broadsideblog

'Objective' Reporting? Impossible, Admits Atlanta Paper

In Media on February 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm
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“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

So wrote Janet Malcolm, in a famous (at least to journos) quote.

Anyone who tries to produce “news” or features for a living knows there’s no such thing as an unbiased or non-partisan point of view: we see the world, no matter how much we try or readers might wish otherwise, through our multiple filters of race, class, education, gender, country of origin. Being aware of them is some of the battle, while also trying to get out of their way.

Add to the individual reporter’s filters those of the many — as many as a dozen on some pieces, in whatever medium a story is produced — editors who can, and, do question and challenge those perceptions, layering on some of their own along the way from event/issue to the coverage of same.

I find so much, too much, of what passes for “reporting” is normative — focussing on what should be, rather than what is. One of the things I find deeply frustrating, and always have about being a journalist, is how little (hmmm, never) we talk about what we do, why we do it a certain way and whether there is another/better way to do it.

I do not mean a way that produces more profit for our employers or simply more eyeballs on our material.  Journalism remains an industrial process, a swiftly moving production line in which one worker (reporter) gathers the “facts” (filters firmly in place when so doing), another edits/alters/questions them, another re-questions them, and so on until the “story” appears and is consumed, with little or much credulity.

The pace of the Internet — as fast as humanly possible, please! — only makes this worse. Who’s got the time, or inclination to ask why a story is even being done, let alone in any particular way, when there’s so much pressure to just get it out there now?

These questions do get asked  — in think tanks, at foundations, in classrooms and at conferences, all too often by people whose last direct influence on the production of this hour’s news was years, even decades, earlier.

One of the issues that fascinates me, and makes me nervous, is this “branding” of the individual writer, as evidenced here at True/Slant and elsewhere. It’s flattering to be read and followed and listened to and tweeted. It validates a point of view, of whatever color and tone, but it doesn’t — at least often enough, even within the bounds of blessed civility — ask the essential question:

What makes you say that? Why do you think this way? Have you  — how? — considered others’ ideas or viewpoints?

From mediabistro.com, a refreshing blast of candor:

However, the perspectives of APN and other publications come through in other ways: (1) the choices of what stories to cover and what not to cover, (2) defining what a story is or is not in the first place, (3) deciding how to cover the story, (4) assessing what the “sides” are to be balanced, (5) deciding how the “sides” should be balanced, (6) deciding what facts to include and what not facts to include, etc.

At Atlanta Progressive News, we have a transparent editorial perspective that shapes which facts get included and which facts are given priority over others. Most other publications–on the other hand–have a hidden, sometimes insidious editorial perspective that shapes the same.

My point regarding the non-existence of objectivity in news has to do with which facts get included and which don’t– which “sides” get included and which don’t. Every publication has to make choices about this, which are unique to each publication and to each situation being written about.

Now most people’s basic understanding of objectivity is: balancing the sides. Okay, let’s talk about the sides for a minute. How many sides are there?

Well, there are approximately six billion people in the world, and to the extent that everyone’s perspective is slightly different, there could be potentially six billion sides.

  1. The biggest problem is that journalists often report “facts” while remaining ignorant of the backdrop against which these “facts” emerge.

    I’ve seen this in my experience as an engineer. Technical backdrop details are often left unreported because the Journalist reporting them doesn’t know about them. This can significantly color a person’s view of the facts.

    The same is probably also true of political reporting. Far too often I see Journalists turn political reporting in to a vote counting horse race instead of reporting the philosophical issues behind them.

    Is there a bias? Yeah. When things get complicated, facts often are pulled out of context and shown naked to the public. The bias is honest ignorance. You want an example? Look no further than Miles O’Brian. When he reports about aviation, he presents it against a backdrop of knowledgeable aviation expertise. Contrast that to those who often arrive first on the scene of an aircraft accident and start throwing terms like “stall” around.

    Yes. Journalists are biased. Not by choice, but by education and experience. As far as I can tell, that’s not going to change.

  2. Kudos, Caitlin — it’s so rare that a member of our tribe admits that “objective journalist” is an oxymoron. When I speak to journalism classes or PR firms, I try to make two points: (1) A good reporter will never tinker with the facts, but we’re the ones who pick the adjectives. If your profits were up 3% this year, I will report that — but it’s up to me if it was a meager 2% or a whopping 2%. (2) A good reporter will always balance a story — but we’re the ones who decide what is point, what is counterpoint, what is main, what is “on the other hand” And of course that comes through to the reader.

  3. Jake, great points. Thanks.

    One of the issues that has appalled me from the start of my career is the naked greed of publishers who care very little about their reporters’ ongoing education. Anyone who’s worked for a major media outlet knows that, if you’re handed the legal beat or the education beat, good luck with that! You are expected to pick it up ob the fly — hmmm, can we say ignorance? — or, if you are lucky and willing and your boss lets you go (in a recession, who dares vacate a desk) you can try for a specialized fellowship to go study a topic or issue in depth. They range from one week to a year.

    The crazy hours and demands of many J-jobs now mitigate against heading off every week to a classroom to study a subject in serious, thoughtful depth within within a college classroom. None of which excuses it, but it frustrates many of us who try to do our best while being given almost no time or backup to do it better.

    I am always amazed that young tyros on Wall Street can get an MBA paid for by their employers.

    Claudia, we all know the game. I can afford to say it because no one hands me a steady paycheck. Every one of us, freelance or not, makes choices about what to cover, when, why and how. There is enormous uncovered acreage and it also reflects our biases.

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