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June 17 2013

20:20

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote a insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practiced by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

May 17 2013

18:28

How is algorithmic objectivity related to journalistic objectivity?

Today at New York University, a bunch of smart people are gathered at the Governing Algorithms conference.

Algorithms are increasingly invoked as powerful entities that control, govern, sort, regulate, and shape everything from financial trades to news media. Nevertheless, the nature and implications of such orderings are far from clear. What exactly is it that algorithms “do”? What is the role attributed to “algorithms” in these arguments? How can we turn the “problem of algorithms” into an object of productive inquiry? This conference sets out to explore the recent rise of algorithms as an object of interest in scholarship, policy, and practice.

If this interests you, I’d suggest following #govalgo on Twitter, checking out the proposed pre-conference reading list, and looking at the discussion papers submitted. One that stood out to me was Tarleton Gillespie’s “The Relevance of Algorithms,” which connects the idea that algorithms are “objective” to journalists’ conception of the same idea (emphasis all mine):

This assertion of algorithmic objectivity plays in many ways an equivalent role to the norm of objectivity in Western journalism. Like search engines, journalists have developed tactics for determining what is most relevant, how to report it, and how to assure its relevance — a set of practices that are relatively invisible to their audience, a goal that they admit is messier to pursue than they might appear, and a principle that helps set aside but does not eradicate value judgments and personal politics. These institutionalized practices are animated by a conceptual promise that, in the discourse of journalism, is regularly articulated (or overstated) as a kind of totem. Journalists use the norm of objectivity as a “strategic ritual” (Tuchman 1972), to lend public legitimacy to knowledge production tactics that are inherently precarious. “Establishing jurisdiction over the ability to objectively parse reality is a claim to a special kind of authority” (Schudson and Anderson 2009, 96).

Journalist and algorithmic objectivities are by no means the same. Journalistic objectivity depends on an institutional promise of due diligence, built into and conveyed via a set of norms journalists learned in training and on the job; their choices represent a careful expertise backed by a deeply infused, philosophical and professional commitment to set aside their own biases and political beliefs. The promise of the algorithm leans much less on institutional norms and trained expertise, and more on a technologically inflected promise of mechanical neutrality. Whatever choices are made are presented both as distant from the intervention of human hands, and as submerged inside of the cold workings of the machine.

But in both, legitimacy depends on accumulated guidelines for the proceduralization of information selection. The discourses and practices of objectivity have come to serve as a constitutive rule of journalism (Ryfe 2006). Objectivity is part of how journalists understand themselves and what it means to be a journalist. It is part of how their work is evaluated, by editors, colleagues, and their readers. It is a defining signal by which journalists even recognize what counts as journalism. The promise of algorithmic objectivity, too, has been palpably incorporated into the working practices of algorithm providers, constitutively defining the function and purpose of the information service. When Google includes in its “Ten Things We Know to Be True” manifesto that “Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust,” this is neither spin nor corporate Kool-Aid. It is a deeply ingrained understanding of the public character of Google’s information service, one that both influences and legitimizes many of its technical and commercial undertakings, and helps obscure the messier reality of the service it provides.

The Tuchman reference is to Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 landmark piece “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity.” The Michael Schudson/C.W. Anderson piece is “Objectivity, Professionalism, and Truth Seeking in Journalism” (2009). The Ryfe is David Ryfe’s “The Nature of News Rules.”

January 18 2012

15:00

Digging deeper into The New York Times’ fact-checking faux pas

Once in a while the cultural fault lines in American journalism come into unexpectedly sharp relief. Jon Stewart’s now-legendary star turn on “Crossfire” was one of those moments; the uproar over NPR’s refusal (along with most major news outlets) to call waterboarding torture was another. The New York Times may have added another clash to this canon with public editor Arthur Brisbane’s blog post on fact-checking last week.

For anyone who missed it (or the ensuing analysis, rounded up here) the exchange can be summed up in two lines of dialogue:

Times to Internet: Should we fact-check the things politicians say?

Internet to Times: Are you freakin’ kidding?

That was an actual response, and a popular refrain: More than a dozen comments included some variant of, “This is a joke, right?” Several readers compared the column to an Onion piece. By far the most common reaction, which shows up in scores of comments, was to express dismay at the question or to say it captures the abysmal state of journalism today. A typical example, from “Fed Up” in Brooklyn: “The fact that this is even a question shows us how far mainstream journalism has fallen.”

The stunning unanimity of reader responses was undoubtedly the big story, as the news intelligentsia pointed out right away. It underscores the yawning gulf that separates professional reporters’ and everyday readers’ basic understandings of what journalism is supposed to do. Of the 265 comments logged in the three hours before the Times turned off commenting, exactly two (discounting obvious sarcasm) disagreed with the proposition that reporters should challenge suspect claims made by politicians. (More on the dissenters, below.) Brisbane’s follow-up, suggesting many readers had missed the nuance by assuming the question was just whether the paper should “check facts and print the truth,” seems off base. A few may have made that mistake, but most clearly have in mind what is sometimes called “political fact-checking” — calling out distortions in political speech.

If anything, reading through the comments what’s striking is the robust and stable critical vocabulary readers share for talking about the failings of conventional journalism. More than a dozen take issue with the definition of journalistic objectivity implied by Brisbane’s wondering whether reporting that calls out untruths can also be “objective and fair.” As a reader from Chicago wrote,

I see this formulation as a problem. Objective sometimes isn’t fair. Some of the people reported on are objectively less truthful, less forthcoming, and less believable than others.

False “balance” in the news is a common trope in the comments, which readers refer to both directly (at least eight times) and via now-standard illustrations of “he said/she said” reporting, like the climate-change debate (brought up by five readers) or the parodic headline “Shape of the Earth? Views differ” (mentioned by another nine). Journalism-as-stenography also comes up frequently — at least 20 of the responses make the comparison specifically, while 16 declare that the Times may as well run press releases if it isn’t going to challenge political claims.

The disconnect between reporters and readers, and the paradox at the center of “objective” journalism, comes through most clearly in Brisbane’s rendering of the division of labor between the news and opinion pages. Pointing to a column in which Paul Krugman debunked Mitt Romney’s claim that the President travels the globe “apologizing for America,” Brisbane explains that,

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

To anyone not steeped in the codes and practices of professional journalism, this sounds pretty odd: Testing facts is the province of opinion writers? What happens in the rest of the paper? As JohnInArizona commented,

Mr. Brisbane’s view of the job of op-ed columnist vs that of reporters seems skewed.

It is the job of columnist to present opinion and viewpoint, and to persuade. It is the job of reporters to present facts, as best as they can determine them.

As others have pointed out, uncritically reprinting politicians’ statements is not what a good reporter, or a good newspaper, should be doing. There is no choosing between competing facts — a statement is factual, or is not…

Journalism has a ready response for this line of critique: The truth is not always black and white, and reporters run the risk of “imposing their judgement on what is false and what is true” (Brisbane’s phrase) by weighing in on factual questions more complicated than the shape of the earth. Politicians are expert in misleading without lying, and people may genuinely disagree about what the facts are — based on different notions of what constitutes a presidential apology, for instance.

Even in these cases though, a reporter can add context to help readers assess a claim. Brisbane himself suggests that,

Perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the President has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

A few readers responded that the second sentence is superfluous. Several others suggested doing additional reporting around the question, along these lines: “A real reporter might try to find those speeches. A real reporter might request that the Romney campaign provide examples of times where Obama has apologized for America…”

That sort of reporting is exactly what fact-checkers at PolitiFact and the Washington Post did to refute the claim, reconstructing the “apology tour” meme as developed in various Republican documents (Romney’s 2010 book “No Apology,” a Karl Rove op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, a Heritage Foundation report, etc.) and digging into the actual text of Obama’s speeches as well as comparable ones by previous presidents. PolitiFact went so far as to interview several experts on diplomacy and political apologies. Reading the public editor’s letter, though, you’d have no idea that the key example he uses to illustrate his column already has been checked and found wanting.

More to the point, you’d have no clue about what AJR has called the “fact-checking explosion” in American journalism — a movement that is at least a decade old (the short-lived Spinsanity launched in 2001, followed by FactCheck.org in 2003) and now spans dedicated fact-checking groups as well as newspapers, TV networks, radio outlets, and even journalism schools. (Full disclosure: I’m writing a dissertation, and eventually a book, about this movement.) Fact-checking has been very much in the ether lately, with news gurus weighing in on the limits of this kind of journalism, especially during the controversy over PolitiFact’s latest “Lie of the Year” selection.

The fact-checking movement is part of a larger ongoing conversation about journalistic objectivity that began with the news media’s failures in the lead-up to the Iraq war. (See Brent Cunningham’s “Rethinking Objectivity,” Jay Rosen’s “The View from Nowhere,” Michael Massing’s “Now they Tell Us.”) Most fact-checking groups don’t spend a lot of time tweaking their peers in the press, even though the claims they check usually go unchallenged in news accounts. But they don’t have to — their entire project is a critique of mainstream journalism, a self-conscious experiment in “rethinking objectivity.”

That sense of mission — of fact-checking as a kind of reform movement — is unmistakable when fact-checkers get together, as at a New America Foundation conference on the subject last December, and one at CUNY the month before. (Here’s a write-up of the two conferences.) In a report written for the New America meeting, the Post’s original “Fact-Checker” columnist, Michael Dobbs, placed fact-checking in a long tradition of “truth-seeking” journalism that rejects the false balance practiced by political reporters today. (Three reports from that conference will be published over the next month.)

From the precincts of this emerging reformist consensus, Brisbane’s column seemed surprisingly out of touch. Still, the public editor raises questions that haven’t been answered very well in the conversation about fact-checking. It’s easy to declare, as Brook Gladstone did in a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, that reporters should “Fact check incessantly. Whenever a false assertion is asserted, it has to be corrected in the same paragraph, not in a box of analysis on the side.” (I agree.) But why, exactly, don’t they do that today? Why has fact-checking evolved into a specialized form of journalism relegated to a sidebar or a separate site? Are there any good reasons for it to stay that way?

Answering those questions has to begin with a better understanding of why so many traditional “objective” journalists are wary of the fact-checking upstarts. Michael Schudson, a historian of journalism (and my graduate-school advisor), has written that the “objectivity norm guides journalists to separate facts from values, and report only the facts.” In practice, though, the aversion to values becomes an aversion to evaluation. Hence the traditional rule against “drawing conclusions” (discussed here) in news reports. Brisbane doesn’t flesh out this rationale, but one of his readers captured it perfectly, and is worth quoting at length:

I cannot claim to be a regular reader of the New York Times, and I cannot claim to have ever been to journalism school. Finally, I also cannot claim to know what “the truth” is. I do not understand why so many readers are presenting such unequivocal opinions as commentary here.

If a candidate for US president says something — anything — I would like to know what he or she said. That’s reporting, and that’s “the truth” in reporting: a presentation of the facts, as objectively as possible.

Whether a candidate was coy about something, exaggerating something else, using misleading language, leaving something out of his or her public statements… all of these things are analysis. …

Finally, it is the responsibility of the reader, of the informed citizen, to take all of this in and think for himself or herself, to decide where he or she stands on issues, on phenomena in society. Neither the New York Times nor any other newspaper ought to have the privilege of taking that final step for anyone.

This reads like a more thoughtful version of David Gregory’s infamous response when asked why he doesn’t fact-check his on-air guests: “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” It rests on the concern — elaborated in this Politico post and in a Journal editorial — that fact-checking tends to shade into opinion, glossing over genuine differences in political ideology. The WSJ decried a “journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles.”

The only problem with the “don’t draw conclusions” standard is that reporters draw conclusions all of the time, and now more than ever. The decades-long trend toward more analytical reporting, probably self-evident to any news junkie, has been thoroughly documented by communications scholars (who, following Kevin Barnhurst, sometimes call this “the new long journalism” or the “decline of event-centered reporting.”) Reporters are of course especially comfortable drawing conclusions about political strategy, liberally dispensing their analysis of what a candidate or officeholder hopes to gain from particular “messaging” and whether the strategy is like to work.

So objective journalism applies the ban on drawing conclusion very selectively. What seems to make reporters uncomfortable is not analysis per se but criticism, especially criticism that can be seen as taking sides on a controversial question — which they will avoid even at the risk of profound inconsistency. Here’s Bill Keller’s much-ridiculed rationale (quoted in a Media Decoder post) for refusing to describe waterboarding as torture in the pages of the Times, though the paper had often referred to it that way before the U.S. took up the practice:

When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.

The result revealed the awkward gap between common sense and journalistic sense. Common sense says, if it was torture then, it’s torture now. Journalistic sense says, this is really controversial! It’s not our job to accuse a sitting president of authorizing an illegal global regime of torture! (Conversely, it was profoundly uncontroversial to apply the label to waterboarding in a country such as China. Journalists could do so unthinkingly.)

This political risk aversion is nothing new. One of the most cited pieces of research on journalism is Gaye Tuchman’s ethnographic look at the “strategic ritual” of objectivity as practiced in a newspaper newsroom in the 1960s. Tuchman stressed the essentially defensive nature of the claim to be objective, and of the reporting routines it produced. Her “newsmen” shied away from criticism of public figures or public policies — or found someone else to voice them — because they were deeply, institutionally afraid of drawing attacks or even lawsuits from the people they reported on. (They used the “news analysis” label to set off reports that were less “objective,” though Tuchman found reporters and editors could not supply a coherent rationale for distinguishing between the two kinds of stories.)

The new, professional fact-checkers are specialized in ways that mitigate (but don’t eliminate) these concerns. They dedicate pages to analyzing even a simple claim, showing all of their work, so that someone who dislikes the result might still agree it was reached fairly. Full-time fact-checkers don’t have to worry about losing “access” to a public figure, because they don’t rely on inside information. (For the same reason, fact-checkers don’t use anonymous sources.) And they obviously — to occasional criticism — make an effort to check politicians from both sides of the aisle.

And still, fact-checkers constantly come in for vehement attacks from political figures and from the reading public. It’d be hard to prove that this is more pronounced than what traditional news outlets weather; my anecdotal sense is that it might be. (They manage this feedback in interesting ways; for instance, neither FactCheck.org nor PolitiFact allow comments on the same page as their fact-checks, though they do often run selections from reader mail.) Without validating the view that “if everybody’s mad at us, we must be doing something right” — a journalistic reflex one also hears from fact-checkers — it has to be acknowledged that this is a deeply polarizing activity. Managing that polarization is part of what fact-checkers have to do in the effort to stay relevant and make a difference in public discourse.

The hope for building fact-checks into everyday news reports is that it would push political reporters to be more thoughtful and reflexive about their own work — to leave out quotable-but-dubious claims, to resist political conflict as the default frame, and in general to avoid the pat formulations that are so ably managed by political actors. But inevitably, all of us will be disappointed, even pissed off, by some of these routine fact-checks — and perhaps all the more so when they’re woven into the story itself.

To take Brisbane’s question seriously and think about how this might be put into practice, we have to consider how reporters will manage the new set of pressures this work will expose them to. And we have to confront the paradox that trying to create a platform for a more fact-based and reasonable public discourse may also, at the same time, promote further fragmentation and politicization of that discourse.

Lucas Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University and a research fellow at the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation.

January 16 2012

14:28

Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.

Thoughts?

January 13 2012

16:30

July 27 2011

17:59

Rethinking Journalism Ethics, Objectivity in the Age of Social Media

In response to the rapidly changing media environment, many schools and academic programs are offering novel approaches to journalism education.

This seismic change creates tensions within programs, especially when it comes to how to teach ethics for this increasingly mixed media.

In an earlier column, I put forward some principles for teaching ethics amid this media revolution. But these principles do not address some specific problems.

Whither objectivity?

Today, students don't just learn how to report straight news on deadline. They not only learn to write reports that are neutral or objective; they also learn how to write blogs, use social media, write investigative pieces, and explore point-of-view journalism.

Schools of journalism have always taught, to some extent, what is called "opinion journalism," such as learning to write an editorial that supports a candidate for political office. But the amount of opinion and perspective journalism in programs today is much greater than in the past; and media formats for the expression of this journalism multiply.

One problem is whether the ideal of journalistic objectivity should be emphasized in these changing curricula.

The new journalism tends to be more personal. It prefers transparency to objectivity or self-effacing neutrality. Across journalism programs, there is a trend toward teaching a perspectival journalism that draws conclusions, and argues for interpretations. This challenges the previous dominance of objectivity as an ideal.

So the question is: Should educators maintain or abandon objectivity in their teaching?



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Redefining Objectivity

For starters, I think we should address this problem by doing two things: First, we should redefine, not abandon, objectivity as one of the principles that define responsible journalism. Second, we should develop ethical guidelines for specific forms of new media -- guidelines that are consistent with general principles such as truth-telling.


The traditional notion of journalistic objectivity, developed in the early 1900s, defined objectivity as a story that reported "just the facts" and eliminated all interpretation or opinion by the journalist. This notion of objectivity needs to be abandoned. It is an outdated idea that sees everything in black and white: A story is either factual -- and only factual -- or it is subjective opinion. We are given a choice between strict objectivity and un-rigorous subjectivity. This is a false dilemma.

Objectivity is not about perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation. Objectivity refers to a person's willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies. Objectivity as a method is compatible with journalism that interprets and takes perspectives. Every day, scientists adopt the objective stance when they use methods to test their hypotheses about phenomena. The same stance is available for journalists.


Why is the redefinition of objectivity necessary?

Traditional objectivity as just the facts is a false model of how journalists do their work. Journalism is interpretive through and through. It provides little guidance for many forms of journalism, such as point-of-view journalism. In addition, adherence to traditional objectivity can retard curriculum reform. The fear that teaching perspectival journalism entails teaching a "journalism without standards" is unfounded. Perspectival journalism can be more or less supported by the facts, well-argued, and respectful of counter views.

The ideal of objectivity should not be abandoned because it supports important journalistic attitudes such as a "disinterestedness" that follows the facts where they lead.

Guidelines for specific formats

My second suggestion is that educators should develop ethical guidelines aimed at specific forms of journalism.

The evolution of interactive, online media tells us something that journalists have known for years: Ethics of journalism is not monolithic; it's not "one size fits all." To be sure, general principles such as truth-telling, editorial independence, objectivity and accuracy apply across all forms of responsible journalism. However, in addition to these principles, more specific norms apply to certain types of journalistic practice. For instance, the aims and norms of satirical journalism are not the same as those of straight reporting; the aims and norms of column writing are not the same as those of a TV news anchor. What norms are appropriate depends on the form of communication in question.

How do these thoughts apply to the problem of changing journalism curricula?

It means that, while teaching should honor the general principles, ethics courses need to develop "best practices" guidelines for specific forms of journalism. For example, we need to specify what truth-telling and accuracy entail for the live-blogging of events. We need to develop guidelines for the responsible use of Twitter and other social media.

The issue is not whether certain media formats are inherently unethical. The issue is what norms are appropriate for any specific format. We need both comprehensive principles and specific guidelines that allow students to engage new media in a creative but responsible manner.

The first step, then, is to clear away old ways of thinking that act as obstacles to the redesign and the teaching of journalism ethics.

Only a fundamental redesign will allow journalism ethics to make the transition from an ethics constructed for a media from another era to an ethics relevant to today's mixed media.

More from photographer Roger H. Goun on Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is director of the Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism's in Vancouver, B.C.

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July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

March 07 2011

08:32

Culture Clash: Journalism’s ideology vs blog culture

Culture Clash: Journalism's ideology vs blog cultureIf you read the literature on journalism’s professional ideology – or just follow any argument about journalists-versus-the-rest-of-the-world – you’ll notice particular themes recurring.

Like any profession, journalism separates itself from other fields of work through articulating how it is different. Reading Mark Deuze’s book Media Work recently I was struck by how a similar, parallel, ideology is increasingly articulated by bloggers. And I wanted to sketch that out.

First, two disclaimers: I am not claiming that bloggers are a coherent body any more than journalists are. Blogging is of course not a profession, and many bloggers do not make any claims beyond their own personal beliefs.

What I am exploring here is a common ideology that a particular contingent of bloggers expresses when attacked by journalists, or when attacking professional journalism.

One of the reasons this parallels journalism’s professional ideology may be because the arguments are often made in response to that exact ideology: journalists argue that bloggers are not objective; bloggers counter by arguing that journalists are not transparent, and so on.

Secondly, this is not based on any systematic research, but rather reflecting on ongoing analysis over the past few years. I’m putting this up for discussion and as a basis for further research, rather than suggesting it is the finished article.

Ideology 1: Public service vs accountability

The journalist’s claim is that they are performing a public service, whether that is informing the public, holding power to account, giving a voice to the voiceless (or the ‘voice of the people’), providing a forum for public discussion, or something else.

Bloggers articulate a similar ideology: that they are directly accountable to the public through their comments and the ability of others to direct them in how they ‘serve’.

The journalist’s public service is top-down; the blogger’s, bottom-up.

Ideology 2: Objectivity vs transparency

This is a long-running debate that I barely have to articulate, as it is easily the most prominent ideological battle that has taken place between journalists and bloggers. But here it is: journalists say they are objective while bloggers are subjective. Bloggers argue that any claim to objectivity is flawed, that the grounds for it (limited access to publication) no longer apply, and that in the age of the link transparency is their own badge of honour. Journalists who do not link to their sources, who take credit for the work of others, and who fail to declare interests are all targets in this battle.

Ideology 3: Autonomy vs non-commercial

A part of journalism’s ideology that is employed much less often in defending the profession is its autonomy: the fact that journalists are independent of government and that there is a church/state separation between advertising and content.

Bloggers articulate a similar argument around their very non-professionalism: because we do not rely on advertising or cover sales, say the bloggers, we enjoy more independence than journalists. We do not need to chase ratings or circulations; we do not need to worry about the institutional voice, or offending advertisers.

Ideology 4: Immediacy vs ‘Publish then filter’

The fourth aspect of journalism’s ideology identified by Deuze is ‘immediacy’, that is, journalists’ desire to be first to report the news.

Bloggers have their own version of ‘immediacy’, however, which is that they ‘publish, then filter’, allowing users to act as their editors (or ‘curators’) rather than being constrained by any editorial production line.

It’s notable that as journalists’ claims to immediacy come under particular challenge in an age where anyone can publish and distribute information, some journalists and news organisations are re-orienting themselves towards a role of ‘curation’, and using the ideology of ‘editorial process’ to defend themselves against the new entrants.

Ideology 5: Ethics vs ethical

This is a line that has always fascinated me. Journalists frequently employ their professional ‘ethics’ as a defence against the incursion of the blogging barbarians. But if journalists were so ethical, why are they consistently one of the least trusted professions?

Journalistic ethics are explicitly declared in documents such as the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, individual organisations’ own statements of principles, and even journalists’ contracts, while organisations such as the PCC act to further enforce behaviour.

Similar attempts to create a code of ethics for bloggers have been met with objections – for reasons not too dissimilar to the reasons that journalists do not want their profession to be professionalised: it would limit access, and provide an opportunity for governments to control the medium.

But bloggers are fiercely ethical. How is difficult to pin down – the transparency ideology outlined above is part of that, and many elements are shared with the ethics asserted by journalism: protecting sources, for instance. But broadly this ideology is one that is held in opposition to the worst excesses of journalism: bloggers would argue that they do not resort to underhand tactics in pursuit of a story: exploiting vulnerable people, passing off others’ work as their own, or pretending to be someone else.

What have I missed?

There may be other themes that I have missed – or examples of the above (after I wrote a first draft of this, Jay Rosen published his own selection of quotes here, some of which I have linked to above). It may be that journalism’s own ideology is changing in response to these challenges (as it seems to be regarding immediacy vs curation). I’d love to know what you think – or if you know of any research in the area (some here and here).

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

November 05 2010

19:52

Time to stop hiding

Everybody who’s shocked — shocked, you say! — that Keith Olbermann contributed to Democratic candidates, please stand up.

I thought so.

The problem with Olbermann’s contributions is not that he made them but that he hid them — it’s the coverup that always gets you in trouble [pace R. Nixon] — and that MSNBC made him hide them. The problem with MSNBC suspending Olbermann is that it heads down transparency road in exactly the wrong direction, toward continued opacity. And the problem with MSNBC’s policy that makes contributing to candidates a suspendable offense is that it prevents journalists from acting as citizens of the communities they are to serve.

It’s not as if Olbermann was objective. It was his job not to be. We all know where he stood. I say he should put his money where is mouth is. He just shouldn’t have hidden it or be made to do so.

And I agree with Matt Welch that news organizations should reveal the votes of their staffs. When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right. Yes. They should not be forced out. But self-respecting journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent. Self-respecting news organizations should be honest with their communities and reveal the aggregate perspectives of its staffs. It’s relevant.

We have the ethic of journalis exactly reversed from what it should be: Journalists should be the most open, the most transparent, a model of honesty.

We have the relationship of the journalist to the community also inside-out: They should see themselves as members of their communities like anyone else but with the special privilege of being able to ask questions and get answers on everyone’s behalf.

Put those two together and you have true citizen journalists.

But liberal (yes, liberal) news organizations — MSNBC and NPR, not to mention the NY Times and others — have gotten this all bolloxed up lately, continuing to separate their journalists and commentators — Juan Williams and now everyone else out at NPR of fear — from their communities. They all refused to let their journalists attend the Rally to Restore Sanity, which turned out not to be a political event at all but a repudiation of media — including most of Fox News plus Olbermann himself … a lesson all their journalists should have heard.

They do this because they want to stand above Fox News as objective. What they do instead is stand apart from their communities as — what? — sterile, gutless, distant. Fox News comes off as caring to its audience (“Fox News speaks for us,” say the tea drinkers. “Fox News understands”). MSNBC comes off as … what?

October 29 2010

15:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ latest doc drop, the NPR backlash, and disappointing iPad magazines

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

WikiLeaks coverage gets personal: There were two big stories everyone spent the whole week talking about, and both actually happened late last week. We’ll start with what’s easily the bigger one in the long term: WikiLeaks’ release last Friday of 400,000 documents regarding the Iraq War. The Iraq War Logs were released in partnership with several news organizations around the world, including Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. (The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a good roundup of the initial coverage.)

The Guardian and The Times in particular used the documents to put together some fascinating pieces of data journalism, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner looked at how they did it. The folks at Journalism.co.uk wrote a couple of posts detailing WikiLeaks’ collaborative efforts on the release, particularly their work with the new British nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A French nonprofit that also worked with WikiLeaks, OWNI, told its own story of the project.

Despite all that collaborative work, the news coverage of the documents fizzled over the weekend and into this week, leading two reporting vets to write to the media blog Romenesko to posit reasons why the traditional media helped throw cold water on the story. John Parker pointed to the military press — “Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power” — and David Cay Johnston urged journalists to check out the documents, rather than trusting official sources.

There was another WikiLeaks-related story that got almost as much press as the documents themselves: The internal tension at the organization and the ongoing mystery surrounding its frontman, Julian Assange. The Times and the British paper The Independent both dug into those issues, and Assange walked out of a CNN interview after repeated questions about sexual abuse allegations he’s faced in Sweden. That coverage was met with plenty of criticism — Assange and The Columbia Journalism Review ripped CNN, and Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald joined Assange in tearing into The Times.

After being chastised by the U.S. Defense Department this summer for not redacting names of informants in its Afghanistan leak this summer, WikiLeaks faced some criticism this time around from Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici and Gawker’s John Cook for going too far with the redaction. A few other WikiLeaks-related strains of thought: Mark Feldstein at the American Journalism Review compared WikiLeaks with old-school investigative journalism, Barry Schuler wondered whether the governmental animosity toward WikiLeaks will lead to regulations of the Internet, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis wrote about the way WikiLeaks is bringing us toward the dawn of the age of transparency. “Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad,” he said.

NPR, Fox News and objectivity: The other story that dominated the future-of-news discussion (and the news discussion in general) was NPR’s firing last week of news analyst Juan Williams for comments about Muslims he made on Fox News. Conversation about the firing took off late last week and didn’t slow down until about Wednesday this week. NPR kept finding it tougher to defend the firing as the criticism piled up, and by the weekend, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller had apologized for how she handled the firing (but not for the firing itself). NPR got a bomb threat over the incident, and even PBS, which has had nothing whatsoever to do with Williams, was deluged with angry emailers.

Conversation centered on two issues: First, and more immediately, why Williams was fired and whether he should have been. Longtime reporter James Naughton and The Awl’s Abe Sauer thought Williams should have been fired years ago because he appeared on Fox, where he’s only used as a prop in Fox’s efforts to incite faux-news propaganda. NYU professor Jay Rosen put it more carefully, saying that given NPR’s ironclad commitment to the objective view from nowhere, “there was no way he could abide by NPR’s rules — which insist on viewlessness as a guarantor of trust — and appear on Fox, where the clash of views is basic to what the network does to generate audience” — not to mention that that viewlessness renders the entire position of “news analyst” problematic.

Along with Rosen, Time media critic James Poniewozik and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau advocated for greater transparency as a way to prevent needless scandals like these. Former NPR host Farai Chideya emphasized a different angle, asserting that Williams was kept on for years as his relationship with NPR eroded because he’s a black man. Said Chideya, who’s African-American herself: “Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network.”

The other issue was both broader and more politically driven: Should NPR lose its public funding? Republican Sen. Jim DeMint said he would introduce a bill to that effect, and conservatives echoed his call for defunding (though NPR gets only 1 to 2 percent of its budget from direct public funding — and even that’s from competitive federal grants). Politico noted how difficult it would be to actually take NPR’s public funding, and a poll indicated that Americans are split on the issue straight down party lines.

Those calling for the cut got some support, however indirect, from a couple of people in the media world: Slate’s Jack Shafer said NPR and public radio stations should wean themselves from public funding so they can stop being tossed around as a political pawn, and New York Sun founding editor Seth Lipsky argued that NPR’s subsidies make it harder for private entrepreneurs to raise money for highbrow journalism. There were counter-arguments, too: The Atlantic’s James Fallows gave a passionate defense of NPR’s value as a news organization, and LSU grad student Matt Schafer made the case for public media in general.

Magazines disappoint on the iPad: Advertising Age collected circulation figures for the first six months of magazines’ availability on the iPad and compared it to print circulation, getting decided mixed results. (Science/tech mags did really well; general interest titles, not so much.) The site’s Nat Ives concluded that iPad ad rates might drop as result, and that “Magazines’ iPad editions won’t really get in gear until big publishers and Apple agree on some kind of system for subscription offers.”

Former New York Times design director Khoi Vinh gave a stinging critique of those magazines’ iPad apps, saying they’re at odds with how people actually use the device. “They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all,” he said. In a follow-up, he talked a bit about why their current designs are a “stand-in for true experimentation.”

Meanwhile, news organizations continue to rush to the iPad: The New York Post came out with an iPad app that The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer really, really liked, The Oklahoman became another one of the first few newspapers to offer its own iPad subscription outside of Apple’s iTunes payment system, PBS launched its own iPad app, and News Corp. is moving forward with plans for a new tabloid created just for tablets.

Two opposite paid-content moves: It was somewhat lost in the WikiLeaks-Williams hoopla, but we got news of three new online paid-content plans for news this week. The biggest change is at the National Journal, a political magazine that’s long charged very high prices and catered to Washington policy wonks but relaunched this week as a newsstand-friendly print product and a largely free website that will shoot for 80 updates a day. The Lab’s Laura McGann looked at the National Journal’s new free-pay hybrid web plan, in contrast to its largely paid, niche website previously.

Meanwhile, Politico said it plans to move into exactly the same web territory the Journal has been in, launching a high-price subscription news service on health care, energy and technology for Washington insiders in addition to its free site and print edition. And the Associated Press gave more details on its proposed rights clearinghouse for publishers, which will allow them to tag online content and monitor and regulate how it’s being used and how they’re being paid for it. We also have some more data on an ongoing paid-content experiment — Rupert Murdoch’s paywall at The Times of London. Yup, the audience is way down, just like everyone suspected.

Reading roundup: Outside of those two huge stories, it was a relatively quiet week. Here are a few interesting bits and pieces that emerged:

— The awful last few weeks for the Tribune Co. came to a head last Friday when CEO Randy Michaels resigned, leaving a four-member council to guide the company through bankruptcy. The same day, the company filed a reorganization plan that turns it over to its leading creditors. The Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner gave a good postmortem for the Michaels era, pointing a finger primarily at the man who hired him, Sam Zell.

— Wired’s Fred Vogelstein declared Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon our new (media) overlords. (No indication of whether he, for one, welcomes them.) MediaPost’s Joe Marchese mused a bit about where each of those four companies fits in the new media landscape.

— The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn wrote a thought-provoking expression of a popular recent argument: If the Internet gives all of us our own facts, how are we supposed to find any common ground for discussion?

— And since I know you’re in the mood for scientific-looking formulas, check out Lois Beckett’s examination here at the Lab of Philly.com’s calculation of online engagement, then take a look at her follow-up post on where revenue fits in.

October 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The iPad’s pay potential, Chile miner over-coverage, and another Murdoch paywall

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Advances for paid content on the iPad: We start this week with a whole bunch of data points regarding journalism and mobile devices; I’ll try to tie them together for you the best I can. Conde Nast, one of the world’s largest magazine publishers, has done the most thorough iPad research we’ve seen so far, with more than 100 hours of in-person interviews and in-app surveys with more than 5,000 respondents. Conde Nast released some of its findings this week, which included five pieces of advice for mobile advertisers that were heavy on interactivity and clear navigation. They also discovered some good news for mobile advertisers: The iPad’s early users aren’t simply the typical tech-geek early adopter set, and about four-fifths of them were happy with their experiences with Conde Nast’s apps.

MocoNews had the most detailed look at Conde Nast’s study, arguing that the fact that iPads are shared extensively means they’re not being treated as a mobile device. Users also seemed to spend much more time with the mobile versions of the magazines than the print versions, though that data’s a little cloudy. NPR has also done some research on its users via Twitter and Facebook, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis reported that they’ve found that those listeners are generally younger, hardcore listeners. Together, Facebook and Twitter account for 7 to 8 percent of NPR’s web traffic, though Facebook generates six times as much as Twitter.

There were also a few items on newspapers and the iPad: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported that the New York Post will become the first newspaper without a paid website to start selling an iPad app subscription. The subscription is only sold inside the app, a strategy that The Next Web’s Martin Bryant called a psychological trick that ”makes users feel less like they’re paying for news and more like they’re ‘Just buying another app.’” The British newspaper The Financial Times said its iPad app has made about £1 million in advertising revenue since it was launched in May, but as Poynter’s Damon Kiesow noted, local papers have been slow to jump on the iPad train, with only a dozen of launching apps so far.

Meanwhile, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram ripped most magazine iPad apps for a lack of interactivity, openness or user control, saying, “the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic.” But some news organizations are already busy preparing for the next big thing: According to The Wall Street Journal, some national news orgs have begun developing content for Samsung’s new tablet, the Galaxy, which is scheduled to be released later this year.

Too much of a good story?: Regardless of where you were this week, the huge story was the rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months. The fact that it was such an all-encompassing story is, of course, a media story in itself: TV broadcasters planned wall-to-wall coverage beforehand, and that coverage garnered massive ratings in the U.S. and elsewhere. (We followed on the web, too.) With 2,000 journalists at the site, the event became a global media spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.

The coverage had plenty of critics, many of them upset about the excessive amount of resources devoted to a story with little long-term impact by news organizations that are making significant cuts to coverage elsewhere. The point couldn’t have been finer in the case of the BBC, which spent more than £100,000 on its rescue coverage, leading it to slash the budget for upcoming stories like the Cancun climate change meetings and Lisbon NATO summit.

The sharpest barbs belonged to NYU prof Jay Rosen and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau. “The proportion of response to story impact is perhaps the best illustration of the insanity we seen in media business choices today,” Littau wrote, adding, “I see an industry chasing hits and page views by wasting valuable economic and human capital.” Lost Remote’s Steve Safran pointed out that the degree of coverage had much more to do with the fact that coverage could be planned than with its newsworthiness.

Rupert keeps pushing into paywalls: After his Times and Sunday Times went behind a paywall this summer, Rupert Murdoch added another newspaper to his online paid-content empire this week: The British tabloid News of the World. Access to the paper’s site will cost a pound a day or £1.99 for four weeks, and will include some web exclusives, including a new video section. PaidContent gave the new site itself a good review, saying it’s an improvement over the old one.

The business plan behind the paywall didn’t get such kind reviews. As with The Times’ paywall, News of the World’s content will be hidden from Google and other search engines, and while paidContent reported that its videos had been reposted on YouTube before the site even launched, the paper’s digital editor told Journalism.co.uk that it’s working aggressively to keep its content within the site, including calling in the lawyers if need be. The Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford argued that the new site formally marks Murdoch’s retreat from the web: “Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.” British journalist Kevin Anderson was a little more charitable, saying the strategy just might be an early step toward a frictionless all-app approach to digital news.

As for Murdoch’s other paywall experiment at The Times, two editors gave a recent talk (reported by Editors Weblog) that juxtaposed two interesting ideas: The editors claimed that a subscription-based website makes them more focused on the user, then touted this as an advantage of the iPad: “People consume how you want them to consume.”

News orgs’ kibosh on political expression: NPR created a bit of buzz this week when it sent a memo to employees explaining that they were not allowed to attend the upcoming rallies by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (unless they were covering the events), as they constitute unethical participation in a political rally. The rule forbidding journalists to participate in political rallies is an old one in newsrooms, and at least eight of the U.S.’ largest news organizations told The Huffington Post their journalists also wouldn’t be attending the rallies outside of work.

NPR senior VP Dana Davis Rehm explained in a post on its site that NPR issued the memo to clear up any confusion about whether the rallies, which are at least partly satirical in nature, were in fact political. NPR’s fresh implementation prompted a new round of criticism of the longstanding rule, especially from those skeptical of efforts at “objective” journalism: The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford called it “insane,” Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy said the prohibition keeps journalists from observing and learning, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis made a similar point, arguing that “NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious.”

A closer look at Denton and Huffington: In the past week, we’ve gotten long profiles of two new media magnates in a New Yorker piece on Gawker chief Nick Denton and a Forbes story on Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post. (Huffington also gave a good Q&A to Investor’s Business Daily.) Reaction to the Denton articles was pretty subdued, but former Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers (who wrote the Huffington piece) had some interesting thoughts about how Gawker has become part of the mainstream, though not everyone agrees whether its success is replicable.

Figures in the pieces prompted Reuters’ Felix Salmon and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici to break down the sites’ valuation. (Salmon only looks at Gawker, though Bercovici compares the two in traffic value and in their owners’ roles.) The two networks have long been rivals, and Denton noted that thanks to a couple of big sports-related scandals, Gawker’s traffic beat the Post’s for the first time ever this week. Also this week, Huffington announced she’d pay $250,000 to send buses to Jon Stewart’s rally later this month, an idea the Wrap said some of her employees weren’t crazy about.

Reading roundup: Busy, busy week this week. We’ll see how much good stuff I can point you toward before your eyes start glazing over.

— A few follow-ups to last week’s discussion of Howard Kurtz’s move from The Washington Post to The Daily Beast: The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a lyrical column comparing writing for print and for the web, PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser interviewed Kurtz on Twitter, and former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff pointed out that the move from mainstream media to the web began in the sports world.

— An update on the debate over content farms: MediaWeek ran an article explaining why advertisers like them so much; one of those content farms, Demand Media said in an SEC filing that it plans to spend $50 million to $75 million on investments in content next year; and one hyperlocal operation accused of running on a content-farm model, AOL’s Patch, responded to its critics’ allegations.

— Two interesting discussions between The Guardian and Jeff Jarvis: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted some thoughts about his concept of the Fourth Estate — the traditional press, public media, and the web’s public sphere — and Jarvis responded by calling the classification “correct but temporary.” The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade also wrote about his concern for the news/advertising divide as journalists become entrepreneurs, and Jarvis, an entrepreneurial journalism advocate, defended his cause.

— Three other good reads before we’re done:

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram told newspapers it’s better to join Groupon than to fight it.

Newspaper analyst Alan Mutter laid out French research that illuminates just how far digital natives’ values are from those of the newspaper industry — and what a hurdle those newspapers have in reaching those consumers.

Scott Rosenberg looked at the closed systems encroaching on the web and asked a thought-provoking question: Is the openness that has defined the web destined to be just a parenthesis in a longer history of control? It’s a big question and, as Rosenberg reminds us, a critical one for the future of news.

October 14 2010

13:52

NPR: Love ya, but you’re wrong

NPR has told its staff they may not attend the Stewart/Colbert rallies in Washington at the end of the month. I think they’re terribly wrong here, following the journalistic worldview Jay Rosen calls the view-from-nowhere to its extreme and forbidding employees to be curious.

Or as I tweeted: So I guess NPR reporters aren’t allowed to be *citizen* journalists.

Oh, I understand the argument: NPR reporters are supposed to be objective and express no political opinion and do nothing political. I went to J-school, too. And we could argue the point as if in a freshman seminar. I say this is merely a lie of omission, telling reporters to *conceal* their viewpoints and making listeners guess where they’re coming from (the audience knows that can’t be nowhere).

Of course, it’s amusing that NPR had to backpedal and explain why a similar memo didn’t go out about Glenn Beck’s rally. That, the network explained, is because Beck’s was overtly political. Oh, come on, we’re not that dumb. It’s because NPR people are not Beck people. NPR people are Stewart people. They have a sense of humor. Oh, and they’re liberal. No guessing needed.

And that’s OK. It’s time for reporters to be open and honest.

But my real problem here is, again, that NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious. There’s a big event going on in Washington. It could — just could — be the beginning of a movement mobilizing the middle. But NPR people are not allowed to even witness it, to go and try to figure it out, to understand what’s being said and why people are there. No, they can do that only if they are *assigned* to do that. Otherwise, it might seem as if by merely showing up they might have a forbidden opinion.

Gasp.

In its effort to be hyperjournalistic NPR is being unjournalistic. Journalists, properly empowered, are curious. They want to know things. NPR is telling them not to ask questions.

And there’s something more. A few years ago in Washington at the Online News Association confab — which this year, it so happens, is being held the same time as the Stewart rally [coincidence? or liberal journalistic conspiracy?] — I was on a panel back in the good ol’ days when we all still yammered on about “citizen journalists” and a newspaper person came the mic in tears — I swear — saying, “I’m a citizen, too.” Right, I said. So act like one. Citizens are involved in their communities, part of their communities, so they can understand and serve those communities. Journalists tried to separate themselves from their communities (and opinions) and that is much of the reason why journalists lost touch with how to serve them. It is time to get off the fucking pedestal and return to the streets. And the Washington Mall.

I suggest that NPR journalists should protest this order from above. Use social media, folks, and have an opinion about opinions … or at least about curiosity. Start a Facebook page. Start a Twitter meme. Use all those new tools your bosses are teaching you to tell your bosses about this new world you should be part of.

More: Michael Calderone reprints a Washington Post memo that says employees are allowed to watch the rally from the sidelines. Does that mean they’re not allowed to talk to people there? And the New York Times advises staff to avoid such events. Ridiculous. It’s as if the people they serve and cover have cooties.

September 24 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Apple’s subscription plan, the exodus from objectivity, and startup guides galore

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Is Apple giving publishers a raw deal?: The San Jose Mercury News’ report that Apple is moving toward a newspaper and magazine subscription plan via its App Store didn’t immediately generate much talk when it was published last week, but the story picked up quite a bit of steam this week. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both confirmed the story over the weekend, reporting that Apple may introduce the service early next year along with a new iPad. The service, they said, will be similar to Apple’s iBook store, and Bloomberg reported that it will be separate from the App Store.

Those reports were met with near-universal skepticism — not of their accuracy, but of Apple’s motivations and trustworthiness within such a venture. Former journalist Steve Yelvington sounded the alarm most clearly: “Journalists and publishers, Apple is not your friend.” It’s a corporation, Yelvington said, and like all corporations, it will do anything — including ripping you apart — to pursue its own self-interest.

Several other observers fleshed out some of the details of Yelvington’s concern: EMarketer’s Paul Verna compared the situation to Apple’s treatment of the music industry with iTunes, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and TechCrunch’s MG Siegler wondered whether publishers would balk at giving up data about their subscribers to Apple or at Apple’s reported plans to take a 30% share of subscription revenue. Ingram predicted that publishers would play ball with Apple, but warned that they might wind up “sitting in a corner counting their digital pennies, while Apple builds the business that they should have built themselves.” Dovetailing with their worries was another story of Apple’s control over news content on its platform, as Network World reported that Apple was threatening to remove Newsday’s iPad app over a (quite innocuous) commercial by the newspaper that Apple allegedly found offensive.

Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down publishers’ potential reactions to Apple’s initiative, looking at the plan’s appeal to them (“It offers a do-over, the chance to redraw the pay/free lines of the open web”) and their possible responses (accept, negotiate with Apple, or look into “anti-competitive inquiries”). In a post at the Lab, Doctor also took a quick look at Apple’s potential subscription revenue through this arrangement, an amount he said could be “mind-bending.”

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka noted one indicator that publishers are in serious need of a subscription service on the iPad, pointing out that Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated can’t pay for the designers to make its iPad app viewable in two directions because, according to its digital head, it doesn’t have the money without an iPad subscription program. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan used the same situation to explain why iPad subscriptions would be so critical for publishers and readers.

A coup for journalism with a point of view: It hasn’t been unusual over the past year to read about big-name journalists jumping from legacy-media organizations to web-journalism outfits, but two of those moves this week seemed to mark a tipping point for a lot of the observers of the future-of-journalism world. Both were made by The Huffington Post, as it nabbed longtime Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman and top New York Times business writer Peter Goodman.

The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford looked at what Fineman’s departure means for Newsweek (he’s one of at least 10 Newsweek editorial staffers to leave since the magazine’s sale was announced last month), but what got most people talking was Goodman’s explanation of why he was leaving: “It’s a chance to write with a point of view,” he said. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

That kind of reporting (as opposed to, as Goodman called it, “laundering my own views” by getting someone from a thinktank to express them in an article) is exactly what many new-media folks have been advocating, and hearing someone from The New York Times express it so clearly felt to them like a turning point. The tone of centrist detachment of mainstream journalism “has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent,” declared NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter. Others echoed that thought: Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan extolled the virtues of being “able to call bullshit bullshit,” and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said legacy news orgs like The Times need to find a way to allow its reporters more freedom to voice their perspective while maintaining their standards. Salon’s Dan Gillmor agreed with Rosenberg on the centrality of human voice within journalism and noted that this exodus to new media is also a sign of those sites’ financial strength.

Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver countered that while transparency and clear voice is preferable to traditional “objectivity,” freeing traditional journalists isn’t as simple as just spilling their biases. Advocacy journalism is not just giving an opinion, he said, it’s a “disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome.”

Getting journalism startups off the ground: If you’re interested in the journalism startup scene — for-profit or nonprofit — you got a gold mine of observations and insights this week. Over at PBS’ Idea Lab, Brad Flora, founder of the Chicago blog network Windy Citizen, examined five mistakes that kill local news blogs. Here’s how he summed his advice up: “You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. … You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business.” The post has some fantastic comments, including a great set of advice from The Batavian’s Howard Owens. On his own blog, Owens also gave some pretty thorough tips on developing advertising revenue at a local news startup.

On the nonprofit side, the Knight Citizen News Network went even deeper into startup how-to, providing a comprehensive 12-step guide to launching a nonprofit news organization. It may be the single best resource on the web for the practical work of starting a nonprofit news site. Voice of San Diego is one of the most successful examples of those sites, and its CEO, Scott Lewis told the story of his organization and the flame-out of the for-profit San Diego News Network as an example of the importance of what he calls “revenue promiscuity.”

David Cohn, founder of another nonprofit news startup, Spot.Us, also looked at six new journalism startups, leading off with Kommons, a question-answering site built around Twitter and co-founded by NYU Local founder Cody Brown. Rachel Sklar of Mediaite gave it a glowing review, describing it as “a community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions — publicly.” She also said it sneakily lures users into giving it free content, though Brown responded that anyone who’s ever asked you to interview has been trying to do the same thing — only without giving you any control over how your words get used. (Kommons isn’t being sneaky, he said. You know you’re not getting paid going in.)

Three more future-oriented j-school programs: After last week’s discussion about the role of journalism schools in innovation, news of new j-school projects continued to roll in this week. City University of New York announced it’s expanding its graduate course in entrepreneurial journalism into the United States’ first master’s degree in that area. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis, who will direct the program, wrote that he wants CUNY to lead a movement to combine journalism and entrepreneurship skills at schools across the country.

Two nationwide news organizations are also developing new programs in partnership with j-schools: Journalism.co.uk reported that CNN is working on a mentoring initiative with journalism students called iReport University and has signed up City University London, and AOL announced that its large-scale hyperlocal project, Patch, is teaming up with 13 U.S. j-schools for a program called PatchU that will give students college credit for working on a local Patch site under the supervision of a Patch editor. Of course, using college students is a nice way to get content for cheap, something Ken Doctor noted as he also wondered what the extent of Patch’s mentoring would be.

Reading roundup: As always, there’s plenty of good stuff to get to. Here’s a quick glance:

— Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie gave a lecture in the U.K. Wednesday night that was, for the most part, a pretty standard rundown of what the U.S. journalism ecosystem looks like from a traditional-media perspective. What got the headlines, though, was Downie’s dismissal of online aggregators as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan gave it an eye-roll, and Terry Heaton pushed back at Downie, too. Earlier in the week, media analyst Frederic Filloux broke down the differences between the good guys and bad guys in online aggregation.

— The New York Times published an interesting story on the social news site Digg and its redesign to move some power out of the hands of its cadre of “power” users. The Next Web noted that Digg’s traffic has been dropping pretty significantly, and Drury University j-prof Jonathan Groves wondered whether Digg is still relevant.

— A couple of hyperlocal tidbits: A new Missouri j-school survey found that community news site users are more satisfied with those sites than their local mainstream media counterparts, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds posited that speed is less important than news orgs might think with hyperlocal news.

— Finally, a couple of follow-ups to Dean Starkman’s critique of the journalism “hamster wheel” last week: Here at the Lab, Nikki Usher looked at five ways newsrooms can encourage creativity despite increasing demands, and in a very smart response to Starkman, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that one of the biggest keys to finding meaning in an information-saturated online journalism landscape is teaching journalists to do more critical reading and curating.

August 31 2010

14:10

What the Spot.Us Community Thinks of Objectivity

Objectivity in Journalism Wordle

The following post comes to us from Sameer Bhuchar, who is helping Spot.Us from Austin.

It has been said a thousand times before: The landscape of the modern media is changing. With today's more complex, active Internet ecosystem, the accepted norms of journalism are constantly being rewritten or tossed out all together. The Internet has bypassed the once highly regarded norms of gatekeepers at a news desk, and it now seems to be challenging the long held model of objectivity in journalism.

If there is an underlying theme to Spot.Us it is the idea that we expect our community to tell us what is important in journalism, rather than dictate it ourselves. With that in mind, several weeks ago, thanks to a generous sponsorship from Clay Shirky, we asked for your honest feedback about objectivity and journalism. We let the 500 users who took the survey decide where the sponsorship dollars should go. In other words, we handed over a part of our budget to community members who let us figure out what the ethos is around objectivity in journalism. Community-focused sponsorship for the win! (Try our newest CFS. Let us know about important story ideas in your region and fund a story on Spot.Us for free).

Survey Results

Is there a clear divide between those who support the traditional idea of objectivity and those who take a different stance? Are there exceptions to the standard? How should journalism work for you? Some believe objectivity means reporting facts without bias, and that an article must be balanced and include multiple points of view. To many, objectivity in journalism is the most important standard of the profession. It was once considered the glue of the business, the one aim that let media consumers decide for themselves what was right and wrong.

Increasingly, however, the idea of traditional objectivity is being challenged by this new, proactive age of media consumers. To those who challenge the ideal, it is an outdated standard that has crippled journalists from digging deep into stories.

Keep in mind the survey results are not scientific and, as the political leanings graph shows, there was perhaps a self-selecting audience (the Spot.Us community). Nonetheless, with 500 respondents there was a diverse set of answers.

First and foremost it is important to note that about 52 percent of the survey takers were female and 48 percent male.

Also, close to 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as liberals, with only 10.8 percent identifying as conservative. Close to 30 percent said they were independents. This could be reflective of where Spot.Us' traffic comes from (heavy in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York).

Responses to the question, "Is objectivity even possible?" show there are a large percentage of people with a changing idea about objectivity. Of the survey questions, perhaps this one and the responses associated with it were the most telling when it comes to attitudes towards objectivity. Only 13.5 percent (60 respondents) very clearly identified "objectivity" as being what journalism is all about.

This view point can best be explained through Spot.Us member Craig Gaines' extended response. "I define an objective piece as one that represents all viewpoints in a piece and allows readers to make up their minds about those viewpoints," Gaines said. "To do anything less is a disservice to, and disrespectful of, the reader."

A staggering 44.6 percent (199) people agreed with the answer, "Objectivity is possible but difficult. It separates wheat from chaff." In essence the answer implies that objectivity should be seen more as a quest for honest, factual reporting. Spot.Us member (and NewsTrust executive director) Fabrice Florin summed up this viewpoint well.

While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an important journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual news reporting, not for opinion pieces," Florin said. "For news reports, a neutral perspective helps present views from different sides without interjecting the author's personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on public issues they cover.

Of the respondents, 27.6 percent (123 people) chose the answer "transparency is the new objectivity," implying that it is the reporting of truth that is most important, rather than a detached account of a scene.

"I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as part of the narrative so as to partially disarm whatever criticism of bias they may receive," said member Paul Balcerak. "Doing so will provide a better service to the public and will create better journalism."

There were also 55 people who believed objectivity was impossible, and 9 people went as far to answer that objectivity "is a crutch to prop old media up."

This is all just the tip of the iceberg. Other questions sought to discover the community's view of how important objectivity is (always required, sometimes, never, etc.), and to help gauge the respondents' relationship to journalism (a professor or as an avid news reader, for example). We believe that in aggregate this survey provides unique insight into what people from the Spot.Us community want and expect from the media.

To drive the point home, we've included anecdotal responses from our insightful community members who gave us permission to publish their answers. (These were used to create the above Wordle.)

Perhaps what we can learn from all of this is that objectivity, while important as an ideal of fairness, should not be seen as a way of achieving "detached-ness," if you will. But heck, this blog post is by no means unbiased, so even that assumption may not be accurate, or apply to you personally. One thing the respondents did uniformly agree upon is that reporters should unabashedly seek truth. While pure objectivity may be impossible, being honest isn't.

Community Views

Below is a selection of comments from the wisest people we know -- our community. Here's what they had to say about objectivity:

"In journalism school I was very swayed by the 'Transparency IS the new objectivity' school of thinking, and the notion that everyone has bias and perspective, and so any attempt to avoid that is foolhardy. From my insider perspective, my own biases and opinions seemed magnified and huge. However, since I haven't been working as a journalist and have been, instead, consuming local media (increasingly independent and citizen/blog driven, as the local establishment journalism withers away) I've longed for the ideal of objectivity while recognizing it might never have been truly practiced. I've grown to strongly dislike the strongly and biased opinionated citizen journalism I am now surrounded by, because it so often willfully refuses to dig deeper and more broadly and is so very proud of its 'perspective'. I am often left with a long list of simple questions I think *I* would have asked just to get the whole story." -- Saheli Datta

"I don't believe what we've traditionally defined as objectivity in the media is actually objectivity--it's more like perceived impartiality. I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as part of the narrative (writing in first-person would make the process a lot less awkward, by the way) so as to partially disarm whatever criticism of bias they may receive. Doing so will provide a better service to the public and will create better journalism." -- Paul Balcerak

"Objectivity was a marketing technique invented by the AP 100 + years ago. It's well suited for monopoly style newspaper production but shits the bed when media representation of similar events increases... Debunking objectivity as a concept is as easy as shooting ducks in duck hunt, but fact of the matter is that if *we didn't* believe in objectivity our lives would be intolerable.

"Therefore the question isn't about whether objectivity in journalism is possible, it's how does a person come to see media as objective? That's where things get interesting and where a lot is getting disrupted. The meaning of an event doesn't happen until it's represented and what we are seeing is an explosion in meaning at the sign of *any event*. See Stuart Hall, he's pre-Twitter but his points are just as valid." -- Cody Brown

"Transparency means more than understanding where the journalist's bias lies; it means that the journalist or reporter does things like crowdsource some questions, work in partnership with community journalism initiatives already underway, blog about the progress on a story and explain what the next steps are (unless it's a super-secret undercover investigation), record interviews and give public access to the full transcript as well as the audio file, etc. Transparency means addressing reader concerns and input about pieces and continuing the conversation after one story is published." -- Suzi Steffen

"A journalist's background certainly matters in how they interpret subjects, but the job is to look close, ask questions, and get the details right. More and more, unfortunately, it's also about checking out sources and making sure none of them are lying. With more and more resources dedicated to "spin" this part is important and often accounts for why a lot of people reject a good story as objective or biased - because they've been dished the spin in other platforms. But objectivity really is the name of the game." -- Lee van der Voo

"In most mainstream news reports I hear, including a good number on NPR, there's an annoying trend toward presenting one side and then the other, while completely evading the question of which side might be right! This is a perverted effect of the mania that journalism has for supposedly unbiased an objective reporting. Too often in the name of objectivity journalists avoid taking principled stands on anything; too often monied interests can distract the public's attention from their own dubious business practices by trotting out a voice of dissent rationalizing their stand -- which, of course, will get equal air-time." -- Anneke Toomey

"There is a saying somewhere: Objectivity is not possible, but fairness is. That is to say: are all sides, all points of view represented honestly and with the same weight? Ultimately, I'd say objectivity is a personal trait, fairness is a professional trait that pertains to our profession as journalists. Strive for fairness." --  Barbara Gref

"No journalist is truly objective, if that term is meant to mean someone who has no opinions about the subjects he or she covers. Subjectivity starts right from the point at which a journalist chooses a subject to cover and goes right on through to who is interviewed, what quotations are selected, how the headline is written, and on and on. But what makes journalism different from other practices with which it is sometimes confused, such as PR or politics, is that journalists are in the business of *independent* verification of fact." -- Robert McClure

"No one is truly unbiased or objective but that doesn't mean that a good reporter doesn't look for the truth behind everyone's agenda. Objectivity means not sitting on a story that would make someone look bad just because you're invested in their success. I almost said "Transparency is the new objectivity" only because it is the latest and most fabulous word to throw around. Transparency only helps identify lapses in objectivity, it doesn't replace it. As for transparency, it certainly helps identify lapses in objectivity, but it doesn't replace it." -- Amanda Hickman

"Objectivity often means portraying both sides of the story but without considering power & privilege, you can never get both sides of story. It would be like looking at African Americans & crime in inner cities without looking at the effects of institutional racism and how poverty/availability of drugs/housing blight/welfare policies etc contributes to crime. Journalism needs to put more emphasis on telling the stories of the underserved and marginalized and those most impacted the those who have power." -- Micky Duxbury

"No one is objective. The best we can do (instead of  pretending to be objective) is being transparent about our biases so readers are aware and can judge our content as they feel is appropriate. That said, it doesn't mean we should turn every article into a ranting, biased blog post, or even take a side on an issue we're covering. We just need to stop pretending true "Objectivism" exists." -- Lauren Rabaino

"While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an important journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual news reporting (not for opinion pieces). For news reports, a neutral perspective helps present views from different sides without interjecting the author's personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on public issues they cover." -- Fabrice Florin

"I find writing by people who disclose and discuss their biases/backgrounds dramatically more compelling than sterile I-refuse-to-take-sides-so-decide-for-yourself writing. I think it's possible to explain and analyze both sides of a story and fulfill a journalistic purpose without sitting on the fence." -- Katie Lohrenz

"Everyone has opinions, and we are all entitled to have them. Journalists are no different. I like it when a journalist tells me how he/she arrived at an opinion, and any part of his/her backstory that will help me to assess credibility. Transparency is certainly part of the picture. What isn't helpful is a journalist who simply reports the sound bite from one side and then gathers the sound bite from another side and calls it a story - without stopping to investigate whether the facts can back up either side." -- Laurie Pumper

"I don't think it is absolutely necessary to be objective, but if you aren't going to be objective, it is absolutely necessary to be honest about it." -- Luke Gies

"Objectivity should be the goal for journalism. Reporting all sides of the story without bias is ideal. Unfortunately we live in a very polarized climate. Shock value, knee jerk reactions and stubborn opinion rule the day. I really appreciate news sources that don't resort to playing to that audience." -- Marie Rafalko

"Basically, 'objectivity' in journalism began post WWII as a strategy to make news content more palatable to a broader advertiser base. That worked -- and it helped enable newspaper consolidation in many cities. But the strategy took on a life of its own -- and while it yielded some benefits, it's a fundamentally not credible premise. Journalism is created by people, and people are not objective. As media has become multidirectional, it's become ridiculous to try to ignore that reality. News organizations that choose a veneer of objectivity over the practice of transparency undermine their own credibility. The sad thing is, many news orgs cling to their veneer of objectivity because they think it builds credibility. They're eating their own dog food." -- Amy Gahran

"I chose my answer by eliminating the others. I know it's not always possible. It's really tough. But transparency is absolutely not an alternative to objectivity. Fox News is transparent. It's not good journalism. Saying transparency can replace objectivity basically says that journalism can be produced by interest groups, as long as they're honest about who they are. That's no good for anyone, except for the interest groups." -- Molly Samuel

"The U.S. journalism establishment has determined that they are smarter than consumer sand therefore must talk down, water down, simplify news stories. Their fear was that no one would read the paper. Really.

"If all the facts were reported AND an effort was made to make media literacy an elementary school requirement we might have real journalism again in this country in a generation or so. Or promote and support online platforms that present facts and commentary separately. Then let traditional media fend for themselves." -- Todd O'Neill

"It's never possible, but always desirable. That is, complete objectivity is probably impossible, because we aren't always aware of our prejudices. But, it is what we should strive for, regardless. So, it is very important to attempt, but also to be aware that we may have blind spots, in order to avoid the arrogance of believing you are able to step completely out of your own biases." -- Rebecca Church

"To an extent, I agree with 'Transparency is the new objectivity,' but I don't think it's sufficient. I think pursuing objectivity while being transparent is crucial. Journalists should make every effort to escape their biases, explore other perspectives, and challenge their assumptions of what are and are not significant/authoritative voices, but they shouldn't do so at the cost of reporting and storytelling. However, they should acknowledge where they can where they are coming from, what perspectives they might take into the discussion, and what assumptions they are starting with so readers/audiences are able to make an informed analysis of the journalist's credibility." -- Bill Lascher

"'Transparency is the new objectivity' is a fun riff, and it's close, but I think we (in the media business) grossly overstate the public's interest in our affiliations and conflicts." -- Ryan Sholin

"Science, going back to the Heisenberg principle in the 1920s has proven that observation has an effect on the thing observed. Also, you can play 'he said-she said' journalism, but one statement has to come before the other. Determining the order is the reporter or editor's subjective choice and determines the slant of the story." -- Kellia Ramares

"Objectivity is not rewarded by anyone, not the public and not the corporate new organizations. It's become like Don Quixote chasing windmills." -- Shari Brandhoy

"Objectivity is impossible. There is no such thing as a human or institution without opinion. Therefore, it's best for us to know the bias of the reporters. That said, a statement of bias doesn't give license to lie or omit facts. Transparency is twofold:
• a statement of bias
• a commitment to releasing all information in an honest manner." -- Joey Baker

"Shirky has made me bias on the topic - journalist was a special class of citizen when you needed a press. Now every resident has a responsibility to be a journalist. Who is going to write about neighborhoods - when crime is not the topic? Newspapers and other media outlets have always done a poor job covering my home. So who does that responsibility fall to - someone with a stake in the future of that neighborhood. And while I want accuracy and independence, I want the reporter, journalist, or citizen to offer their educated take on what this all means for the future of the area." -- Eddie North-Hager

"The very definition of dialectic is pastiche. How can anyone be objective while still being informed? Transparency at least offers honesty and a path for the reader to follow." -- Clarisa Morales Roberts

"I define an objective piece as one that represents all viewpoints in a piece and allows readers to make up their minds about those viewpoints. To do anything less is a disservice to, and disrespectful of, the reader." -- Craig Gaines

"There is fairness but not objectivity. Everyone decides where to look, what facts to portray, how to frame what they're seeing. Even a pointed camera is not objective -- where the lens is pointed, how the zoom is set ... these all determine what's seen and how." -- Dorian Benkoil

"Debating object/subject is an endless philosophical waste of time. Facts, and trends, data, information, systems analysis all are much more relevant to discourse around solving the complex problems we face today and in the future." -- Stephen Antonaros

"I believe that objectivity is the single most dangerous goal journalism can work towards. It is impossible for a human being to produce a genuinely non-biased piece of writing, but it is simple for a writer to mimic the tone of authority that a member of society is educated to frame as truth. Journalism should strive for transparency - not as a new objectivity, but as a drastically different and more democratic concept of media's responsibility to present and portray information." -- Rebecca Glaser

"Objectivity is impossible, it's an illusion and a myth often used to maintain flat, two-dimensional reporting that implies there are simply "two sides." What's far more important is accuracy, vigorous inquiry and story dimension--looking for texture and layers of debate, and letting the facts tell the story; two 'sides' are not 'equal' if one is heavily fact-based and the other is just opinion." -- Christopher Cook

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14:10

What the Spot.Us Community Thinks of Objectivity

Objectivity in Journalism Wordle

The following post comes to us from Sameer Bhuchar, who is helping Spot.Us from Austin.

It has been said a thousand times before: The landscape of the modern media is changing. With today's more complex, active Internet ecosystem, the accepted norms of journalism are constantly being rewritten or tossed out all together. The Internet has bypassed the once highly regarded norms of gatekeepers at a news desk, and it now it seems to be challenging the long held model of objectivity in journalism.

If there is an underlying theme to Spot.Us it is the idea that we expect our community to tell us what is important in journalism, rather than dictate it ourselves. With that in mind, several weeks ago, thanks to a generous sponsorship from Clay Shirky, we asked for your honest feedback about objectivity and journalism. We let the 500 users who took the survey decide where the sponsorship dollars should go. In other words, we handed over a part of our budget to community members who let us figure out what the ethos is around objectivity in journalism. Score one for community-focused sponsorship.

Survey Results

Is there a clear divide between those who support the traditional idea of objectivity and those who take a different stance? Are there exceptions to the standard? How should journalism work for you? Some believe objectivity means reporting facts without bias, and that an article must be balanced and include multiple points of view. To many, objectivity in journalism is the most important standard of the profession. It was once considered the glue of the business, the one aim that let media consumers decide for themselves what was right and wrong.

Increasingly, however, the idea of traditional objectivity is being challenged by this new, proactive age of media consumers. To those who challenge the ideal, it is an outdated standard that has crippled journalists from digging deep into stories.

Keep in mind the survey results are not scientific and, as the political leanings graph shows, there was perhaps a self-selecting audience (the Spot.Us community). Nonetheless, with 500 respondents there was a diverse set of answers.

First and foremost it is important to note that about 52 percent of the survey takers were female and 48 percent male.

Also, close to 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as liberals, with only 10.8 percent identifying as conservative. Close to 30 percent said they were independents. This could be reflective of where Spot.Us' traffic comes from (heavy in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York).

Responses to the question, "Is objectivity even possible?" show there are a large percentage of people with a changing idea about objectivity. Of the survey questions, perhaps this one and the responses associated with it were the most telling when it comes to attitudes towards objectivity. Only 13.5 percent (60 respondents) very clearly identified "objectivity" as being what journalism is all about.

This view point can best be explained through Spot.Us member Craig Gaines' extended response. "I define an objective piece as one that represents all viewpoints in a piece and allows readers to make up their minds about those viewpoints," Gaines said. "To do anything less is a disservice to, and disrespectful of, the reader."

A staggering 44.6 percent (199) people agreed with the answer, "Objectivity is possible but difficult. It separates wheat from chaff." In essence the answer implies that objectivity should be seen more as a quest for honest, factual reporting. Spot.Us member (and NewsTrust executive director) Fabrice Florin summed up this viewpoint well.

While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an important journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual news reporting, not for opinion pieces," Florin said. "For news reports, a neutral perspective helps present views from different sides without interjecting the author's personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on public issues they cover.

Of the respondents, 27.6 percent (123 people) chose the answer "transparency is the new objectivity," implying that it is the reporting of truth that is most important, rather than a detached account of a scene.

"I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as part of the narrative so as to partially disarm whatever criticism of bias they may receive," said member Paul Balcerak. "Doing so will provide a better service to the public and will create better journalism."

There were also 55 people who believed objectivity was impossible, and 9 people went as far to answer that objectivity "is a crutch to prop old media up."

This is all just the tip of the iceberg. Other questions sought to discover the community's view of how important objectivity is (always required, sometimes, never, etc.), and to help gauge the respondents' relationship to journalism (a professor or as an avid news reader, for example). We believe that in aggregate this survey provides unique insight into what people from the Spot.Us community want and expect from the media.

To drive the point home, we've included anecdotal responses from our insightful community members who gave us permission to publish their answers. (These were used to create the above Wordle.)

Perhaps what we can learn from all of this is that objectivity, while important as an ideal of fairness, should not be seen as a way of achieving "detached-ness," if you will. But heck, this blog post is by no means unbiased, so even that assumption may not be accurate, or apply to you personally. One thing the respondents did uniformly agree upon is that reporters should unabashedly seek truth. While pure objectivity may be impossible, being honest isn't.

Community Views

Below is a selection of comments from the wisest people we know -- our community. Here's what they had to say about objectivity:

"In journalism school I was very swayed by the 'Transparency IS the new objectivity' school of thinking, and the notion that everyone has bias and perspective, and so any attempt to avoid that is foolhardy. From my insider perspective, my own biases and opinions seemed magnified and huge. However, since I haven't been working as a journalist and have been, instead, consuming local media (increasingly independent and citizen/blog driven, as the local establishment journalism withers away) I've longed for the ideal of objectivity while recognizing it might never have been truly practiced. I've grown to strongly dislike the strongly and biased opinionated citizen journalism I am now surrounded by, because it so often willfully refuses to dig deeper and more broadly and is so very proud of its 'perspective'. I am often left with a long list of simple questions I think *I* would have asked just to get the whole story." -- Saheli Datta

"I don't believe what we've traditionally defined as objectivity in the media is actually objectivity--it's more like perceived impartiality. I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as part of the narrative (writing in first-person would make the process a lot less awkward, by the way) so as to partially disarm whatever criticism of bias they may receive. Doing so will provide a better service to the public and will create better journalism." -- Paul Balcerak

"Objectivity was a marketing technique invented by the AP 100 + years ago. It's well suited for monopoly style newspaper production but shits the bed when media representation of similar events increases... Debunking objectivity as a concept is as easy as shooting ducks in duck hunt, but fact of the matter is that if *we didn't* believe in objectivity our lives would be intolerable.

"Therefore the question isn't about whether objectivity in journalism is possible, it's how does a person come to see media as objective? That's where things get interesting and where a lot is getting disrupted. The meaning of an event doesn't happen until it's represented and what we are seeing is an explosion in meaning at the sign of *any event*. See Stuart Hall, he's pre-Twitter but his points are just as valid." -- Cody Brown

"Transparency means more than understanding where the journalist's bias lies; it means that the journalist or reporter does things like crowdsource some questions, work in partnership with community journalism initiatives already underway, blog about the progress on a story and explain what the next steps are (unless it's a super-secret undercover investigation), record interviews and give public access to the full transcript as well as the audio file, etc. Transparency means addressing reader concerns and input about pieces and continuing the conversation after one story is published." -- Suzi Steffen

"A journalist's background certainly matters in how they interpret subjects, but the job is to look close, ask questions, and get the details right. More and more, unfortunately, it's also about checking out sources and making sure none of them are lying. With more and more resources dedicated to "spin" this part is important and often accounts for why a lot of people reject a good story as objective or biased - because they've been dished the spin in other platforms. But objectivity really is the name of the game." -- Lee van der Voo

"In most mainstream news reports I hear, including a good number on NPR, there's an annoying trend toward presenting one side and then the other, while completely evading the question of which side might be right! This is a perverted effect of the mania that journalism has for supposedly unbiased an objective reporting. Too often in the name of objectivity journalists avoid taking principled stands on anything; too often monied interests can distract the public's attention from their own dubious business practices by trotting out a voice of dissent rationalizing their stand -- which, of course, will get equal air-time." -- Anneke Toomey

"There is a saying somewhere: Objectivity is not possible, but fairness is. That is to say: are all sides, all points of view represented honestly and with the same weight? Ultimately, I'd say objectivity is a personal trait, fairness is a professional trait that pertains to our profession as journalists. Strive for fairness." --  Barbara Gref

"No journalist is truly objective, if that term is meant to mean someone who has no opinions about the subjects he or she covers. Subjectivity starts right from the point at which a journalist chooses a subject to cover and goes right on through to who is interviewed, what quotations are selected, how the headline is written, and on and on. But what makes journalism different from other practices with which it is sometimes confused, such as PR or politics, is that journalists are in the business of *independent* verification of fact." -- Robert McClure

"No one is truly unbiased or objective but that doesn't mean that a good reporter doesn't look for the truth behind everyone's agenda. Objectivity means not sitting on a story that would make someone look bad just because you're invested in their success. I almost said "Transparency is the new objectivity" only because it is the latest and most fabulous word to throw around. Transparency only helps identify lapses in objectivity, it doesn't replace it. As for transparency, it certainly helps identify lapses in objectivity, but it doesn't replace it." -- Amanda Hickman

"Objectivity often means portraying both sides of the story but without considering power & privilege, you can never get both sides of story. It would be like looking at African Americans & crime in inner cities without looking at the effects of institutional racism and how poverty/availability of drugs/housing blight/welfare policies etc contributes to crime. Journalism needs to put more emphasis on telling the stories of the underserved and marginalized and those most impacted the those who have power." -- Micky Duxbury

"No one is objective. The best we can do (instead of  pretending to be objective) is being transparent about our biases so readers are aware and can judge our content as they feel is appropriate. That said, it doesn't mean we should turn every article into a ranting, biased blog post, or even take a side on an issue we're covering. We just need to stop pretending true "Objectivism" exists." -- Lauren Rabaino

"While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an important journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual news reporting (not for opinion pieces). For news reports, a neutral perspective helps present views from different sides without interjecting the author's personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on public issues they cover." -- Fabrice Florin

"I find writing by people who disclose and discuss their biases/backgrounds dramatically more compelling than sterile I-refuse-to-take-sides-so-decide-for-yourself writing. I think it's possible to explain and analyze both sides of a story and fulfill a journalistic purpose without sitting on the fence." -- Katie Lohrenz

"Everyone has opinions, and we are all entitled to have them. Journalists are no different. I like it when a journalist tells me how he/she arrived at an opinion, and any part of his/her backstory that will help me to assess credibility. Transparency is certainly part of the picture. What isn't helpful is a journalist who simply reports the sound bite from one side and then gathers the sound bite from another side and calls it a story - without stopping to investigate whether the facts can back up either side." -- Laurie Pumper

"I don't think it is absolutely necessary to be objective, but if you aren't going to be objective, it is absolutely necessary to be honest about it." -- Luke Gies

"Objectivity should be the goal for journalism. Reporting all sides of the story without bias is ideal. Unfortunately we live in a very polarized climate. Shock value, knee jerk reactions and stubborn opinion rule the day. I really appreciate news sources that don't resort to playing to that audience." -- Marie Rafalko

"Basically, 'objectivity' in journalism began post WWII as a strategy to make news content more palatable to a broader advertiser base. That worked -- and it helped enable newspaper consolidation in many cities. But the strategy took on a life of its own -- and while it yielded some benefits, it's a fundamentally not credible premise. Journalism is created by people, and people are not objective. As media has become multidirectional, it's become ridiculous to try to ignore that reality. News organizations that choose a veneer of objectivity over the practice of transparency undermine their own credibility. The sad thing is, many news orgs cling to their veneer of objectivity because they think it builds credibility. They're eating their own dog food." -- Amy Gahran

"I chose my answer by eliminating the others. I know it's not always possible. It's really tough. But transparency is absolutely not an alternative to objectivity. Fox News is transparent. It's not good journalism. Saying transparency can replace objectivity basically says that journalism can be produced by interest groups, as long as they're honest about who they are. That's no good for anyone, except for the interest groups." -- Molly Samuel

"The U.S. journalism establishment has determined that they are smarter than consumer sand therefore must talk down, water down, simplify news stories. Their fear was that no one would read the paper. Really.

"If all the facts were reported AND an effort was made to make media literacy an elementary school requirement we might have real journalism again in this country in a generation or so. Or promote and support online platforms that present facts and commentary separately. Then let traditional media fend for themselves." -- Todd O'Neill

"It's never possible, but always desirable. That is, complete objectivity is probably impossible, because we aren't always aware of our prejudices. But, it is what we should strive for, regardless. So, it is very important to attempt, but also to be aware that we may have blind spots, in order to avoid the arrogance of believing you are able to step completely out of your own biases." -- Rebecca Church

"To an extent, I agree with 'Transparency is the new objectivity,' but I don't think it's sufficient. I think pursuing objectivity while being transparent is crucial. Journalists should make every effort to escape their biases, explore other perspectives, and challenge their assumptions of what are and are not significant/authoritative voices, but they shouldn't do so at the cost of reporting and storytelling. However, they should acknowledge where they can where they are coming from, what perspectives they might take into the discussion, and what assumptions they are starting with so readers/audiences are able to make an informed analysis of the journalist's credibility." -- Bill Lascher

"'Transparency is the new objectivity' is a fun riff, and it's close, but I think we (in the media business) grossly overstate the public's interest in our affiliations and conflicts." -- Ryan Sholin

"Science, going back to the Heisenberg principle in the 1920s has proven that observation has an effect on the thing observed. Also, you can play 'he said-she said' journalism, but one statement has to come before the other. Determining the order is the reporter or editor's subjective choice and determines the slant of the story." -- Kellia Ramares

"Objectivity is not rewarded by anyone, not the public and not the corporate new organizations. It's become like Don Quixote chasing windmills." -- Shari Brandhoy

"Objectivity is impossible. There is no such thing as a human or institution without opinion. Therefore, it's best for us to know the bias of the reporters. That said, a statement of bias doesn't give license to lie or omit facts. Transparency is twofold:
• a statement of bias
• a commitment to releasing all information in an honest manner." -- Joey Baker

"Shirky has made me bias on the topic - journalist was a special class of citizen when you needed a press. Now every resident has a responsibility to be a journalist. Who is going to write about neighborhoods - when crime is not the topic? Newspapers and other media outlets have always done a poor job covering my home. So who does that responsibility fall to - someone with a stake in the future of that neighborhood. And while I want accuracy and independence, I want the reporter, journalist, or citizen to offer their educated take on what this all means for the future of the area." -- Eddie North-Hager

"The very definition of dialectic is pastiche. How can anyone be objective while still being informed? Transparency at least offers honesty and a path for the reader to follow." -- Clarisa Morales Roberts

"I define an objective piece as one that represents all viewpoints in a piece and allows readers to make up their minds about those viewpoints. To do anything less is a disservice to, and disrespectful of, the reader." -- Craig Gaines

"There is fairness but not objectivity. Everyone decides where to look, what facts to portray, how to frame what they're seeing. Even a pointed camera is not objective -- where the lens is pointed, how the zoom is set ... these all determine what's seen and how." -- Dorian Benkoil

"Debating object/subject is an endless philosophical waste of time. Facts, and trends, data, information, systems analysis all are much more relevant to discourse around solving the complex problems we face today and in the future." -- Stephen Antonaros

"I believe that objectivity is the single most dangerous goal journalism can work towards. It is impossible for a human being to produce a genuinely non-biased piece of writing, but it is simple for a writer to mimic the tone of authority that a member of society is educated to frame as truth. Journalism should strive for transparency - not as a new objectivity, but as a drastically different and more democratic concept of media's responsibility to present and portray information." -- Rebecca Glaser

"Objectivity is impossible, it's an illusion and a myth often used to maintain flat, two-dimensional reporting that implies there are simply "two sides." What's far more important is accuracy, vigorous inquiry and story dimension--looking for texture and layers of debate, and letting the facts tell the story; two 'sides' are not 'equal' if one is heavily fact-based and the other is just opinion." -- Christopher Cook

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July 02 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Weigel and new journalism values, Google News gets personal, and Kos’ poll problem

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Finding a place for a new breed of journalist: Laura touched on the resignation of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel in last week’s review, and several of the questions she raised were ones people have been batting around in the week since then. Here’s what happened (and for those of you looking for a more narrative version, Jay Rosen has you covered via audio): Weigel, who writes a blog for the Post on the conservative movement, wrote a few emails on an off-the-record journalists’ listserv called Journolist bashing a few members of that movement (most notably Matt Drudge and Ron Paul). Those emails were leaked, the conservative blogosphere went nuts, and Weigel apologized, then resigned from the Post the next day. Journolist founder Ezra Klein shut the listserv down, and Weigel was apologetic in his own postmortem of the situation, attributing his comments to hubris toward conservatives designed to get other journalists to like him.

This was The Flap That Launched A Thousand Blog Posts, so I’ll be sticking to the journalistic angles that came up, rather than the political ones. A lot of those issues seemed to come back to two posts by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that included attacks on Weigel by anonymous Post staffers, the tone of which is best summed up by Goldberg’s own words: “The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.” (Goldberg did quickly back down a bit.) Fellow Post blogger Greg Sargent defended Weigel (and Klein, a young Post blogger who’s an outspoken liberal) by arguing that just because they express opinions doesn’t make them any less of a reporter. New media guru Jeff Jarvis decried the “myth of the opinionless man” that Weigel was bound to, and Salon’s Ned Resnikoff called for the end of neutral reporting, urging journalists to simply disclose their biases to the public instead.

Several other observers posited that many of the problems with this situation stemmed from a false dichotomy between “reporting” and “opinion.” That compartmentalization was best expressed by Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who asked of the Post’s bloggers, “Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?” (He proposed that the Post have one of each cover conservatives.) The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said the Post is imposing binary categories on its reporters that don’t fit real life, when the two in fact aren’t mutually exclusive. Blogging historian and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg made a similar point, suggesting Post “simply lets them be bloggers — writers with a point of view that emerges, post by post.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait pointed out that the Post has created a type of writer that it doesn’t know what to do with, while Jim Henley offered a helpful definition of the “blog-reporter ethos” that those writers embody.

Finally, a few other points well worth pondering: Nate Silver, whose opinionated political blog FiveThirtyEight just got picked up by The New York Times, marveled at how much more outrageous the response seemed to be than the comments themselves and wondered if even opinions expressed in private are now considered enough to disqualify a reporter. John McQuaid saw the episode as evidence that journalism traditionalists and the “view from nowhere” political press still rule in Washington, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx saw in the conflict a backlash against a new generation of journalists who emphasize personal voice, as well as “an opportunity to establish a new set of journalistic values” — fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty backed by serious reporting, rather than a veneer of impartiality.

Google News gets a makeover: For the first time since it was launched in 2002, Google News got a significant redesign this week. Now, a little ways down from the top of the page is what Google called “the new heart of the homepage” — a personalized “News for you” section. That area can be adjusted to highlight or hide subjects, individual news topics, or certain news sources. The redesign is also emphasizing its Spotlight section of in-depth stories, as well as user-bookmarked stories. Search Engine Land has a nice visual overview of what’s changed.

The Lab’s Megan Garber also has a helpful summary of the changes, noting that “the new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.” All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka wondered how many people are actually going to take the time to customize their page, under the idea that anybody news-savvy enough to do so is probably getting their news through a more comprehensive source like RSS or Twitter. Jay Rosen wanted to know what news sources people choose to see less of. Meanwhile, in an interview with MediaBistro, Google News lead engineer Krishna Bharat gave a good picture of where Google News has been and where it’s heading. And it’s worth noting that the comments we’ve gotten on the change have been wildly negative.

A possible polling fraud revealed: For the past year and a half, the liberal political blog Daily Kos has been running a weekly poll, something that’s reasonably significant because, well, it’s a blog doing something that only traditional news organizations have historically done. This week, Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga wrote that he will be suing Research 2000, the company that conducted the polls for the blog. The decision was based on a report done by three independent analysts that found some serious anomalies that seem to be indicators that polls might be fraudulent. Zuniga renounced his work based on Research 2000’s polls and said, “I no longer have any confidence in any of it, and neither should anyone else.”

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent detailed the planned suit, including a clear accusation from Kos’ lawyer that the polls were fraudulent, not just sloppy: “They handed us fiction and told us it was fact. … It’s pretty damn clear that numbers were fabricated, and that the polling that we paid for was not performed.” Research 2000 president Del Ali asserted the properness of his polls, and his lawyer called the fraud allegation “absurd” and threatened to countersue. Polling expert Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who began his blog as a Kos commenter, echoed the study’s concerns, then was hit with a cease-and-desist letter from Research 2000’s attorney. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s John Cook laid out Research 2000’s troubled financial history.

This may seem like just a messy he-said, she-said lawsuit involving two individual organizations, but as Sargent and The New York Times pointed out, Research 2000’s work is cited by a number of mainstream news organizations (including the Post), and this could cause people to begin asking serious questions about the reliability of polling data. As trust in journalistic institutions wanes, the para-journalistic institution of polling may be about to take a big credibility hit here, too.

How much do reporters need to disclose?: Conversation about last week’s Rolling Stone story on Gen. Stanley McChrystal continued to trickle out, especially regarding that tricky relationship between journalists and their sources. CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan stoked much of it when she criticized the article’s author, Michael Hastings, for being dishonest about his intentions and violating an unspoken agreement not to report the informal banter of military officials. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald saw the argument as a perfect contrast between adversarial watchdog journalism and journalism built on access, and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi came out firing with a characteristically inspired rant against Logan’s argument: “According to Logan, not only are reporters not supposed to disclose their agendas to sources at all times, but in the case of covering the military, one isn’t even supposed to have an agenda that might upset the brass!”

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson backed Taibbi up, but DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici rapped Taibbi’s knuckles for his disregard for the facts. Military and media blogger Jamie McIntyre found a spot in between Logan and Taibbi in ruling on their claims point by point. Politico takes a look at the entire discussion, paying special attention to how relationships work for other military reporters and what this flap might mean for them in the future. On another angle, the Lab’s Jason Fry used the story to examine whether the fragmentation of content is going to end up killing some news brands.

Reading roundup: We’ve had a longer-than-usual review this week, so I’ll fly through some things and get you on your way to the weekend. There’s still some really fascinating stuff to get to, though:

— A newly released Harvard study found that newspapers overwhelmingly referred to waterboarding as torture until the George W. Bush administration began defining it as something other than torture, at which point their description of it became much less harsh. (They still largely described it as torture when other countries were doing it, though.) The study prompted quite a bit of anger about the American media’s “craven cowardice” and subservience to government, as well as its unwillingness to “express opinion” by calling a spade a spade. James Joyner noted that it’s complicated and The New York Times said that calling it torture was taking sides, though the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said not calling it torture is taking a side, too.

— I was gone last week, so I didn’t get a chance to highlight this thoughtful post by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on what it takes to replace the local beat reporter. As for the newspaper itself, the folks at Reason gave you a section-by-section guide to replacing your daily newspaper.

— Finally, in the you-must-bookmark-this category: Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee put together an indispensable glossary of tech terms for journalists. Whether you’re working on the web or not, I’d advise reading it and digging deeper into any of the terms you still don’t quite understand.

July 01 2010

14:15

When a journalism gig is paid for by outsiders

In the sea of good pieces last week about the Dave Weigel imbroglio, his own explanation of events stood out. And there was one paragraph that particularly interested me:

In 2004, when I was graduating [from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism], I was offered two jobs — an editing role at the libertarian magazine Liberty and a fellowship at USA Today, sponsored by the conservative Collegiate Network. I chose the USA Today job, but kept freelancing, mostly for magazines like The American Spectator and Reason.

I was familiar with the Collegiate Network from my own college days; it funded a conservative publication on campus, and that’s what I thought the extent of their work was. But I didn’t realize that it also pays for journalists to work at mainstream news organizations. So I contacted USA Today and got this reply from spokesperson Elga Maye:

We’ve had Collegiate Network interns — including Weigel — working with the paper’s editorial board for several years. They participate in board discussions, their primary daily duty is fact-checking, and their work (like that of all interns) is closely supervised. Toward the end of their internships, some have written editorials reflecting the board’s consensus or, less frequently, bylined op-ed pieces reflecting their own point of view. Their value to us — apart from their labor — is to add another voice, young and conservative, to the diversity of perspectives we already have on an ideologically mixed editorial board.

In that context, the fact that they have a strong point of view — their own, not the Collegiate Network’s — is an asset. We’d gladly take a qualified intern from a liberal organization on the same terms if we were aware of such a program.

The Collegiate Network describes these jobs as year-long fellowships, with stipends of $24,000 to $30,000 paid by CN, and along with USA Today lists Roll Call among outlets where it’s placed journalists. Their Wikipedia page also lists a wide variety of conservative publications and outlets, but also US News & World Report. The application form also lists the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the News & Observer, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and my old paper The Dallas Morning News — although that form doesn’t differentiate between summer internships and the year-long fellowships. And based on this post, fellows aren’t just on the editorial board — they’re also writing news stories.

We normally don’t write about issues of media bias here — we leave that to the 10 million other people out there who write about media bias — so I didn’t pursue this any further. Go make your own calls! But given what some journalists have argued recently about the proper role of ideology and opinion in a newsroom — which is to say, no role — it’s an interesting data point that a political group is paying the salaries behind some of the bylines you see.

June 26 2010

15:21

The myth of the opinionless man*

The problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?

The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness — transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty — is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?

The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.

I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs — because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.

No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal — as a threat — and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Weigel.

In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized — about us and about our myths and realities.

Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mair argues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.

Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece — inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign — about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.

Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech — and thus of thought — is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…

Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public — and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.

So if we want more transparency — and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not — then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that — to reform Walsh’s bottom line — transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions — government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them — that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.

The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants — us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions — our opinions — were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them — and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments — are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)

What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)

Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.

Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse — on internet opinions — and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.

In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.

* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically — well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.

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