Contemplation: Objectivity and Journalism

Micheal Arrington, of TechCrunch fame, offers a brief diatribe in regards to journalists and journalism institutions, that refuse to disclose personal biases and/or reject the very premise of reporters having personal opinions.  It is a great little read, and I suspect one very worthy of discussion, even if you disagree with the premise.

For my part I think that I am going to have to side with Mr. Arrington when he says “I believe it is quite impossible to not bake your bias into your content.”  I do not believe that this inclusion of personal bias need always be entirely intended or even, ultimately, detrimental to a piece of journalism as a whole, but I do believe that it is there nonetheless.  As Mr. Arrington further points out:

“The fact is it’s impossible for a human being to write something that isn’t subjective. We aren’t robots, we’re human. At the moment you even chose the topic of your content you’ve made a subjective choice to spend time on that instead of something else.”

Essentially, what it comes down to for me, is that a journalist will always hold some degree or opinion or belief in regards to an occurance, and even with careful practice and restraint, those opinions, beliefs, and ideas, are likely to display themselves to some degree in his or her writing.  Even writing about something as simple as an orange in a bowl on a table is likely to elicit to opinion.  To remove any of that natural human element in pice of writing, quite literally would create a very robotic piece of journalism (not to mention a boring read).

The question that needs to be raised, I think, is whether innate bias and opinion, on a part of a journalist, need be problematic to a piece of journalism?  Personally I do not think it does need to be a problem as long as the journalist is willing to disclose, as Mr. Arrington is advocating for, these personal views and ideas, and further that the journalist considers their own creations and what decisions they are making.

Just because I hold an opinion or belief does not mean that my representation of an alternative opinion or belief need be totally compromised.  Just because I happen to disagree with a person, or take issue with a decision or action being made, does not mean that I cannot offer a fair report on the individual or material.  By disclosing any personal bias I provide a transparency to the issue allowing my audience to then deem whether or not I am fairly portraying a matter.  If I present accurate facts and complete quotations (essentially meaning, I don’t purposefully take things out of context) then I believe that I can still write a piece of journalism that approaches objectivity.  I say “approaches objectivity” because I think that the little bit of bias or personal opinion that is present will always keep that at arms length.

Where I see problems, especially in the day of Internet media, is when people seem bent on being “truly” objective, and thus reject any sense of their own subjective realities.  This denial is much more compromising that any admittance, because, much like Mr. Arrington suggests, it comes across as being dishonest.  Unfortunately, part of the reason that the media is not held more accountable for these apparent subjectivity passed off as objectivity, is because we, as audience members, do not more rigorously hold them accountable. 

I do not think that accountability means that a newspaper or a television network, need sack the employee who offers a personal opinion about some matter, to me that just appears to be a cover up.  What I think the accountability should be is that we, the audience, need to insist that any major media outlet, professing to offer relevant and fair news, have its reporters, journalists, writers, etc. disclose personal opinions on matters.  This need not make all news media column and editorial pieces, but it will allow us to formulate our own opinions of validity of material being presented, and further, I believe, it would hold journalists to a higher standard of introspection of their material (hopefully asking themselves, “have I presented this fairly, even considering my personal beliefs?”).

It is dangerous to take any news as purely objective fact because it has been created by a human with opinions and ideas of his/her own.  Quality journalism will enforce an effort a minimizing the impacts of personal opinions, ideas, beliefs, and biases, through rigorous standards, strong editing, and accountability.  However, this minimizing efforts should not be grounds for dismissing the reality of human subjectivity.  If we make an effort to ground ourselves with awareness of both our subjectivity and the subjectivity of others, we can ask pertinent questions and work to develop more rounded views on situations.  A lot of this has to be a self effort, on the part of both the journalist and the reader.  It may be challenging at times, especially when strong emotions get involved, but it need not be impossible.

As my own disclosure, I am not a journalist and have never claimed to be.  I am an avid blogger (I think this post it approaching my 930th here) and I try hard to make it clear that anything that I write here is a piece of purely personal opinion.  I do not go out and do investigative journalism.  I will try to provide accurate information, but understand that all of it is likely going through the mill of my own ideas and belief systems, so take it as you will.

~ by Nathaniel on July 8, 2010.

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