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Is Objectivity Dead?

Once you let the monster out of its cage, how do you get it back in?

This may well be the question haunting serious journalists through and after this election. The gold standard of a reliable news media, objectivity, is at the very least being seriously tested. It may even be completely gone – replaced with instant fact-checking and even personal animosity directly primarily at Donald Trump.

It’s not as though his combative and free-flowing BS style doesn’t deserve a hard-hitting dose of reality at every turn. Democrats, like me, practically demand reporting like this. But we have to ask ourselves, “Is journalism as we know it dead, or simply doing what it has to for us to get through this election?”

Walter Cronkite.  That's the way it was.

Walter Cronkite. That’s the way it was.

Allegations of “media bias” have long been a staple of both the left and the right in this country. The Republican Party has usually been more vocal about a lack of true “objectivity”, but everyone has found something to complain about. The growth of websites divorced from the standards of objectivity, and even a whole network unfazed by repeated shilling for the right, has been eroding the standards of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite for many years.

This year, however, is different. There is little doubt that reporting has become openly hostile to Trump. What changed?

It’s not as though the false dichotomy of “two sides to every story” didn’t break down long ago. The very act of selecting two of the many perspective on any complicated issue has always shown a certain level of bias. The different sides have always been allowed to speak their piece, once chosen, regardless of how much truth or even connection to reality one or both of them possessed. Much of our reporting came down to this versus that, he versus she, black versus white, science versus faith, and many other perspectives set up as polar opposites.

Something has snapped, however. A line was crossed and it may be impossible to ever go back over it.

Reporters used to not believe what they were told.

Reporters used to not believe what they were told.

Fact checking has long been relegated to the afterword, something done once the set-up debate was over. It’s come more into vogue as social media circulated crazier and crazier stories which seemed to demand a counter. Snopes.com is one of the most famous checker of all stories, and it has come under increasing scrutiny for its bias – from both sides, of course.

Today, television news sites have take to fact-checking in real time, primarily when Trump is speaking. They aren’t willing to wait for the next day to “correct” and the result is breathtaking. It certainly appears to be biased.

But is there a bias in the media? I’ll assert that all US based media has certain biases, more pronounced on television than in print. They fall into several broad categories:

  1. Pro-US: You don’t have to watch too much Olympic coverage to see this at its worst.
  2. Anti-Intellectualism: Stories have to appeal to a high school dropout level.
  3. Standing up for the Little Guy: Taking on the big boyz is always a good story.
  4. Sensationalism: “If it bleeds, it leads” still works well for many outlets.
Um ... no.

Um … no.

Is this bias inherently left or right? If you focus on the last two, you’d probably see a liberal bias. If you focus on the first two, you’ll see a corporate and rightward tilt. But these biases have one thing in common all the way through – they are popular and easy to sell. They drive ratings.

Not so much this year. We have a new bias developing, one based on a hard sense of telling the truth. It’s a good thing, but it’s being done as a counter to the verbal combat waged by Trump’s proxies in response to his often nonsensical ramblings. Reporters have abandoned the idea that someone else has to counter what they hear and are jumping right into the story.

The media has indeed become the message.

It’s completely understandable but still terribly dangerous. Objectivity is a difficult ideal to obtain and we all need to ask ourselves if what we are being presented is really representative of the issue at hand. No one is truly objective by nature, but it’s worth trying. It remains a worthy goal.

All stories start with this.

All stories start with this.

I have proposed an alternative that may be useful, especially for amateur journalists like myself. I call it the “Blank Slate” approach. It starts by asserting your perspective up front and simply reporting what you see in front of you. There’s no need to set up an argument, but rather you assume you are part of a larger argument taking place from one web-connected piece to another.

That doesn’t work very well for large organizations who have a reputation to uphold. They exist to be an authority, a final word on what is news and what isn’t. Arguments straying far from reality eating up their word count or airtime obviously undercut that brand image and need to be called out.

The result, this year, is understandable – but you can’t call it “objectivity”. Something else is evolving slowly. Every outlet, large or small, is starting to see themselves as part of a larger conversation running through print and television as well as social and legacy media.

The world of three TV networks and maybe a daily paper constituting a daily news diet may have demanded at least a flying attempt at “objectivity”. That world is very much dead, however. The narrative of a story is spun and manipulated one outlet at a time, and they are all part of a bigger conversation.

It’s up to the citizens of this great Republic to learn the skills necessary to understand and join that conversation.

Meanwhile, “objectivity” as a concept may in fact be dead. If it is, the election of 2016 will probably be marked as the moment it finally died – killed off by a monster rampaging through our culture. Will that monster be tamed by a wise and prudent population, or will the rampage go on from here to burn down more? It’s up to all of us to stop it.

10 thoughts on “Is Objectivity Dead?

  1. Don’t forget emotive words like “Horrific” or “Devastating” and, something I frequently on the business pages, “Major” (not as in the UK’s former PM), “Significant” (At what point does something horrific, devastating . Sometimes I think a ‘Significant’ headline is tautological (its a bit like the time I heard a BBC News anchor ask the question to a Middle East reporter “Does this – I can’t remember what – . I made a joke of this to my Mum by saying: “If it doesn’t matter, why are you reporting it?”).

    I’d agree with you on the Trump fact checking – the media should let him speak. I think they forget that the news isn’t about them. It was a similar practice in the UK’s EU membership campaign, but some of that fact checking might have been to scrutinise the claims, in the interviews after.

    In the UK we have a similar media culture to your four points. One reason I left Demotix is because I was increasingly expected to cover (just) protests. I never saw the point as there wasn’t any consequences to the happenings, so I decided to do more business based photography. Lots of things happen, but news isn’t entertainment and “OMG – Look at the colours – flickr fave!”/”OMG – That’s a great photo!” Even though I’ve changed to cultural photography I’m asking many more questions than I used to. Social media is also playing a more significant role in the ‘What is news?’ editorial discussions (you can even hear and see it from journalists say “This was a trending topic/created quite a stir on social media”).

    Anyway, before you lose all hope, I’ve started buying the International New York Times from time-to-time. I barely ever read the crime stories in The Guardian or their ‘Can I go to a hen party and still be a feminist?’ (Its not a big issue in the particular, but its a bit like The Guardian assuming itself to be a holder of political-moral authority). Also, a lot of their coverage is dominated by London – okay so its busier, but arts/entertainment events are happening in the North of England too. Besides, the INYT seems to have actual ‘stories’ (for example, why each member of a South African family has changed their vote from Jacob Zuma to somebody else).

    I think the main problem with media bias is the lack of transparency. If I know that something is biased and why something is biased I can more easily decide for myself. I just don’t like opinion as fact.

    However, I don’t quite understand what people mean by the ‘mainstream media agenda’ as if there is some pre-conceived mass meeting at the start of each day with ALL the media channels and groups coming together to make the same output. The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, (Fox, NBC) and Sky News etc have a similar output because a) the news events they’re reporting are real and, b) they all have a similar mass-market to distribute to. Stig Abell recently made the point that news (publications) both feed on and feed in to people’s prejudices.

    • To me, it’s all about transparency. I do feel that everyone, even those of us who try to be objective (count me 50% on that, please) have a perspective we start from. Stating that up front makes all the difference.
      You talk about the UK stations and their shared audience which they compete for. A clear mission statement would clarify this – “We at ITV strive to inform and entertain, particularly the key demographic of 25-40 year old men”. No, they will never be that blunt, but you get the idea. We’d know what they are doing. 🙂

  2. I get it but we have to do whatever we can to not let Trump get away with his Bullsh!t. I guess things won’t return to the way they were but really, if you think about it, should they?

    • I don’t want thing to return to the “good old days”, but i do hope we can try again to find a way to at least engage in conversation. Most of the “news” I see attempt to be definitive, which is rather ridiculous. And arrogant.
      Barataria has to make a strong statement, but I do try to pose everything as a question – invite people to be a part of the conversation. That is always the best part. Language along the lines of “it seems as though” and peppering each piece with questions are how I ride that line between definitive, strong prose that’s not too mushy and an a call for an open dialogue.
      You can tell me how it works. I’m always working on refining it.

  3. The MSM has been disintegrating for a long time, we can’t blame this on Trump. He is trying to use them and they were used at first but now they turned on him. He has it coming. Whatever comes after this I don’t know but Trump and his supporters will still be around. We will all have to deal with them for a long time.

    • Good point, but we are in a very bad place right now. We have to get out of it as soon as the Trump threat is over, if not sooner. And yes, we will have his people around for a long time – does that mean we’re constantly going to be at war? That doesn’t bode well for a better future, as I do believe we are indeed “Stronger Together”.

    • Yes, them. Sanders got a completely raw deal. My best guess is that he wasn’t sensational enough, but the lack of reporting on Sanders was appalling.

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