhere.” And having reporters reveal their politics, if that indeed is what Rosen is suggesting, will be an impotent solution to the problem. I think what it will lead to is the same thing we now see: groups from either side demanding that a news outlet add more conservative or progressive reporters to offset a perceived imbalance, as they do now with opinion writers. Then what? Do you have a conservative and a progressive covering the same beat? Otherwise, if it’s one or the other, the opposite inclined reader will not read the stories at all or complain incessantly about them.

Besides, it’s hard to pinpoint where someone is coming from based solely on a few biographical paragraphs. I am a progressive and support many progressive causes. But I also think government is seriously flawed, inefficient and ineffective. I think the age at which one can start to draw Social Security should be raised. Gun control laws are largely ineffective. If I were a reporter, would I need to reveal all my views on each issue?

Let reporters gather the facts, weigh them on the “truth-o-meter if possible, and report the truth as close as they can divine it. The truth is what readers want. The reason newspapers and other MSM are failing is not because we don’t know the ideologies of the reporters and editors. It’s because they are not giving us information we can use. The are stenographers of the status quo, worried more about their continued access to the centers of power than in revealing what’s really going on.

Is the British Press a Better Model?

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.

Katharine Graham Had It Right

From a great piece by David Ignatius due to be published in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Our late Post publisher Katharine Graham once chided some of us, "Just because you are getting attacked from both the left and right doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job." She was right, but it’s still a useful index.

I agree…until the “useful index” part.  No it’s not.  If the MSM were willing to call a lie a lie, they may have a chance to regain relevance.  Having both sides criticize you assumes most comments by both sides are informed.

Don’t be misled by the lede.  This article is more than about war correspondents and worth the time to read from a writer I greatly respect.

No Such Thing as Objective News Reporting?

I know nothing about either of these journals, the online “Creative Loafing” or the Atlanta Progressive News. But here’s an odd interpretation of reportingAPN fired a reporter because he tried to report “objectively,” at least that’s what his former employer said. 

He held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News. It just wasn’t the right fit.

…We believe there is no such thing as objective news. Typically, mainstream media presents itself as objective but is actually skewed towards promoting the corporate agenda of the ultra-wealthy.

APN, on the other hand, does not pretend to be objective. We believe that our news coverage is fair and that our progressive principles are fair. We aim when possible to give voice to all sides, but aim to provide something different than what is already provided by corporate sources.”

APN’s statement is interesting and not without some merit.  In most stories, there are a lot of facts you could include but can’t because of space.  What you include and exclude therefore means a story is not all-encompassing.  But does that mean there is no objectivity?  Reporting has become stenography at many mainstream media organizations.  They report both sides of an issue, even if one side is so far out of the mainstream as to be inconsequential, at least from a scientific standpoint.  Climate change, for example. The overwhelming number of climatologists believe the earth is warming due to man’s emissions.  But because the doubters cry loud enough and accuse the MSM of bias, The climate change deniers gets reported as if there is serious doubt.  Also, blatantly hypocritical positions are ignored; for example, the Congressional Republicans’ stance toward stimulus funding.  Rachel Maddow, on the MSNBC (mostly) liberal network, is one of the few journalists reporting the hypocrisy.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Hypocrisy would seem to be something voters would want to know about.  It’s objective—and important–information.  APN, it being a progressive newspaper, might report this hypocrisy, but would ignoring Democratic hypocrisy be objective?  Hardly.

Great Stenography, Roz

"I don’t believe someone should be forced to buy something they don’t want to," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat who represents rural Russell County. "It’s un-American. And it might be unconstitutional."

One of The Post’s better stenographers used this quote in her story this morning about the Virginia Senate voting to make it illegal to force people to buy health insurance.  It apparently never occurred to Roz Helderman as she was scribbling the quote to ask, “What about auto insurance?”

See, that would require her to think.  But when your job is to get what one side says and then the other side’s perspective and voila, you have a story, there’s no need to dig a little deeper, especially when you know your editors will be pleased as punch at another article with no context nor journalistic thoughtfulness.

Daily Show, The National Ombudsman

Here’s a story that supports the thrust of my previous post.  Listening to the producers and writers of “The Daily Show” describe their mission and how they hold themselves accountable makes you wonder why real news organizations can’t do this.

"I feel like there are lot of critics of the government but there are very few critics of the media who have an audience and are credible and keep a watch on things," said "Daily Show" writer Elliott Kalan. "That’s a role that we provide that we take very seriously."

And they try to be funny and accurate.

One of the show’s rules is to not trust any source too much until it’s been confirmed by another source. The show’s 11 writers and eight producers — who range in age from their early 20s to mid 40s and four of whom are women — say they often check The New York Times and other newspapers to verify the facts and figures they hear on TV or read about on blogs. They also have a researcher and fact-checker, Adam Chodikoff, who makes sure any information that’s used has been verified by multiple sources.

"We work very hard to make sure that we don’t take anything out of context," King explained, "just because we like to think at the end of the day that what we’re doing is right and correct, but also because while the networks don’t respond to us all that much, people attack us and criticize us and we don’t want to give them ammunition than they need."

Daily Show producers have their sights set on my pet peeve.

Too often, King said, journalists’ political coverage — and that of media critics — ends up being sanitized and nothing but a perfunctory he said/she said exchange. "If you were going to talk about whether the earth is flat, and 99 percent of scientists are saying it’s round, and 1 percent are saying it’s flat, you wouldn’t bring on the 1 percent guy," he said. "That viewpoint is factually inaccurate and they shouldn’t bring him on just to give the illusion of balance."

When both sides are represented, writer Elliott Kalan said, there needs to be more fact-checking and deeper questioning: "A senator or governor will be on the news and will say something completely biased, and newscasters won’t call them on it. They should be checking these people. Instead they don’t want to alienate them and they let them say whatever they want."

He argued that the news media — and political commentators — need to look more critically at both sides of an issue, and spend more time breaking down complicated talking points for news consumers. Too often, Kalan said, journalists adhere to neutrality to the point where it paralyzes their ability to ask tough questions and undermines the power of objective, informed opinion.

Calling It Like She Sees It

Kudos to Lori Montgomery and her editors at The Washington Post for being objective, rather than a faux balance.  She writes about the House Democrats estimate for the cost of their healthcare plan.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are challenging an assertion by House leaders that their new health-care package comes in under President Obama’s spending limit of $900 billion over the next decade. The true cost of the measure, the GOP argues, is more than $1 trillion.

A House leadership aide dismissed the charge as "GOP spin." But, in this case, the spin is essentially true. [emphasis added]

According to a preliminary estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, expanding coverage to an additional 36 million Americans would cost $1.055 trillion over the next decade under the House plan, counting tax breaks for small businesses, subsidies for low- and moderate-income families, and the largest expansion of Medicaid since its inception more than 40 years ago.

House leaders prefer to emphasize a different number: the net cost of expanding coverage. That’s $1.055 trillion minus money that would be raised from penalties on people who failed to buy insurance and employers that failed to offer it. Those adjustments would bring the cost down to $894 billion over 10 years, just under Obama’s limit.

You can argue who is right. This might not be the best example, but at least she is willing to make a call, something I wish more reporters were willing to do.