Monday, October 11, 2010

What is journalistic objectivity?

I wanted to call your attention to a fascinating conversation that Erin Kotecki Vest (@queenofspain) has launched, via a blog post of hers called The Death of Lois Lane. Here's her basic thesis:

Citizen journalists and traditional journalists are not the same. You can combine the two, but in the process you kill traditional journalism.

From this thesis, she ended up stating the following:

I am no longer a traditional journalist. I gave that up the minute I opened my mouth. I am now a blogger. A pundit. A columnist.

Toward the end of her post, she questions whether the rules that she was taught were ever really put into practice. Yet she was taught them, and she believes in them.

Maybe journalists were always the ideal, but never really existed. Maybe we all strived to be straight forward and unbiased and worked our tails off to make sure we got you the news and you got it opinion free. I know I did....

Maybe this is my romanticized version of news. Maybe it’s my plea to find the light inside the darkness of so much noise and information and my hope that the cream rises to the top. But more and more I’m finding it’s not the cream, it’s the crazy, loud, brash, and obnoxious. Social media has pitted the serious journalist against the shock jock, and America loves a good train wreck.

And in the comments, several people (including myself) questioned whether objective journalism has always been around, or if it was just a recent 20th century invention. But after a mention of Rebooting the News by Francine Hardway, news rebooter Jay Rosen entered the discussion and shared something he wrote a while back:

The basic unit of journalism is the report, an account of what happened. The longer I’ve studied it (which is, uh… 25 years) the more I’ve come to see that “objectivity” as practiced by the American press is a form of persuasion. It tries to persuade all possible users of the account that the account can be trusted because it is unadorned.

Some specific ways in which it does this are: playing up facts gathered and playing down opinions; using constructions like “he said,” or “according to the Senate report” rather than “I think;” refusing to characterize what easily could be characterized; rehearsing rather than resolving disputes; betraying no position on controversial items, and so on. J-school students when they are taught to write in this style are often told not to use the word “I” and to lose the adjectives.

But then Rosen questions the very idea of objectivity:

That’s why you should trust it: because it appears unadorned. The way we capture this in popular culture is by reference to Joe Friday: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

That’s not to say that an account presented this way actually is pure fact. No way. There is no act of journalism that is not saturated with judgment. Even a photograph is framed by the picture taker. When I refer to “Just the facts” I simply mean: that is how the story asks to be understood, not… “that is all there is to it.” There is always more to it.

Rosen's piece doesn't have open comments, but Vest's does, if you want to join the discussion.
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