This week a new nail was driven into the coffin of the notion of journalistic objectivity. The culprit? The Washington Post’s leaked social media policy.
The policy is aimed at preserving the appearance of objectivity rather than its actual existence. It focuses on what journalists are perceived to be, rather than what they actually do.
And in doing so, it hits upon the very reason why their attempt is doomed from the start:
“Our online data trails reflect on our professional reputations and those of The Washington Post. Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.”
Our behaviour as journalists is now measurable. And measurability gives the lie to the pretence that journalists behave like scientists, impartially observing the petri dish of society.
That pretence has been crumbling for years. In 1976 the Glasgow Media Group‘s Bad News study demonstrated how TV news favoured powerful groups by measuring a number of factors in news coverage. Dozens of other studies have followed a similar vein, using the measurability of journalistic output as their barometer. Meanwhile, depending where you sit politically, you’ll find a right-wing or left-wing media conspiracy to believe in.
Objectivity was always a phantom conjured by publishers to appeal to maximum audiences and advertisers [see comments fleshing out objectivity as method vs style]. Regulators then helped by requiring objectivity to broadcast in a limited bandwidth spectrum. The first nail in its coffin came with the end of those limits. As Dan Gillmor explained in The End of Objectivity:
“Objectivity is a construct of recent times. One reason for its rise in the journalism sphere has been the consolidation of newspapers and television into monopolies and oligopolies in the past half-century. If one voice overwhelms all the others, there is a public interest in playing stories as straight as possible — not favoring one side over the other (or others, to be more precise, as there are rarely just two sides to any issue).
“There were good business reasons to be “objective,” too, not least that a newspaper didn’t want to make large parts of its community angry. And, no doubt, libel law has played a role, too. If a publication could say it “got both sides,” perhaps a libel plaintiff would have more trouble winning.”
It was also born from 19th century beliefs in the scientific method and the search for abstract ‘truth’. But society is not a petri dish; and journalists are no scientists: their methodologies are flawed by the need for narrative and the rhythm of the deadline. And most don’t understand scientific methods at all.
So when you can not only measure the lack of balance in journalistic output, but also the lack of balance in journalists’ behaviour and relationships online, the game is well and truly up.
Imagine you’re a trainee journalist who has grown up in a Web 2.0 world: a member of countless Facebook groups; signatory to a dozen online petitions; tagged in Flickr galleries of protests and rallies. Oh, and your profile tells us not only your gender, but your ethnicity, religion, relationship status and sexuality. Will an offer of a job on the Washington Post now come with the request that you cut all ties to your previous life and wipe all records of your former existence as you join the monastic seclusion of Journalistic Objectivity?
Yes, journalists have opinions. And friends. And they rely on easily accessible sources.
Well, hold the front page.
So there lies the problem – but also the solution. Transparency is hastening the demise of the already crumbling notion of journalistic objectivity; but it also represents the best hope for journalistic integrity – and ultimately, for many journalists that was what the pursuit of objectivity was about.
As David Weinberger argues:
“Transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.
“Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?”
So keep your social media profiles, and make yourself available to a thousand potential sources rather than relying on the dozen in your contacts book. Link to your raw material and let people comment on the holes in your narrative. Engage with online communities if you expect them to engage with you.And stop thinking about the PR of how you look and focus on the journalism of what you do.