Objectivity as a Form of Persuasion: A Few Notes for Marcus Brauchli

“Reporting can be trusted if it is cured of opinion. Reporting can be trusted if it is dusted with opinion. Or even completely interwoven with opinion. It can lead to conclusions. Or the conclusions can be left to others.”

Wanted: Political blogger covering the conservative movement. Must be provocative and write with a strong point of view although not in a way that would reveal bias or offend any of your potential subjects. Social media a plus until it’s not. Must be completely transparent, unless that proves embarrassing to the newspaper. Send sanitized résumé, innocuous clips and nonpartisan references to The Washington Post.

— David Carr, New York Times, Outspoken Is Great, Till It’s Not

Sometimes we can only reach clarity by separating two things that have become tangled up with one another. Authoritative reporting and objectivity in journalism need to be disentangled, or the situation David Carr was satirizing will persist. These notes were written for Marcus Brauchli, the editor of the Washington Post, but anyone can read them. He’s the one who needs them.

A system of signs

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.

These are some of the signs of objectivity, which is a system of signs. But since the word “objectivity” has become a term of abuse, journalists who believe in this system now shy away from using that word. They may talk of the “tradition of non-partisan news coverage,” or put neutrality in place of objectivity. “No axe to grind.” “No vested interest.” “Straight reporting.” Different call letters, same station. Often (and I mean very often) they will concede a bit to the skeptics, “Of course no one can be totally objective…” and then re-affirm what they have always felt: “but I believe it’s important that we try to keep our opinions out of it.”

There is always more to it

Shifting about in these language games, journalists have kept objectivity more or less the same over the years: a system of signs meant to persuade us to accept an account of what happened because it appears to contain only what happened and not what the composer of the account feels about it. 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.

So objectivity is persuasion, the method is “just the facts, lose the adjectives,” and the outcome is supposed to be the user’s trust. Got it?

I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it

In my recent post, Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press, I said that the work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting distinguishes the work of the journalist. It is also bedrock for journalistic authority, which begins in the statement: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or: “I was at the Tea Party convention interviewing participants, you weren’t, let me tell you about it.” Or: “I investigated BP’s numbers for how many barrels a day were leaking into the Gulf, you were too busy living your life, so… let me tell you about it.”

Reporting can be trusted if it is cured of opinion. Reporting can be trusted if it is dusted with opinion. Or even completely interwoven with opinion. It can lead to conclusions. Or the conclusions can be left to others. It can be persuasive with or without the adjectives. The presence of the word “I” does not prevent an account from being trusted. It all depends. Persuasion is an art form, a skill. It is rhetoric, which comes in different styles. It doesn’t always succeed, and rarely succeeds on everyone. Reporting has authority because the reporter did the work. I checked it out, you didn’t, let me tell you about it.

If we saw objectivity — or the vow of neutrality — as a form of persuasion we would be in better shape for arguing about incidents like the resignation of reporter and blogger Dave Weigel from the Washington Post. For a bunch of things follow from this basic point.

Easing the strain

1. “Grounded in reporting” is far more important than “cured of opinion.” What editors and news executives should worry about is whether the news accounts delivered to users are well grounded in reporting. That’s the value added. That’s the sign of seriousness. That’s the journalism part. Original reporting and the discipline of verification—meaning, the account holds up under scrutiny—should be strict priorities. Whether the composer of the account has a view, comes to a conclusion, speaks with attitude (or declines these things) is far less important. Here, looser rules are better.

2. If objectivity is persuasion, it’s possible that its power to persuade can fade. This is particularly so because of what I said earlier: every act of journalism is saturated with judgment. By not disclosing such acts, “just the facts” sows the seeds of mistrust. All it takes is an accumulation of users who want to know where these judgments arise from. Ostensibly “objective” accounts will fail that test. Mistrust will rise. As the clamor grows, journalists may misidentify it as a demand for even more objectivity. Now you have something that looks a lot like a death spiral, at least for those users who are no longer persuaded. (In part because audience atomization has been overcome by the Internet.)

3. Disclosure sets the fairness bar higher. James Poniewozik of Time magazine was seeking an escape from that spiral when he said that reporters should disclose their political preferences:

Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality—which few believe anyway—and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters’ preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.

In this sense neutrality can hamper credibility because it masks the hard work of proving you can be fair despite the fact that you have your views.

4. The View from Nowhere may be harder to trust than “here’s where I’m coming from.” Objectivity is often seen as safer by self-styled traditionalists in the mainstream press. But I like to put the accent on what’s tendentious about it. So I make use of my own term, the View from Nowhere, to describe the ritualized uses of objectivity and suggest that there is something strained about them. Easing that strain is not impossible. It means shifting to a different rhetoric: “Here’s where I’m coming from,” sometimes called transparency. This is a different bid for trust. Instead of viewlessness, “You know where I stand; judge accordingly.”

5. In deciding what the rules should be, the wise newsroom will trade polarity for plurality. Lose the binary, news people! Instead of two rigid poles—neutrality or ideology, news or opinion, reporter or blogger, adults or kids—I recommend a range of approaches that permit journalists to report what they know, say what they think, develop a point of view in interaction with events, and bid for the trust of users who have many more sources available to them. A plurality of permissible styles recognizes that trust is a puzzle unsolvable by a single system of signs.

* * *

The View From Nowhere at Twilight Hour: A PressThink Series

This post is part of a series I’ve been writing at PressThink over the past two years. The series is about the fading light behind what I’ve called The View From Nowhere, a term I started using in 2003 and have developed further on Twitter. The series is also about what might replace this broken practice, and the vocabulary I have chosen for describing what’s wrong with it.

1. Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press (January 12, 2009) Print.

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding. I will try to explain why.

2. He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User (April 12, 2009) Print.

Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who’s faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in.

3. The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism (Feb 21, 2010) Print.

“The quest for innocence means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! What’s lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about…”

4. Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press (June 14, 2010) Print.

That it’s easy to describe the ideology of the press is a point on which the left, the right and the profession of journalism converge. I disagree. I think it’s tricky. So tricky, I’ve had to invent my own language for discussing it.

5. Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press: A Reply to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder (June 22, 2010) Print.

“If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work.”

6. Objectivity as a Form of Persuasion: A Few Notes for Marcus Brauchli (July 7, 2010) Print.

“Reporting can be trusted if it is cured of opinion. Reporting can be trusted if it is dusted with opinion. Or even completely interwoven with opinion. It can lead to conclusions. Or the conclusions can be left to others.”

7. The View from Nowhere: Questions and Answers. (Nov. 10, 2010)

“American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims…”

If you read them all, you will know what I think is happening to political journalism as it struggles to find a new footing amid culture war, platform shift, and collapsing trust in the political class, of which journalists are a part. If you read them all, let me know what you think.