American Culture

If objectivity is dead, then replace it with subjectivity done well

Be objective.

That’s the credo my newsroom presented to me, the young cub, four decades ago. But it did not require much time for me to realize that objectivity was merely an ideal, a sales pitch that proclaimed “we are professional and unbiased; thus believe us.” As the Grey Lady claims, it does its job “without fear or favor”: no bias affects the content of stories – or the selection of the stories themselves.

Well, as we see now, that’s bullshit. Journalism is entirely a subjective enterprise. Editors assign stories. Reporters select sources. Reporters select the questions for the sources. Reporters decide on the structure of the story: Does one point of view make the lede, or does the other? Editors edit the stories. Changes in structure are made, altering the reporter’s judgment. Journalism is judgment, and that involves heavy doses of subjectivity.

Yet I and hundreds of journalism professors continue to stride about our classrooms explaining and demanding objectivity from our students (who are living online quite subjectively and for the most part not doing it very well).

Well, that total obeisance to objectivity ought to end. We must ask: Do journalism faculty have a limited view of what journalism is — or how it has mutated in the age of the Internet?

Yes, I’ll explain to my students what objective journalism is and how it’s done. They need to understand basic fact-finding and neutral presentation. Employers in any arena of the communication industry demand that capability.

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’ll be emphasizing anew to my undergrads other words as well – judgment, balance, fairness, subjectivity and clearly labeled ethical advocacy. It is now necessary to do so in contexts beyond traditional journalism education.

In 2005, when Dr. Samuel R. Smith (aka S&R’s Dr. Slammy) was a colleague at my university, he wrote a proposal for a master’s degree in interpretive journalism. I pooh-poohed the idea. Since then, he’s written extensively at S&R about the need for such training (see his four-part series beginning here). Now, events of the past half decade suggest it’s time to trot it out to the test track.

In the past five years, the population of classically trained journalists — primarily those in America’s daily print newsrooms — has declined from about 53,000 to slightly more than 30,000. That’s my best estimate, working from a variety of sources. More are tossed onto the streets daily — layoffs, buyouts, and others seeing the light at last and quitting, many for advocacy jobs such as PR and lobbying.

Who or what has replaced them and the product they formerly produced?

Opinion. Advocacy. First, in the legacy news organizations themselves. Watching CNN, MSNBC or Fox is instructive. Facts or factoids are cloaked with opinion. It is less obvious in legacy print dailies, but when a news story in a major metro goes several grafs without a source, then opinion, advocacy or analysis is being presented.

Dr. Smith, in his S&R examination of the historical legacy of objectivity, wrote:

At this point, it’s hard to see how our official news industry is going to recover the principles and practices that produced so much landmark reporting in the past. That is, if we’re going to see a new golden age of reporting, it’s unlikely to be constructed on the foundations of past successes. If this is in fact the case, it’s time we started looking toward the dynamics that are most likely to inform productive journalism in the future, and the sooner the better.

Online, the situation is much worse. Angry or overly irritated people with little or no training in argumentation offer incredible (meaning “not to be believed”) analysis — and it’s re-tweeted and Facebooked as The Truth. (That well-meaning people, products of the American educational system, don’t recognize crap when they see it is another issue …)

The sources of information available to most people have increased by several orders of magnitude, primarily through the Internet. Thousands of news aggregators. Hundreds of millions of bloggers. The occasional experiment, funded by foundations or donations, of investigative journalism sites.

Is there any argument that most of these sources are not subjective? Most are laced with a point of view, sometimes clearly and compellingly articulated, but more often not.

Advocacy runs rampant in communication these days, especially online. Frankly, advocacy is too kind a description for much of what we read online. Invective based on sheer obstinacy, or an inability to recognize the validity of an argument, or that an individual has the right to make an argument with which one disagrees — are principal threadfuckers on blogs.

Even mainstream media have remade themselves into vehicles of advocacy — although they’d argue that their reporting is now fulfilling the needed function of analysis and interpretation because raw news rippling through the Internet needs someone bright to explain to us heathens what it means. Back in the day, we’d place “analysis” or “commentary” tags on stories like that. But do you see many of those these days?

Unprincipled advocacy, too, runs rampant on the Internet — and in other forms of media as well. CNN, CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News have their own issues with unbridled advocacy. The networks? Well, they’re just too timid to be unprincipled.

And my definition of “unprincipled advocacy”? At the insipid end of the scale, consider wording from a variety of commercials: “It’s 25 percent less!” Than what? An unprincipled advocate leaves out information that a fair-minded person needs to consider the veracity of the claim. Advocacy from someone untrained in the crafting of arguments leaves his or audience in the same bind. There’s outright deceit and bribery: Think modern K Street lobbyist. Unprincipled advocacy also involves hysteria and bloviating sans substance.

Too much opinion I read both off and online reflects received but untested wisdom accepted blindly by the recipient. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reason people out of positions they did not reason themselves into.

Dr. Smith’s argument is persuasive. A new generation of professionals specifically trained in interpretative skills is sorely needed because cacophony rules discourse. And he’s not talking about conducting a lightweight “write whatever you want” master’s degree. Inspect his proposed curriculum in interpretive journalism.

In the Internet jungle, trained information sheriffs are needed. Writes Dr. Smith:

The truth is that while reporting might become less “objective,” there’s no reason at all why more “subjective” approaches can’t do a good job serving our culture’s need for dependable information and analysis. A blogger who has studied the principles of newsgathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn’t.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is a product of education in critical thinking. In his screed about PowerPoint and its erosive influence on critical thinking, Edward Tufte spells out the core goals for education: “explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing authoritarianism.

Much of what Dr. Smith proposes for a course of study in interpretive journalism reflects these goals. Whether old newsroom hacks like myself like it or not, we are no longer effective gatekeepers because the Internet opened far more gates than we could control. The information pendulum has swung to advocacy, and it’s stuck there. Worse, it has produced a culture in which online readers will avoid a fact they don’t like for an opinion they agree with — even if the opinion is backed by no facts.

Now, my university shouldn’t worry: I’m not going to teach my undergraduates they can write any damn thing they want and expect to get decent grades. My freshmen and sophomores will get a steady diet of how to construct a clear, coherent, factually correct sentence. Then a factually sound, neutral news story. But my juniors and seniors? I’ll be borrowing from Dr. Smith’s ideas.

I still believe in what Tufte calls “universal standards of evidence quality.” They provided the structure for decades of damned good journalism (before the corporate business model demolished itself).

But the need is growing for a cadre of professionals specifically trained to interpret, advocate and opine. My former colleagues, still rooted in the newsroom, will argue, “Hey! That’s us!”

If that’s so, why aren’t they doing a better job of it? And those millions of bloggers who think they’re doing it well? Think again. Most are hacks.

Much of Dr. Smith’s proposed curriculum (my interpretation of his intent here, not his) is aimed at individuals who wish to be subjective advocates and want specific skills and ethical approaches with which to work. Dr. Smith’s curriculum is not specifically aimed at current or former newsroom inhabitants as a form of “re-education.”

Nope. It’s useful attitudes, aptitudes, skills and historical perspective that will allow folks who are not trained journalists to make credible, and therefore more influential, arguments.

That would be useful to all of us, don’t you think?

h/t to my colleagues Mike Jones-Kelley and John Hanchette

9 replies »

  1. I think most of the analysis I see in the corporate media is at least as incredible as the stuff I read on the blogs.

  2. Damn indeed. I was going to give Lex a link – if I could find him – about a note he had placed on one on Ian Welch’s pieces.
    “I particularly resent being told that i should unequivocally support an extremely right-wing government in Israel…even by people who support left-wing governance here in the US.”
    Now, I understand the comparison to Obama/Democratic Party as being ‘left’ of the Gay Old Party ( and I say that because they are hypocrites ) makes sociological sense to someone immersed in Faux News.
    I expect better from a Scholar than to promote a creation of institutional Overton Window. Even though I find “Left – Right” comparisons ridiculous because there is no definition of so basic a term as socialism – gleefully applied regardless of putative ideology – even the ‘shuttered’ view of the arc of governance of the American War Party BiPartisan Collusion colloquially referred to as the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ should not impose such ridiculous DuckSpeak unchallenged. has more than a wonderful ‘toon on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout ( Rense is only one place with a terrifying scenario on this – noted as needing debunking by Digby at AlterNet ) She is a self proclaimed Anarchist, complete with links and – dare I say it – Trade Union News.
    Barry ? Isn’t even on the chart. Kuchinich,Paul – perhaps occasionally Nader – show flashes of what the Bull Moose Party tried to represent.
    Subjectivity. Ah, yes. But I think Lex’s quote highlighted how tenuous that is.