Tag Archives: style guide

Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.

Thoughts?

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A style guide for collaborative journalism: what I’ve learned from the first weeks of Help Me Investigate: Networks

Collaborative journalism as relay race?

Collaborative journalism as relay race? Image by Phil Roeder

 

It’s a few weeks into the Help Me Investigate: Networks project and I’ve been learning a lot about how community management and investigative journalism can support each other.

Some of this is building on experiences on the original Help Me Investigate, but one thing in particular is emerging from this project. It’s about how you should write when your intention is to make it easy for others to get involved – a different approach to traditional newswriting, but not too different to good blogging practice.

It’s a style guide, of sorts. And so far I’ve identified 3 key qualities:

1. Write ‘news that I can use’

Pull out the practical aspects of what you’re writing about. Even if your post is just a link to an article elsewhere, pull out the most useful quote: the facts, the legalities, the implications. If you’re writing about an investigation, tell us about the process; link to the full data; translate relevant documents and reports.

Make it useful, because users can build on that to help you in return.

2. End your posts with a baton that others can pick up

If it’s a work-in-progress, outline what questions you need to answer next. This will also help keep your own planning on track. If you’re linking to something else, highlight the gaps that need filling – what information is missing?

Already on Help Me Investigate Welfare, for example, one investigation has moved from one user’s initial blog post, to my setting up the site, to a third person supplying extra contextual data, and a fourth contributor mapping the results. That wouldn’t have been possible if the first person had waited and waited until they felt that they were ‘finished’. Online, it’s the unfinished article that is easier to help with.

3. Create momentum by posting small things, often, as you move towards your target

Rather than waiting for things to be perfect, publish as you go. This provides multiple opportunities for others to discover your work, and multiple ways in which to enter it (one post may talk about documents that someone has expertise on; another may profile a particular individual, and so on).

It also makes it clear that the investigation is going somewhere, and the user may be more inclined to help it get there as a result.

Interestingly, one of the journalists on National Public Radio in the US talks of a similar approach:

“[Rina Palta] became a leading reporter on the story, not by writing one big investigative piece but by filing frequent, incremental updates, [NPR’s Matt] Thompson said. (Even Stephen Colbert cited her work.) Thompson calls it the quest: The body of work makes a bigger impact than any single post.”

So there are editorial benefits too.

This style guide works in tandem with a wider content strategy which I’ll blog about at some point.

Meanwhile, what other points would you add to a style guide for collaborative journalism? (Better still, why not join the project and find out for yourself)