For about 20 years (yikes!) I have been trying to move American journalists off their default view of newsroom “objectivity.” The default view goes like this:
There is something called “news,” another thing called “opinion,” and professional journalists can be trusted because they keep their opinions out of the news.
My primary objection to this safe, cozy and ultra-simplified view was that it imposed certain intellectual costs on journalists that could not be waved away. The costs lay in everything the default view rendered invisible– like, say, framing decisions. The news is rife with such, but it’s hard to call them opinions, and they certainly aren’t “objective.”
Americans are using more gadgets, televisions and air conditioners than ever before. But, oddly, their electricity use is barely growing…
The story wound up framing this oddity as bad news for utility companies, rather than good news for climate change. His point was not to denounce the Journal for its pro-utility bias. Rather:
I mention this story because it’s as stark an example as you’ll find of the impossibility of presenting “objective” news, and of the power of the “frame” the writer and editor choose to place around the daily increment of information.
Exactly. And if there’s power in a frame, there’s trouble when framing patterns escape notice and become defaults themselves. Another example is what’s come to be known as false balance (or phony equivalence, fake symmetry) a form of distortion that arises from the pressure to demonstrate that the journalist doesn’t have an opinion and isn’t taking sides. Dubious framing decisions and false balance are invisible to the default view of objectivity, which makes it harder for journalists to fix these problems when they become chronic.
By now the default view comes with its own concession, which is intended to shore up the model by acknowledging a problem or two. The concession goes like this: “Of course no one can be totally objective, we’re all human. But we try to come as close as we can.” In an alternate version, the second sentence reads: “Maybe a better word is fairness.” (It is a better word, but in the concession speech it means pretty much the same thing as the term it replaces.)
For the last few years I have been using the phrase, the View from Nowhere, when I want to reference the default view and deny it the prestige it has accumulated in mainstream newsrooms. I’ve said that it’s getting harder and harder to trust the View from Nowhere (or in broadcast news, the Voice of God) but easier to trust a journalist who can somehow say, “here’s where I’m coming from.” (Example in this disclosure page.) Part of the reason for this is that finding multiple frames around the same facts is a normal occurrence for a consumer of news on the Internet. One thing the users know: those frames didn’t get there objectively.
More and more, the heaviest users of news are exercising a kind of veto over the default construction of newsroom objectivity. If the users don’t find “we keep our opinions out of the news” a credible statement, if they’re on to things like lazy frames and false balance, then not only will journalists hear these complaints with noisy regularity, but further assertions of objectivity aren’t going to reverse the trend and produce more trust. They will in fact produce less. And it doesn’t matter how many old school journalists stamp their feet and repeat the mantra. That’s what I mean by the users’ veto.
Over the weekend the Public Editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, took on these issues without over-simplifying them. She also interviewed me for her column, for which I am grateful. Sullivan did not endorse my take. But she helped legitimize the argument about the costs of the default view. It’s easy to see why. The previous public editor had openly demonstrated his naiveté on the matter, to devastating effect. Sullivan hears a lot from readers about phony balance and calling bullshit on false claims, and so she writes about these things. On Sunday she said it plainly:
What readers really want is reporting that gets to the bottom of a story without having to give opposing sides equal weight. They also want reporters to state established truths clearly, without hedging or always putting the words in a source’s mouth. They’re most interested in truth.
Right. Truth telling is more important than a ritualized demonstration of viewlessness; Times readers are demanding it. Sullivan also shifted the ground a little, away from objectivity toward impartiality, which is also a constitutive term for the BBC in Great Britain. I find it hard to dismiss the struggle to remain impartial, because in some ways that’s what any truthteller is trying to do: get beyond a partial view and try see a bigger picture. Two years ago I put it this way:
If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you? If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about-–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many–-I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us: yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad. Is that objectivity? If so, I’m all for it, and I do that myself sometimes.
The View from Nowhere is my attempt to isolate the element in objectivity that we don’t need, and call attention to it.
Sullivan began her column with the now forgotten tale of Farnaz Fassihi’s viral e-mail. She’s the Wall Street Journal reporter who was stationed in Baghdad and in 2004 wrote an email to friends giving her impressions of how miserably the war was going. The email, which was quite compelling, got passed around among friends and eventually became public, raising the question: why isn’t this the news? As I wrote at the time:
Her e-mail report can have references to what a friend of hers saw on a drive through Sadr City. Her Wall Street Journal report cannot. The “authorized knowers” in her Journal reporting tend to be experts and authorities, often government officials, or they are participants in events, people close to the action.
Fassihi was telling friends what she felt she knew. In her email she herself is the authorized knower, and she speaks directly, not through sources and quotes. As the Houston Chronicle put it in an editorial, “Though the missive apparently does not contradict her reportage, it is blunt, bleak and opinionated in a way that mainstream coverage generally avoids.”
Viewlessness as a means of trust production in news came with voicelessness for the individual author. That is now ebbing away, especially with social media and two-way interactions between journalists and users. But it’s not just that. As Eric Black of MinnPost put it three months ago:
After 35 years of doing my scribbling within the confines of the “objective journalism” paradigm, including objective journalism about perceptions of journalistic bias, I’ve about had it. Journalists’ worries about being brought up on bias charges do more to get in the way of good reporting and analysis than any benefit it delivers.
The costs of sticking with the default model in trust production are visible and mounting, and increasingly journalists are looking for a way out that doesn’t cause them more problems than the View from Nowhere already has. The outlines of the new system are coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty–traditional virtues for sure–join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance. Progress is slow, we’re not there yet, but this is the direction things are headed in.
Sullivan’s column is an important marker in that struggle. So read it and let me know what you think in the comments.