The rise of “subjective” journalism: an S&R special report

Part three in a series.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election I wrote a fairly jaded op-ed for Editor & Publisher lamenting just how badly our brave new world of electronic media had failed us. I said, in part:

In the “marketplace of ideas” model that gave rise to the First Amendment, rationally self-interested citizens would enter the market with an informed, more or less open mind, where they would wander from stall to stall sampling the wide array of ideas on display. Some of these wares would be premium quality, some would be second-rate, and some would probably be rotten to the core, but an educated and contemplative electorate would inherently arrive at the best decision; in the estimation of John Milton, the “truth would out.

“This isn’t how the electronic marketplace we saw in this election worked. Instead, consumers strapped on their blinders, hit the entrance at a dead sprint, hung a fast left or right, and ran like hell for the section dedicated to their political dogmas and preconceptions.

Whether you agree with the (fairly obvious) political perspective informing this analysis or not, there can be very little argument on one essential point: In this election, the Internet did far less actual informing than it did providing ammunition for people whose minds were already made up.

I called it “Shoutworld” at the time and have never come up with a better way of describing our current media landscape, where every drop of signal is deluged by a raging river of noise. Debacle 2004 provided us a sobering glimpse of legacy journalism in decline, and at the same time showed us what’s coming along to replace it. Can millions of monkeys banging on typewriters eventually reproduce all the works of Shakespeare? We’ll know soon enough.

The premise of part three is fairly simple and, I think, unproblematic. First, alternative media are exploding and are increasingly performing functions previously reserved to the formal press. And second, by and large these new, predominately electronic outlets are not trained in the basics of reporting: research, analysis, interviewing, critical reasoning, ethics, etc.

While it’s certainly wonderful to have greater access to the perspectives of people who were not able to participate in the public debate at this level before the Internet, the value of these views is compromised when the end result reflects shoddy thinking, careless use and vetting of source material and an absence of ethical grounding. To this end, I recommended to the faculty and leadership of the journalism school where I formerly served that we needed to adapt our program offerings to address these new forms of “reporting.” We needed to accept that the future information flow through society was going to be largely dominated by “subjective” sources – advocacy, community, “purpose” or “cause” reporting where “truth” was not the goal, but part of the ideological assumption driving the bus. (I realize, as I have noted before, that “objective” and “subjective” are imperfect terms, but the concepts behind them go a long way toward understanding the shift we’re experiencing.)

In this section of the proposal I wrote:

Emerging socio-cultural dynamics are devaluing the importance (or perceived importance) of journalism’s institutional codes of objectivity.

  • The value of objectivity in journalism rests on a basic assumption about the capacity and willingness of the public to engage issues critically. For more reasons than we have time to articulate, the public is arguably less substantively critical than it has ever been, and as such simply providing information without an integrated interpretive function is of minimal and decreasing value.
  • While most clearly apparent in print, online and broadcast media, the trend toward partisanship is apparent even in movies. Recent documentaries like Fahrenheit 9-11, Outfoxed and Supersize Me have not only explored contemporary social themes from a subjective perspective but also set box office attendance records in the process. For good or ill, many in our culture now consider what Michael Moore does to be journalism.
  • The failure of media industries and the journalism programs training the people who populate them to shape the ethical landscape of emerging subjective practices assures that cynical partisanship and Shout TV (Rush Limbaugh, Hardball, etc, which Jon Stewart aptly described as “theater” and compared to professional wrestling in his recent appearance on Crossfire) will be the rule of social “discourse” in the coming decades, not the exception. It’s bad enough when younger voters routinely identify Stewart’s The Daily Show as one of the most reliable sources for information about the world; it’s time to take action when we have a hard time arguing with them about it.
  • All of these phenomena are especially evident among younger audiences; these people comprise the media industry’s primary growth market, and they tend to have little exposure and no loyalty to the institutions and ethics that have dominated the news sector for the past several decades.

We now have a host of new concepts and questions to address. “Are bloggers journalists?” is a popular one, and we also have to deal with “citizen journalism,” “pro-am journalism” and “crowdsourcing,” emerging practices that might potentially add a great deal to our ability to cover and make sense of our world, but which have an equally troubling dark side if we cannot inform them with acceptable standards.

In other words, if journalism schools want to exert a meaningful and productive impact on the future of news, they need to accept some realities, uncomfortable though they may be, and evolve their curricula to train students for the free-for-all they’re going to be immersed in upon graduation.

Up next: a proposed curriculum for graduate study in Interpretive Journalism


8 replies »

  1. I think the mention of the power documentary filmmakers have gained in this decade is what makes this piece resonate for me. It feels spot on, and yet we have no “rules of engagement” for discussing whether what Michael Moore and others does good, ill, or nothing to our culture.

    Hell, this shouldn’t be limited to J-schools. We need a discipline that explores these new forms of public rhetoric and gives every undergraduate at least one course in critical analysis of the information flowing all around them….

  2. I certainly agree that the challenge is larger than J schools. But you know me – education is my answer to everything. Not to compare myself to Dubya, but it’s kinda like my version of “9/11.”

    The curriculum that this series is leading toward is shaped around the practice of reporting and editorializing, but at its core it addresses more universal principles that any good ed program should cover – how to find data, how to parse good from bad, how to think critically, how to act ethically, etc.

    So yeah. Now if we only knew any professors….

  3. “Ammunition, not information”

    Intrigued by the excerpt from Sam’s Editor & Publisher piece, I followed the link and read the whole article.

    The right can’t be expected to read or listen to the left. When I personally read or listen to the right, I gag.

    To me, the essential problem is that sources that were once authoritative, such as the New York Times and Washington Post have abdicated any pretence to “objectivity” in favor of “balance.”

    The Times, for example, will run slanted articles by their top writers like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, paving the way for war. Their editorial page, on the other hand, usually takes a traditional liberal stance.

    The Washington Post’s journalism still sets standards, but their editorials are often hard right.

    The net effect is to make the reader’s head spin. We know that the oped pages is supposed to refect a diversity of opinion, but other than that. . . where are these papers coming from? Why are their articles at odds with their editorials?

    Confused, we fall back on sources that confirm our biases.

  4. The issue isn’t so much that I expect a progressive reader to devote a lot of time to a hard right blog, it’s that we seem to have two choices – hard right and hard left. I generalize, of course, but the point is that most of the sources out there had their minds made up before they started writing, which left a pretty major void in our menu of options. There was no middle ground where real ideas were being considered in good faith.

    In other words, it was not as advertised – not even close. It was instead the antithesis of what was advertised, and it made the process worse, not better. It will do so again in 2008.

    The collapse of the legacy press, which you comment on, only makes things worse.