Forum 5 – Transparency and Objectivity

For this week’s discussion lets travel again to a much debated topic in journalism circles. Recently Jeff Jarvis (CUNY) and Mike Arrington (TechCrunch) got into a lively back and forth about what transparency and objectivity mean for journalists in the new digital first, social web world of reporting.

Jarvis asked Arrington whether he would consider himself a journalist. Arrington suggested that:

“When I think of journalists, I think of people who are biased, hiding their bias between theoretically objective text.”

Arrington said that words like “objectivity,” are misappropriated and that “all reporting is advocation.”

To elucidate, Arrington then cited the example of a particular journalist telling him that he would not share his political leanings, or how he voted, because it would negate the objectivity in his reporting and how people viewed his content. Both writers were in agreement that this is a common misrepresentation among journalists today — that true objectivity is “bullshit”. Instead, Jarvis said, paraphrasing David Weinberger, that “transparency is the new objectivity”, that being transparent about one’s investments and personal affiliations should be standard in presenting content to one’s readers, and is what readers should expect.

At the heart of this objectivity debate is what Jay Rosen refers to as The View From Nowhere.

Here’s Rosen in a Q&A on The View From Nowhere:

A. …The View From Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

Q. Well, does it?

A. What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned– like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, “Madam, I have a PhD.” In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work.

Q. You are very critical of the View from Nowhere in journalism …

A. Because it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.

Rosen goes on to suggest that objectivity isn’t exactly bad if:

…(O)bjectivity 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.

So on a practical everyday level, what should you as a young journalist do? Jarvis, in the Disrupt Conference, said a reporter covering Obama should disclose their political affiliation in the footer of the column.

Arrington countered saying that

if one’s personal philosophies are reduced to a single word, like “Democrat,” it is counterproductive to reporting.

Jarvis used this example:

If a reporter covering religion discloses that they used to be a Catholic, that in the end the information is irrelevant.

Jarvis said

…just because someone is Catholic, doesn’t mean that you can immediately deduce exactly where they come down on the issue of, say, abortion.

So what do you think? Should you disclose where you come from and your inherent biases if you are journalist? Does this, as Rosen suggests, possibly make your reporting stronger?

When you are reading articles in the NY Times for example, if at the bottom of an article is a note about the reporter’s background and affiliations (or at least a link to a little blurb), would this make your user experience more valuable?

Would knowing a journalist’s biases diminish their credibility and authority?

Read about the Jarvis and Arrington back and forth here and read Jay Rosen’s Q&A on the View From Nowhere here.

Then have your say in the comments below. Adding outside references from class and elsewhere is recommended.

[Photo: Amir Kuckovic/Flickr)]