There’s a tug of war happening between the academics of journalism and those currently in the professional journalism ranks. Unfortunately the debate addresses neither the problem nor a legitimate solution. Take the following excerpt from an essay written in the Nieman Reports for Journalism at Harvard by Reed Richardson:
This dour assessment of journalism’s credibility ”documented in the 2009 Pew State of the News Media study”follows a nearly 20-year-long decline in the public’s esteem for the press. Myriad reasons exist for this collapse, but a factor consistently overlooked involves the ethical dilemma” and a dispute among journalists“ that lies at the heart of the President’s joke: where do journalists draw the line between objectively reporting on how well our democracy is functioning and personally participating in it?
Those who favor a more inclusive and engaged personal approach, melded with greater transparency, are still in the minority. What this new ethic asks the reporter to do is to be honest in disclosing his or her point of view, his or her biases, his or her affiliations. Then in writing or producing his or her story, make it very clear that is the perspective from which it has come, explains Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
For a profession that has spent the past four decades constructing an ever more complex ethical architecture upon the ideals of objectivity and political neutrality, the prospect of replacing that foundation has, perhaps not surprisingly, gained little traction. In fact, New York Times standards editor Craig Whitney dismisses this idea out of hand in an interview, laughing as he says: You can make the argument that disclosing would be better. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t want to find out by trying.
The contrast in comments from Cooper, looking for a solution to a hurdle in journalism that today makes for easy marginalization, to those from Whitney who’s basically not willing to bet the farm that disclosure won’t make the newsroom an easy target, really highlights the disconnect on both sides. Objectivity is not a realistic goal, nor should it be the focus. In all but the most basic factual reporting, bias exists on the part of the author and the reader. It is simply unavoidable. Add to this the increases in volume on both sides, authors and readers, on the Web, reigning in bias will be like herding cats. Consider,
By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet.
In local television, news staffs, already too small to adequately cover their communities, are being cut at unprecedented rates; revenues fell by 7% in an election year”something unheard of”and ratings are now falling or are flat across the schedule. In network news, even the rare programs increasing their ratings are seeing revenues fall. Only cable news really flourished in 2008, thanks to an Ahab-like focus on the election, although some of the ratings gains were erased after the election.
Perhaps least noticed yet most important, the audience migration to the Internet is now accelerating. The number of Americans who regularly go online for news, by one survey, jumped 19% in the last two years; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27%.
Two interesting points should be noted about this piece from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. First, as local television is eroding, cable news with a national reach is flourishing which could explain the results in the Pew’s research (see previous posting) where only 18% of people polled felt news was reported without bias. Cable news has taken polarization of the audience to new heights by providing content that appeals to very distinct demographics. Second, the expeditious migration of audiences to Internet sources, be them traditional/legacy media or new media ventures, may highlight the value of having a breadth of sources from which to choose as consumer loyalty is to the content (and perhaps delivery mechanism), not the publisher.
What this focus on objectivity yields is a loss in stories like this great piece from Dan Baum that never made it into the New Yorker in 2004. Baum shouldn’t have been penalized for potential bias, but should instead have been held accountable for the veracity of the content. If the facts of the article are true, the reader can still draw their own conclusions. By refusing to run the piece however, the facts of the story never saw the light of day (this is not to say they didn’t appear elsewhere), and all subscribers to the New Yorker lost something. In fact, we all lost something. Mechanisms for accountability are what is needed in this new paradigm, not complex ethical standards that stifle a journalists ability to obtain and report information.