Mounting costs for the default model of trust production in American newsrooms

Jan.
6
The outlines of the new system are now 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.

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.”

A nice illustration of that came the other day from The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who took note of an ordinary Wall Street Journal story that began like this:

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.

26 Comments

  1. A classic oxymoron is “journalistic integrity.”

    A common practice is to present or air something over and over. The school shooting recently is an example. The number of anti-gun presentation (with no news value whatever) was amazing. Anything about guns was presented hundreds of times with no news value at all. Just keep the subject on the forefront and your point will be made seems to be the mind set.

    Journalism has been so corrupted by competition that nothing presented can be taken at face value.

  2. Ron Mader says:

    Nearly 30 years ago (1985) Neil Postman wrote the classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business which forever changed the way we view ‘news’ and ‘entertainment.’ While journalism as entertainment is currently satirized by programs such as the Daily Show, the topic of what stories are considered ‘news,’ which frames are used to tell a story on the news or editorial page remain off the radar outside of a handful of media criticism programs.

    You write: “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.”

    Trust production requires a new form of storytelling, one in which meaningful engagement is valued. The top-down ‘insider’ approach is failing to inform us and increasingly failing to entertain us. But have we found the alternative? Professional journalism and investigative reporting appears to be in free fall. Open journalism fails to offer financial incentives for editors and publishers. Sullivan’s take on reporting is most welcome, but it’s a philosophy that should have been embraced a decade or two ago.

  3. Terry Heaton says:

    Excellent, Jay. A couple of comments. I often refer to the Animals’ Agenda magazine I obtained in November of 1990 with an article on page 16 called “Dealing With The Media: Advice From a Journalist” by Richard Krawiec. It’s a “How-to” manual on manipulating the press by appealing to the false balance nature of objectivity. “Don’t tell them they’re biased because they eat meat. This sets the stage for an adversarial relationship. Instead, assume they need to be taught about the issues. You are the one who can control the way the story will be covered.”

    I use this example, because one day I hope that someone will study the impact of false objectivity on the culture itself, and more importantly, the role it has play in destroying — for good or otherwise — the melting pot that we used to be. Journalists don’t like to admit it, but they have been the key player in putting all sorts of extreme views into the Sphere of Consensus in the name of objectivity and regardless of the cultural costs.

    Secondly, those who chased away press trust (according to Gallup) cannot be in charge of trying to get it back. Hell, they’re still digging the hole of loss of trust. Change will come from elsewhere.

    Finally, we can’t forget that the object of objectivity isn’t journalism; it’s the creation of a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. That seems cynical to some, but it IS the truth. The business of the press is audience, and what good is audience if it can’t be sold?

    Trust in the old is gone. Long live press trust!

  4. Josh Stearns says:

    I think you are right that Sullivan’s piece is an important marker in the shifting debates about objectivity and truth-telling. But I also think her post, and your post, do some other important work at a critical moment.

    First, it is too easy to let debates slip into dichotomies (bloggers vs journalist anyone?). In the case of objectivity, I think the temptation has been to look for its opposite. But what both you and Sullivan make clear is that this we can’t reduce debates about false balance through false balance. The opposite of objectivity isn’t one thing, but many, and it isn’t opposite at all, but rather a network of decisions and forces that are brought to bear on journalism. Even your bolded graph at the top of this post gets at that complexity.

    Second, both you and Sullivan make clear there is a cost for the way we respond to these choices and forces. I’m not sure that has been stated before as clearly as you both have today. Too often, our readers, our communities get left out of the debates about how journalism should look, or work. I’m encouraged by the way Sullivan is listening and talking to the Times community.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Right, Josh. The opposite of objectivity is normally… “subjectivity!” But that’s a miserable goal for journalism and doesn’t correspond to what good journalists do. So replacing the default construct is trickier than it seems.

  5. Dale Debber says:

    I’m sorry professor but you have idealized a view, which does not reflect the reality of those of us who are every day journalists.

    The Wall Street journal author framed the article you reference correctly. He was writing for a business audience concerned with returns on investment not climate change or global warming. That some leftie writing in the Atlantic has a different perspective makes my point:

    So let’s begin here: Truth is subjective, it is a combination of the facts and the individual’s framing of those facts – in other words truth is a conclusion. Facts are facts, they are incontrovertible – the truth is interpretive and therefore subjective.

    Now let’s step into the framing of a story. If we take a subject such as workplace violence – one would frame the same set of facts (and indeed frame questions and sources quite differently if one were writing for niche media concerning OSHA, differently again for a workers’ comp insurance publication, differently again for a general news outlet, and quite differently were s/he covering a beat on terror. So framing – writing to the audience you have – is not a bad thing, nor does it demean the professionalism (read objectivity) of the journalist.

    Respectfully,

    Dale Debber (first paid journo job 1967)

    • Jay Rosen says:

      No one said framing was a bad thing. No one said framing demeans the professionalism of a journalist. No one said it was a surprise that things are framed one way for this audience and another way for a different audience.

      It’s amusing that you call James Fallows of The Atlantic “some leftie.”

    • Lex says:

      Fallows’s original piece in his Atlantic blog began with a fragment from the first sentence of the Wall Street Journal story, presented four possible completions of that sentence, and asked readers to guess which actually used.

      Because his blog doesn’t take comments, I wrote to him and pointed out that endings A and D, whether you liked them or not, at least constituted assertions of fact that could be objectively proved or disproved, whereas endings B and C were speculations on what MIGHT happen based on the information in the beginning of the sentence.

      I said I would have preferred EITHER A or D to B or C, for that reason. However, I conceded that, with an appropriate factual basis, including those speculations, and labeling them as such (“One possible result could be …”) might provide valuable context for readers: Here are the facts; here are several possible reasons why they MIGHT be important or several possible consequences of those facts.

      Fallows wrote back indicating he might explore that point further. I’m back from vacation, in work and at school, so I don’t know if he has.

  6. Josh says:

    The worst thing that can happen to journalists in many mainstream circumstances is someone can find out what they actually believe.

    It’s a horrendous way to live, a horrendous way to write, and it helps writers do a terrible disservice to readers.

    Not everybody can be Hunter Thompson, but at least the guy was generally honest about what he thought about the situation. And he wasn’t afraid to be part of the story — if he was there, he was there; his eyes were as good as anyone else’s, and his memories about details and events were just as flawed as anyone else’s.

    Sure, journalists should offer as many sides of a story as they can, but they need to stop counting inches and stop pretending to not care — and if they don’t care, they shouldn’t be in the position of informing the public.

    And yes, frame in whatever direction you want, but remember that advertisers are buying eyeballs, not content, and those who think they are buying content will leave you eventually anyway. Honesty brings eyeballs. Sometimes it’s a longer climb, but those are more dedicated eyeballs; they’ll stick around longer and they’ll be willing to invest more time and money in you.

  7. Brian Malloy says:

    Late last night I tweeted: “As @jayrosen_nyu says new paradigm emerging for news objectivity includes the subjective, the modernist in me recoils.”

    I briefly attempted within the narrow confines of Twitter to defend these 118 characters with little success. Upon reflection after a sleep shortened by my equine responsibilities, I think I was mistaken that you, Professor Rosen, are making a case for the subjective in journalism.

    I think your discussions along these lines are very close to my ideal of what journalism could become. While I embrace the role of the citizen, was excited by the emergence of ‘public journalism’ and once shared a panel in the 90s with you where I said the most exciting thing about the internet was its interactivity, I am generally disappointed by the effect the medium has thus far had on my profession.

    I spent 10 years as a wire service journalist before being liberated from that paradigm into magazines and then enjoyed a shortened academic career punctuated by developing web sites for magazines. For the past 15 years I’ve spent most of my time raising horses in the Bluegrass of Kentucky, remaining silent but monitoring developments through my own and other’s observations, including Press Think.

    I do think you are onto something very important here in this post. I do see “the outlines of a new system” emerging. As I tweeted, I think you are describing a new dialectic whereby journalists and their audiences together produce a path to truth unprecedented in the history of the press. While perhaps messy, and time consuming, so is democracy and you are describing something very democratic.

    As I also tweeted, my ideal is the journalist as a well-trained ethnographer; one who brings a deep understanding of their own history to each story and explains this to the audience, allowing them to watch the construction of the very frame through which the story is told. To me, this is good science. And new media is the perfect platform for it.

    I reject the current popular notion of the new media journalist as simply an editor; the referee of direct reports from a jaded citizenry. The resulting cacophony drowns out any possible truth. We see it all around us today.

    I see the new journalist as a scientist highly trained in qualitative and quantitative methodology, whose role it is to apply the rules of science to find the objective truth that lies at the heart of each story.

    And so it is that the modernist in me initially recoiled at your description of a new system. But open further reflection, I think I initially misunderstood your post. You do describe a process whereby an objective truth does emerge, regardless of subjectivity. My mistake.

    The internet provides us the framework to build this new path to shared knowledge. But as we both know, there are forces at work to deny this renaissance of journalistic freedom. Your post and this discussion make me seriously consider coming in from the fields to join in the fight. But right now, my horses are waiting.

  8. Kevin Lyda says:

    There’s a news channel across the EU called EuroNews. They have a short segment called “No Comment” which is just raw video with no commentary.

    http://www.euronews.com/nocomment/

    It’s never explicitly stated, but it comes across as if they’re trying to say, “here’s a completely raw, unbiased view of current events.” Which is complete nonsense as they choose what raw footage to show, what segment of the raw footage to show, and the camera operator is choosing where to point the camera. Not to mention light settings, angles, etc.

    To me it’s the perfect example of the folly of “objective” journalism.

    Of course it could just be a cost cutting exercise – as the video that does have commentary requires far more people as the commentary has to be offered in English, French, German, etc, etc, etc.

  9. Ken Presting says:

    It’s quite refreshing to see the growing discussion around this issue. I myself consider the deterioration of the national conversation as an enabler to the toxic politics of rage and stasis.

    One element not mentioned by Jay here or the Sullivan piece is adversarial investigation and exposition. Besides journalism, there are other schools of research and writing which are explicitly adversarial, and often held up as examples of access to objective truth.

    First is scientific, academic research. This includes both experimentation in natural sciences and scholarly research. It is typical for an author to identify both his present thesis or hypothesis for every article, as well as the general research program which motivates the work. There is a clear agenda, point of view, and goal to accomplished.

    Next is legal argumentation. Here the adversarial component is even more pronounced. The self-interest of each party is precisely what motivates each to marshal the strongest possible arguments and evidence for their side. More to the point, each side is equally motivated to find the best rebuttals to their opponent. In some legal contexts, the process is marred by attempts to pull the wool over an amateur jury. But we all must keep in mind that we willingly put our most basic rights into the hands of the legal system, including a jury of our peers.

    Perhaps the greatest difference between journalistic reporting and legal or scholarly writing is the tremendous importance of references and footnotes. The explicit accumulation of knowledge and arguments facilitates both error-checking and building of work as presented. Hyper-text is the perfect medium for the read-it-through-once format of journalistic prose to meet the intellectual rigor of adversarial styles.

  10. Bear Braumoeller says:

    My own sense is that both belabored false balance and consistent imbalance in the direction of one political party or another are signs that I should look elsewhere for truth. (I might feel different if we had truly ideological political parties, rather than coalitions of interests; but as it is, consistently coming down on the side of party X strikes me as being a very likely indicator of irrational cognitive consistency.)

    • Lex says:

      When the country is as politically and culturally divided as it has been since 1860, and when significant leaders of one party have embraced anti-scientific superstition as a basis for public policy, I don’t think that consistently favorable coverage of the other party, per se, constitutes bias. And I write this having been a North Carolina Republican for 35 years.

      Christ in a sidecar, we’ve got legislators telling our state’s scientists they can’t use scientifically accepted statistics and modeling to forecast the likely rise in sea level. In a state with a lot of fishing and tourist spots on land barely four feet above mean high tide, I’m supposed to insist we get “both sides of the story”? No, thank you, because sometimes one side isn’t just wrong, it’s insane.

      Moreover, the fact that the leadership of one of America’s two major parties has largely gone insane over the past 30 years is the biggest unreported political story in the history of U.S. mainstream media. And it just goes on: Every single Sunday, you can watch George Stephanopoulos, David Gregory et al., in the words of songwriter Warren Zevon, sit on their asses and nod at stupid things. That’s not helping the media and it’s certainly not helping the country.

  11. Daniel says:

    After reading the Sullivan piece, I think this quote best illustrates the point of contention: “It would be hard for readers to believe that a reporter who contributed to a campaign … could report without bias.”

    I hear this kind of thing frequently and it makes no sense to me. I’m the same person regardless of whether I contributed to a campaign or, alternatively, wished to do so but was prevented by one of my employer’s rules. Making the contribution doesn’t change my biases.(*) Sullivan thinks those biases should be hidden, because readers can’t deal with them.

    I resent that. Also, I think it makes the problem worse. The rules prevent me as a reader from distinguishing between reporters who contribute to a cause and those who don’t. It drives bias underground where I can’t see it. And if the reporter can’t contribute like an ordinary citizen, how else can she support her candidate other than by the way she writes her articles?

    But most of all, I’m tired of depending on journalists and their editors to purportedly correct their own biases before taking up the mantle of neutrality. Very few people have the presence of mind to correct their own biases — more people are able to fool themselves into thinking they have corrected their biases. The mantle of neutrality is too rhetorically powerful to be misused that way.

    (*) Actually I can imagine that making a contribution might change my biases. It might increase my commitment to the cause. It might make it harder for me to take a broader perspective. But Sullivan and others in her position don’t make that argument; instead they talk down to their readers like this.

    • Stephen Bounds says:

      Preferring employees to warrant certain external conditions isn’t unreasonable in some cases.

      The Australian Electoral Commission won’t employ anyone who is a member of a political party. A newspaper requiring its journalists to remain *formally* unaffiliated from political regardless of personal views seems similarly reasonable.

      This is partly because of the reason you note – that the act of joining a party or contributing will increase your mental commitment to a particular point of view. It’s well known that bias can become internalised or unconscious and difficult to spot.

  12. Lyle Muller says:

    Some years ago, in the late 1980s when people still were trying to understand HIV and AIDS, I was asked during a presentation at a local group about a series of stories I had written whether I believed there were two sides to the story about AIDS, and if they required being covered. The questioners were getting at the fact that there was strong opinion by some in the 1980s that AIDS was a deserved disease. So, if we did a story with a lot of people saying AIDS was bad, did we feel compelled to interview people who said it was good? For balance?

    Real news is about context. AIDS is bad because it drains on people, families, workplaces and society as a health problem. Still, those who think someone got what he or she deserved were important for a discussion about public policy.

    So, yes, the judgment of a journalist was used in determining what is news. Hopefully, those applying the principles still remember that context gives news meaning.

    • abigail beecher says:

      Yes, “real” news is about context.

      What I remember about that era is various gay activists shrieking that Reagan gave them AIDs. While normally sympathetic to suffering, this wackdom turned me off to their agenda.

      Yet the press thought it important to promote this bit of unhinged wacko hysteria.

      See current media movement on gun control—it ain’t about facts or reason,it’s all about emotion, hysteria and hating The Other.

      Sad. Pathetic. Yet totally predictable.

  13. hector says:

    In regards to the WSJ’s view of the situation primarily in terms of “return on investment”:

    One could suggest that the difficulties for utilities companies would disappear if they were to become public utilities, whose primary goal was responding to societal needs, not to maximize profit. This is, in fact, a centrist position in much of the developed world.

    But would you ever see it mentioned in a mainstream American newspaper? A large part of the problem with “journalistic objectivity,” it seems to me, is that it is reactive and parochial rather than analytic. It is captured by its desire to represent the opinions of the politically powerful, and thus cannot be truly objective, since it can’t see outside of the box that it has framed itself into.

    That’s why calling itself “objective” is a façade. And, you know, people tend to know a façade when they see one. There’s a good reason why educated people tend to value newspapers but have a low opinion of journalists: the experience of reading newspapers is generally disappointing.

  14. Jame says:

    You write: “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.”
    I hear this kind of thing frequently and it makes no sense to me. I’m the same person regardless of whether I contributed to a campaign or, alternatively, wished to do so but was prevented by one of my employer’s rules. Making the contribution doesn’t change my biases.

  15. Sean Wilkinson says:

    Contemporary media is inundated with bias. And if we cannot rely on “reporters to state established truths,” how are we then, to make informed decisions?

  16. Reiman says:

    ” No one said framing was a bad thing. ” –JR

    _

    … But you certainly indicated that ‘invisible framing’ is a bad thing.

    So ‘Framing’ that’s non-obvious to the reader is indeed — bad.

    And most all framing in American journalism is not obvious to typical readers.

    Worse IMO, most professional journalists/editors are not even aware of their own framing and bias. It’s basic human nature to automatically blend one’s world-view into all one’s thinking.

    How do you fix that in journalism ?