June 28, 2003

YellowTimes.org: 'American journalism: Objectivity and reverence''. A piece on the difference between American and British approaches to journalism.

As I observe it, the mainstream American approach to objectivity has two levels to it:

First, you have to choose a story. Since objectivity is important, you can't just make up a question and answer it (even if you do so objectively). You have to choose news that is objectively important. Otherwise, you're biased. Objectivity, though, is not a way of coming up with questions, but a method of answering questions, so it doesn't suit this purpose at all. But that would involve admitting bias, which makes things complicated, so they fudge it: whatever seems to be important to most people, is important.

This starts off innocently enough; it's almost democratic, in a hamfisted way. Everyone agrees that the president is important. Therefore, we cover what the president says.

The second level of objectivity has to do with answering the question that the report is implicitly asking. But the question has been obviated by the procedure of objectivity: it becomes a tautology. "The president is holding a press conference" becomes "what did the president say at the press conference?"

What remains of objectivity, then, is relegated to the accurate rendering of what the president said.

The problem with this, which should be completely obvious to everyone, is that what is objectively important to cover is what people with power and influence say. The reporter can't just ask a question, and answer it.

"Did Ari Fleisher just tell a lie on behalf of the President?" Even if there is a perfectly objective way to answer this question, the reporter can't ask it, because it's not objective. "What?" you ask, "how could a question possibly not come from one standpoint or another?" I don't know, but this is the inane justification for a large part of the complete toothlessness of our journalists.

Of course, much worse abuses take place on a daily basis. Entire reports are assigned and written just to placate advertisers or those with power or influence (boardroom pals, rotary club buddies... whatever the scale). This bizarre definition of objectivity doesn't make that happen. People make that happen. But the bizarre interpretation provides a structure that makes pleasing those in power a lot easier.

What's wrong with this: ask any question you think is worth asking, as long as you answer it in a way that is fair and well-documented. There would still be plenty of room to ask extremely limited or leading questions, but there would be just a bit less justification for not asking the really uncomfortable questions.

posted by dru in journalism