A Profession In Search Of Itself

It’s tough times for journalists these days.  The profession is being rocked by outside forces — declining subscriptions and ad revenues and publications that are shrinking or shutting down entirely — and also by disputes from within.

d277b4879e30a2275fe28a4be1dc0bfa-disco-costume-dapper-gentlemanThe trade publications and some high-profile departures from publications have depicted newsrooms as kinds of battlegrounds, where political and social issues have come to the forefront and reporters on the newsroom side and writers on the opinion pages are at each others’ throats about just how much opinion, and also what kind of opinion, should be published on the op-ed pages.  This happened recently at The Wall Street Journal, where I once worked as a summer intern.  And through it all, the standards defining what it means to be a journalist are changing.

The Brown Bear sent me this piece from The Economist (which I think requires a subscription) addressing shifting views about the role of “objectivity” in journalism, with many in the profession now seriously questioning whether striving for objectivity is necessary, desirable, or even achievable.  Instead, some are calling for newspapers to give voice to “moral clarity” and to “tell the truth” as best they can.  Of course, “the truth” is not always readily apparent, and if “the truth” is presumed, some of the basics of journalism as I learned it back at the Ohio State University School of Journalism in the ’70s, in the post-Watergate era — like appropriate sourcing, and careful fact-checking, and a healthy sense of reporter skepticism in dealing with sources and tips — can end up getting short shrift.  That’s when embarrassing errors can occur that further erode the battered credibility of the so-called Fourth Estate.

The Brown Bear asked for my reaction to the piece in The Economist, and here it is:  I think jettisoning notions of objectivity in news reporting is a terrible mistake.  I think most of the standards that were applied in the effort to present the facts objectively led to better, more accurate reporting.  If you consulted with multiple sources addressing different sides of a story, if you treated everything you were told by everyone with a flinty-eyed dollop of doubt, and if you did what you could to check the “facts” that you were given by people who might be pursuing an agenda, you were much more likely to produce a credible effort at getting at “the truth.”  That’s a lot different than simply accepting something as “the truth” because it fits with your preconception of what “the truth” should be.  Striving for objectivity was a method of disciplining your reporting.

I think one other thing, too.  Working to be objective is difficult and challenging, and following that approach means you aren’t going to be everyone’s friend.  Objective journalists have to have a certain distance from their sources if they want to achieve that skeptical, check-everything role.  It’s not easy to do that.  Writing opinions, in contrast, is a lot easier.  You don’t need to check your facts, and you can adopt a viewpoint that is shared by others — like your friends.  I sometimes wonder if that reality is part of the impetus for throwing objectivity overboard.

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