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Objectivity v Transparency - does journalism need a new ideology?

Objectivity v Transparency - does journalism need a new ideology?

What is the hallmark of good journalism? Objectivity would be one of the standard replies: neutral journalism that is not partisan and that steers clear of disseminating personal opinions.

Actually, the answer is just not quite as simple as that. Hang on to your hats, people, it's time for an ethics class...

Wait a second, I hear you cry, before you take me back to journalism school - what's wrong with objectivity? Here's the thing: now it's obligatory for every journalist to have their hand hermetically sealed to a smartphone so they can dutifully maintain a Twitter account. It is becoming increasingly essential and easy to maintain an online presence; you need a Facebook page, a Linkedin profile and a FourSquare account. These are all useful tools in their own way. However, all this social media activity means that it is becoming ever harder to deny the fact that journalists are people. Shocking, I know, but it's true. Journalists are people - and people are not objective.

This is why so many people have recently called the old order of objectivity into question. Journalists' identities - their background, their education, their political convictions - are more and more often public knowledge. This somewhat undermines the objective perspective that many journalists cling to - is it really possible for a journalist to deliver a "view from nowhere" , as the esteemed journalism professor Jay Rosen calls this opinion-less objectivity, when anyone can discover so much about them with a few clicks?

So, if objectivity doesn't work as the overriding ethos of journalism, what does? Many people have launched into the debate with the battle cry "transparency is the new objectivity". Maybe it's not quite as simple as that either. The trouble is that 'objectivity' means many things - and so does 'transparency'.

For a journalist, objectivity is an ethic that is applied by said journalist to his or her own work. It means being factually correct, it means reporting on something even if the article conflicts with personal views, it means representing all possible sides to an argument or a story. In the words of Jay Rosen, it means getting "beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us".

'Transparency' can be applied to many intermediaries that are involved in the process of getting news from the reporter to the reader. Journalists themselves can be 'transparent' - i.e. publically disclose - their opinions and convictions about certain subjects so their audience is more aware of any bias when reading their work; Journalists can be transparent about their financial entanglements and other activities outside of writing. Corporations, i.e. news organisations or publishers can also be transparent about their financial commitments to avoid any conflict of interest. Then there is the issues of being transparent about how much influence advertisers have over the content of a website or publication.

So yes, 'transparency' means a lot.

In the great debate, transparency verses objectivity, there are two primary questions:

1) What is the role of objectivity in the modern newsroom? After all, most people agree that absolute objectivity is an unattainable goal, but is the idea of objectivity so compromised by the identity of the journalist that it is not even worth striving for?

2) Is transparency a doctrine that will encourage quality journalism, or does it just show how flawed journalism is? For instance, does simply declaring a conflict of financial interests make the ethical dilemma disappear? Is simply knowing the conflict of interest exists enough?

These are big questions, no doubt - but big events in America, namely the Occupy movements, have brought this ethical dilemma to the fore. It seems many American organisations feel their objectivity is being compromised by their journalists' activities in relation to the occupy movements. Enter Catlin Curran and Lisa Simeone - two career casualties of the objectivity debate.

In the case of Curran, she went to an Occupy Wallstreet Protest. She held up a banner explaining why the sub-prime mortgage market was ethically wrong. This image then went viral on Twitter. Then Curran decided that this viral image would make a great addition to a WNYC radio news show where she worked as a web producer, so she suggested as much to her boss. Then her boss got angry. Then she was fired.

Why was she fired? Because her boss told her she "had violated every ethic of journalism". Why would her boss say this? Was it: A) Because she had tried to use her own position of influence on a news program to disseminate a story about her own political activity and encourage interest in an image that clearly expressed her own view? or B) Because she had been seen at the protest and expressed a view?

Surely, the answer is A. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic argues that this is still an unjustified dismissal, however, using a position of influence to advance a cause does count as a conflict of interest and a breach of objectivity. So, perhaps her boss's reaction is somewhat understandable, given that objectivity is still a fundamental tenet of journalism, particularly in current affairs.

Option B, however, leads us to the case of another radio presenter, Lisa Simeone. She was fired from her documentary show "Soundprint", distributed by NPR, because she was involved with Occupy D.C. The troubling thing is, "Soundprint" is a documentary all about opera. Opera, for the most part, has very little to do with politics. In Simeone's own words: "What is NPR afraid I'll do -- insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?"

Many have cited Simeone's dismissal as proof that American journalistic institutions cling to this perceived neutrality far too vehemently in a bid to stay out of the polarized American political landscape.

This still leaves many people asking: why wasn't it acceptable for a woman whose work had nothing to do with politics to exert her constitutional right to freedom of expression - something that, somewhat ironically, the media is supposed to protect? Maybe things have been taken a little too far.

When cases like this arise, what can be done to strike a happy medium, to make sure journalists can do their jobs and be fully formed people too - not merely very human-like automatons spouting statistics and neutral platitudes?

This is where we might look to the ideological holy grail of transparency to be our shining beacon of hope. In a bid to better inform the public about journalists' possible motivations, Ira Stoll has founded a new website, newstransparency.com, that holds Wikipedia-style profiles on journalists that can be added to by others, not just the journalists themselves. These profiles list the interests and previous work of the journalists concerned, so that readers can be more informed about who is producing their news. According to Poynter, Stoll hopes its will "help readers, viewers, and listeners put what they are reading in better context, and it may even prompt some improvements by the journalists."

There are others, namely Lauren Fisher of SimplyZesty.com, who would argue that sites like this make the news revolve around the personalities of the writers, not the news itself. Do sites like this really encourage quality journalism, or do they simply provide more ammunition with which opponents can undermine a journalist and their work?

As mentioned before, transparency applies to media companies as well as to individual journalists. It is common practice for corporations and news organisations to disclose their financial interests -but do journalists need to do the same?

George Monbiot of The Guardian thinks so, and hence he set up his own Registry of Interests to encourage greater transparency. This kind of public declaration of interests seems particularly relevant in the aftermath of the recent TechCrunch saga, where The New York Times accused Mike Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, of a conflict of interests because he was starting up a venture capital firm and potentially writing about the products he would be investing in. Arrington hit back by asking The New York Times why it didn't make it clear to its readers that it has a financial stake in the Red Sox when writing about them. Queue Twitter-bicker and a desperate attempt by NYT editors to remain calm and crucially neutral in the face of an angry Arrington insisting that a failure disclose an interest was unacceptable because transparency is "always relevant".

Is it always relevant? Does it do any good to simply abdicate responsibility for a journalistic conflict of interest simply by saying "I told you all about it. You can't say you weren't warned"? It doesn't seem like that is a the foundation upon which you can create balanced journalism.

Maybe Transparency is not the new objectivity after all.

Source: The Atlantic, Editors Weblog, Monbiot.com, Poynter, PressThink.org, Simply Zesty, The Washington Post



Katherine Travers


2011-11-02 18:06

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