The end of objectivity – web 2.0 version

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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.


50 thoughts on “The end of objectivity – web 2.0 version

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  3. Leonardo Morgado

    For far too long “objectivity” has been used by too many editors as a reason not to run a particular story. When someone is accused of not being objective it is usually because someone else hasn’t liked what has been printed, voiced or shown.

    It’s not just that a particular news story is run with a particular bias, the issue is whether a news story is run at all. The sad truth is that news companies are more interested in profit and keeping shareholders happy and therefore dissent is seldom allowed space.

    The argument that journalism only deals in “facts” is another myth. For example, one only has to look at Jeremy Bowen when he factually reported the effects of bombings by Israel on Gaza only to be accused of being anti-Israeli and a lengthy report by the BBC Trust on his “conduct” duly followed. The other fact is that those who complained were very few but tellingly very politically and financially powerful. When money complains editors sit up and listen.

    Transparency is important but what would strengthen a journalist’s integrity more is not being seduced by the allure of working on a “big” news corp but making sure that what others ignore he or she investigates.

    Paul Foot, Martha Gelhorn, Seymour Hersh and other great journalists were great not simply because of their skill to investigate and write a story but because they believed in something more than just selling newspapers or getting viewing figures. They believed that there were people’s stories and events that needed to be told and they didn’t really care who they annoyed.

    Not sure if any of this makes sense but sometimes you just have to put your head down, type and go with your gut.

  4. Jon Clements

    This feels like the Washington Post is employing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

    Social media guidelines are needed by corporate entities, of which the Washington Post is one, but that’s exactly what they should be: guidelines, rather than rules and restrictions.

    Yes, companies are risking their reputation by allowing employees’ free rein in social media, but the risk should be worth taking in terms of how their employees can be seen as a positive extension of the organisation.

    Surely, the basic journalistic tenets of fairness and accuracy should be a fundamental part of any reporter’s approach, whether that involves engaging in social media or not. And so that should inform the newspaper’s sanctions if a reporter’s actions are bringing it into disrepute.

    If the newspaper can extend trust to its journalists, it should be returned with grown up behaviour and a recognition of the power contained in the printed/digital word.

  5. Burgess Laughlin

    A definition of objectivity and transparency would help here.

    My informal definition of TRANSPARENCY (in reporting) is: the condition in which the reader can see the relevant nature of the reporter (Is he a member of the John Birch Society?) and the reporting process (Did he contact only members of a communist union?). The purpose of “transparency” is to provide information that might alert readers to possible bias.

    My definition of OBJECTIVITY, which is derived from philosopher Ayn Rand’s work in epistemology, is this: Objectivity is the commitment to drawing conclusions logically from facts of reality.

    Transparency does not subsume objectivity. Rather, if one is trying to be objective and if one wants readers’ trust, then transparency is an appropriate means to an end, to the extent relevant. A reporter working on legislation that will ban new oil exploration does not need to tell me what kind of dog he owns, but he should state his affiliation with either an environmentalist commune or an oil company or a statist political group.

    Objectivity is the goal. Transparency is merely a means a gaining confidence of readers.

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  7. Paul Holmes

    Balance? Objectivity? Forget whether they are actually attainable (they’re not); why would anyone think they are desirable? Should reports on the Final Solution have given equal weight to the perspective of the Nazis and the Jews, in the he-said, she-said format that has come to characterize American journalism. This pursuit of “balance” is why mainstream media reporting on politics in general — and issues such as climate change in particular — is so lame. It’s also the reasoin for the rise of the blogosphere, which makes no pretense of objectivity.

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  9. Rodney Barnes

    Which objectivity are we talking about?

    I’ve always related the term to the ‘objective method,’ a means of gathering and verifying information that results in approaching truth. It seems we’re getting caught up in objectivity as an end in itself – as a goal, in other words. And, as we’ve explored, this is an impossible and undesirable purpose.

    Maybe what we’re really fighting against is the journalists’ “neutral voice,” or their way of saying things to come off as unbiased or impartial. To me it always feels like a lie, a veneer covering something hollow.

    I wrote a blog post in response to this; you can check it out at or

  10. paulbradshaw

    Great post Rodney, so much so I’m going to quote you here:

    “The term began to appear as part of journalism early in the last century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconscious,” they write. “The call for journalists to adopt objectivity was an appeal for them to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

    “In the original concept, in other words, the journalist is not objective, but his method can be.”

    What is really dividing us, argue Kovach and Rosenstiel, are our positions over neutral voice, not our methods of gathering and verifying information. We see what Tom Wolfe called the ‘beige voice of journalism’ and it gets us because it feels like a lie.

    And that’s all it really amounts to. “The impartial voice employed by many news organizations – that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting – is not a fundamental principle of journalism,” they write.

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  13. John Zhu

    — I love how critiques of objectivity so often use the “objectivity is a relatively recent creation, born out of the need to appeal to the largest possible audience” argument, as if those qualities are supposed to debunk the legitimacy of objectivity. Yet when we write about transparency, can we not say something to the effect of “transparency is a concept that has only really caught on in the last few years, born out of a need to appear genuine and personal in order to appeal to a Web 2.0 audience accustomed to those qualities”? If that line of reasoning does not discredit the latter, then it should not be invoked to discredit the former either.

    — What really irks me about the transparency vs. objectivity debate is that critics of objectivity juxtaposes the two principles as antithetical of each other and competing for the same niche. They are not. The opposite of objectivity is not transparency, and vice versa; and they are different types of mechanisms. Transparency is a purely journalist-to-audience relationship, while objectivity, if actually strived for in practice rather than merely used as a slogan, is not just journalist-to-audience, but also journalist-to-information. Also, as trust mechanisms, they earn trust about different things. Transparency assures the audience that you’re being honest about your reporting process, whereas objectivity assures the audience that your reporting process is fair, thorough, and accurate, which Gilmor’s own piece says, along with transparency “may add up to the same thing” (referring to objectivity).

    — Also, objectivity no more equals “view from nowhere” or “he said she said” than transparency equals blatantly biased reporting. Both can devolve into those inferior forms of reporting, but neither guarantees it.

    — Finally, everything I’ve read about the debate leads me to believe that transparency is a good thing for the audience because it lays out in the open any potential bias of the reporter, making it easier for the audience to decide whether or not to trust the journalist. However, that doesn’t mean the audience trusts the journalist more simply because he’s transparent. Transparency makes it easier for the audience to decide whether to trust; it doesn’t push the audience in either direction.

    If you’re interested, more of my thoughts on the subject:

  14. Robert Brand

    “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.”

    But isn’t that exactly the point? Objectivity does not exist – so how could you “preserve” it? What matters IS the appearance of objectivity – not only in journalism, but also in jurisprudence, science, etc.

  15. Wessel van Rensburg

    Robert, the problem is that the appearance of objectivity is that its going to appear more like a life unexamined, unlived and creepy.

    Today people leave a search-able trail of comments, votes, groups, pictures, videos, status updates, friends, colleagues, favourites, games played, downloads, addresses lived – those that don’t won’t seem real.

    In a world where everybody is a narrowcaster – famous for 15 people or perhaps 250 – the good journos are not considered special. They are the ones that are considered ‘one of us’.

    Bill Clinton could not claim he “smoked but did not inhale” today and get away with it. Their would be be grass roots media frenzy.

    Obama admitted he took cocaine and it did him no harm, on the contrary it made him seem more authentic.

  16. paulbradshaw

    John, thanks – you make very good points. The point about objectivity being a recent thing is not about debunking objectivity but pointing out that it is not a ‘natural’ thing – as you say, transparency is a recent trend and will be subject to some challenges itself.

    I think Rodney makes the same point as you about objectivity, which I would agree with: as a method, it should be supported. What I am talking about is this unhealthy obsession with the appearance of objectivity which leads to ‘beige’ reporting that doesn’t get to the heart of issues for fear of being seen as ‘subjective’, and social media guidelines that pretend journalists don’t have opinions and restrict their ability to demonstrate or join groups.

  17. Matt Wardman

    I think I’m with Paul/Rodney – Is “objectivity” the right term to be using?

    Can we create that in the abstract, and more than we can ensure that “photographs do not lie”. A raw photo may not lie, but the unshown context can create a lie in the mind of the viewer.

    Perhaps objectivity is an ideal/vision, while we recognise we do our best with feet of clay.

    We can control process – checking, weighing, documenting sources, and all the boring stuff that is undermined by web-deadlines without a lot of self-discipline. ISTM that that is the place to start, since we can at least get our heads around putting these things into practice.

    An important current question is how to report properly on small and narrow bodies which set themselves up as representatives of “group x” (of which they usually represent a tiny proportion), and therefore get coverage for extreme postions not taken by the majority through a media desire to present “both sides”.

    There are plenty of groups that get extensive coverage despite having only marginal support.

  18. John Zhu

    Thanks for the response, Paul. I agree that social media policies that forbid reporters from expressing any opinions go way overboard. I think Jon Clements’ “sledgehammer to crack a nut” metaphor is apt.

    Concerning the appearance of objectivity vs. the method of objectivity, if we accept that the method of objectivity should be supported, as you say in your response to my comment, then should it not follow that we also should be concerned with being perceived by our audience as being objective? Sure, the danger comes when you focus more on appearing to be objective than actually being objective, but from a trust-earning standpoint, the method of objectivity (and really, transparency) does nothing for a journalist if not accompanied by the perception of objectivity from the audience. Actually, if you think about it, if the goal is to make your audience trust you b/c you’re doing a particular “something”, then the appearance of doing that something is arguably more important than actually doing it. It’s not whether you’re doing it; it’s whether they think you’re doing it (and yes, that does sound nefarious).

    Therefore, I don’t think being concerned with appearing to be objective should be labeled as good or bad in an either-or manner, but rather evaluated in degrees. The WaPo policy goes many degrees too far, as does ignoring the truth to write a “he said, she said” story for the sake of appearing objective. But I do think there are actions that journalists should refrain from in public if they don’t want their personal opinions to overshadow their reporting in the minds of the audience. Earning trust through transparency is like balancing a ruler on a triangle, with complete transparency on one end and complete opagueness on the other. Move too far in either direction, and trust dips.

    For example: I will freely admit that I’m a UNC fan. Considering that I’m an alum, to say I don’t want to see them win would be dishonest and make me seem ingenuine, and that casts doubt on whatever claim to objectivity I might make. But if I show up at a UNC-Duke game covered in Tar Heel blue and cheer loudly for UNC, or I refer to Krzyzewski as Ratface in my Twitter feed, as any UNC alum has the god-given right and inclination to do, do you not think that will raise doubts about my ability to objectively assess the teams’ performances or the validity of a crucial call? Sure, we can invoke the “judge me by my work” argument, but we all know that’s as unattainable an ideal as the homo sapien without opinions. The audience’s preconceptions about the writer’s preconceptions invariably influence how they perceive the work. I can (and have) remove myself from the role of a fan when I’m writing my story, but will my readers believe me capable of that if they saw me fist-pumping at every UNC basket and hurling verbal abuse at Ratface? I doubt it.

  19. JV

    The interesting point you bring up is not objectivity, but rather that journalists should be knowledgeable about what they write about, cite sources and provide data and information with their stories. Now THAT would be wonderful indeed.

    The transparency and objectivity of the individual is irrelevant if the story presented stands on it’s own.

    I personally do not care if the writer has opinions or is transparent or is even one person. I do care if the story has complete information and is based on objective data in some way.

    Newspapers per se are just collections of temporal gossip and unimportant events parroted by gossip collectors. The opinions of any one or group of the parrots is of no interest. What is interesting is the analysis of the trends and connectedness of the events into some kind of construct of reality. That is not the job of typical journalists and reporters, and certainly not something that newspapers ever undertake in any meaningful way. It is not their business.

    Web 2.0 and if people leave accurate trails online is a different subject and unrelated to journalists opinions.

  20. Pingback: The end of objectivity – web 2.0 version « jonesthought

  21. Steven Walling

    As one example of the intersection of Web 2.0 and journalistic views on objectivity, I’d point to Wikipedia.

    In our policy on what constitutes a reliable source (which, like the articles, is written entirely by a community of volunteer editors) nowhere does it mention objectivity. The word doesn’t appear once.

    The two core ideas that matter are: an established editorial structure for fact checking and independence (or a lack of a conflict of interest). It doesn’t talk about sources appearing or being objective.

    I’d say that this practical view of what constitutes a good published work says something important about what people outside of the journalistic profession think: we don’t actually care about objectivity.

    A lot readers tend to think it’s a farcical idea to begin with, and the rest just want independent, high quality journalism. It doesn’t take a comprehensive theory of objectivity to deliver that. Just basic ethics and good workmanship.

  22. Robert Jones

    Of course journalistic objectivity is a concept and not reality. You can deliver a hard-hitting story and still strive for objectivity — which bolsters the reader’s or viewer’s sense that the information he or she is receiving is authoritative and credible. Sadly, the skills are rare in journalism today.

    Even though your bias will affect your approach to a story, you owe it to the reader and yourself to go the extra mile to gather and present a counterbalancing view, analysis or opinion. That includes skillful questioning and quoting of those we interview coupled with powers of observation. The best editors demand it. The best journalists do it as a matter of course.

    Too many “journalists” are either rant artists, panderers or shills and their credibility is near zero with the reading and viewing public. All journalists are viewed as being on the level of entertainment hacks such as those in the supermarket tabloids, TMZ or Entertainment Tonight (Brits insert your equivalent here). Thus, there has been no public outcry to save journalism because the public doesn’t believe it’s worth saving. That fact alone should make us all weep.

    Many news stories today suffer from either fawning on one end or hatchet jobs on the other. Neither one is a reflection of the truth. The ‘objective’ story exists there in the middle somewhere and it’s the true journalist who delivers it.

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  28. Murray Dick

    “This feels like the Washington Post is employing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

    Couldn’t agree more. It would be daft and wrong for anyone to make assumptions about a journalists’ leanings based on the sites they visit, or the individuals they communicate with via social nets. I personally like to read from time to time, especially when an event in the news is likely to whip that community into a frenzy, but I find the politics of most contributors horrific.

    Also, there are large numbers of people and organisations who have little online presence, but whose views are just as valid as those with regularly updated content, RSS, a robust social web presenence, and exemplary SEO. If a journalists’ online profile showed a bias towards one particular voice, this could be because the representative of the counterpoint hasn’t organised themselves online.

    The web is not an equal playing field – just as real life isn’t, and in a sense that’s why the perception of balance in journalism (where applicable), or the ‘neutral voice’ mentioned above, is as important as ever.

    Have to agree with Matt above about those representatives of “group x” who lack transparency as a dangerous route down which we are blindly stumbling.

    Its interesting that, for example, the Taxpayers’ Alliance somehow manages to rack up on average 13 mentions across the press every day, whereas those tax-based thinktanks whose expertise is unquestioned, and whose research is of consistently high standard, but whose opinions don’t necessarily make for sexy news (like Tax Research LLP), are routinely ignored.

    Are they better connected than others in this field? We’ve no idea, because details of their sponsors and funders are withheld from public accounts, just like MPs expenses would have been. So much for the marketplace of ideas.

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  33. Wessel van Rensburg

    Another slant on the objectivity debate –

    “Newspapers are struggling, losing readers, losing advertisers to newer forms of media, losing relevance. Yet they stick to the old ways of doing things. And in this case, the local news institution that brought this family’s story to public light will not get the credit when caring members of the public help pay off their medical debt. The Huffington Post will get that credit, because it’s not afraid to take action to support a worthy cause.

    What a sad story for the newspaper. It’s sad for the family involved, too, of course, but at least a new-media news entity decided that it didn’t need to live by the old rules, and asked its readers to take action.

    “Tradition” lives on in the newspaper industry.”

    From Old media is for whimps

    Where will this leave the Kevin Carters of this world?

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  35. DeLene

    As a semi-newbie science writer with one foot in the world of research and one in the world of freelance writing — and as someone who came of age in a web 2.0 world — I found this post incredibly insightful. I’m sure it would make some of my reporting 101 professors writhe with displeasure, but going for transparency and balance seems so much more pragmatic than pushing for an intangible objectivity.

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