Can/Should News Bloggers Be Objective?

This is part of a series on how to Be a Better Journo. It’s intended to shame my colleagues in the blogosphere, solicit ideas from my peers on how we can all improve, and help guide noobs and youngsters into creating better digital journalism. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

A short while ago, I wrote a sentence or two about journalistic objectivity that seemed to get the whole dang Internet’s panties in a twist.

Let me rephrase, over the course of a few hundred words, exactly what objectivity means for a current-day journalist, especially one who must use online media as part of a larger publication mix or as his sole medium.

The Ideal and the Reality
Back in J-school, we were taught — nay, the principle was bored into our tiny little brains that the journalist should strive always to be objective. Our responsibility was to present the reading/listening/watching public with facts and to let those voters/consumers/users make their own choices. Our own political, social, and moral bias was not supposed to affect the issues we covered or how we covered them.

Flash forward to the modern newsrooms I’ve worked in; this kind of bias, particularly at the gatekeeping stage, is rampant. Is it right? No, not really. The objectivity principle exists for a reason: We must serve the people and trust that they really are smart enough to act according to the dictates of their own consciences when presented with facts. And, in my experience, the reporting was usually better when the journalist at least tried to remain neutral.

For one reason or another, publications and networks have each developed their own bias. I love me some NPR, but their topics and coverage are generally left of center. Fox News — well, they’re a bit right of center. This bias has extended from op/ed content, where publication-upheld precedent traditionally allowed for a certain degree of personal expression, to hard news coverage, where it has likely done more harm than good.

Implications Online
I have no idea who started this whole bias-in-news-reporting mess, but I’m fairly certain that catering to a biased (as we all are in our own ways) segment of a national audience allows a news organization to cultivate certain expectations and boost ratings (or pageviews) accordingly. If bias in the news is bad for journalism, perhaps it exists because it’s good for business. But that’s another topic for another day.

What I do know for sure is that there is currently the expectation, if not that a journalist online should display bias, than definitely that said journalist should display analysis, commentary, opinion, and a degree of “color” in even the driest of news coverage.

Back in my time at ReadWriteWeb, I spent a very fast-paced year learning how to be a news blogger by modern standards. Within a couple weeks of my start date, I got a very kind but frank note from the editor-in-chief, Richard MacManus. He said that, while my posts were perfectly correct according to newswriting standards, they were, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. They displayed none of the personality-driven writing for which I’d been hired, and they weren’t getting the pageviews that the blog (and I) needed to succeed.

I had been blogging personally since around 2000 or 2001 with a great deal of literary flair, verve, and a few swear words here and there. But I’d been writing the news, every blessed fact-checked word of it as dry as the last, for the exact same amount of time. Online readers wanted the personality of a blogger, but news readers needed the factual accuracy of a journalist.

And a news blog needs journalist-bloggers, hybrids in every sense, who can somehow combine catchy, web-friendly writing styles with the integrity of one whose responsibility is recording the facts.

Can We Develop Better Blogging and Better Objectivity?
So there is our collective challenge. Journalists can’t complain about bloggers stealing readers away from them if those journalists can’t keep up with readers’ needs — no matter how frivolous those needs might seem at the time. And bloggers can’t complain about not being taken seriously as citizen journalists when “color” and bias overrun every post.

We need to find a happy medium.

My happy medium (which I’m still developing, by the way) has consisted of adopting a slightly less formal tone while maintaining traditional journalistic formats and trying to leave a few lines of commentary or an invitation for reader commentary at the end of each post where the “kicker” would normally go. I still shy away from making “I” statements; when there is an editorial precedent, I’ll state that instead, i.e., “At this publication, we support the principles of free and open source software; we applaud the developer’s efforts in this field.” Et cetera.

Does bias still exist? Absolutely! But we need to do a much better job of guarding against it when we’re reporting the news.

  • We need to quote from a wider range of sources.
  • We need to cover a wider range of topics — not just ones we personally like.
  • We need to admit that even the best of us has personal biases and attempt to offset them.
  • We need to avoid personal vendettas or pet projects like the plague.
  • We need to be willing to cover news and allow our sources to express views that are unpopular with our readers. After all, catering to readers/listeners/viewers too much is part of what screwed up our objectivity in the first place.
  • If you want to be a better journo, keep in mind that objectivity is a guiding principle for a reason, but try to balance newswriting with personality when it’s appropriate, especially online.

    If you have suggestions for other ways journalists and bloggers can learn from one another with specific regard to objectivity and personality in reporting the news, I’d love to know your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Can/Should News Bloggers Be Objective?

  1. “I have no idea who started this whole bias-in-news-reporting mess, but I’m fairly certain that catering to a biased (as we all are in our own ways)”

    I’ve tried to understand why it is news organizations gravitate towards certain biases & polemics. As a journalism student at one of the largest evangelical Christian universities, it’s an issue that gets talked about a lot in the classroom.

    I do believe there is some truth to the conventional view that the main stream media is more liberal than the average person. I once spoke to someone who used to work on the Wolf Blitzer show at a conference for student journalists. He told me a very plausible explanation for why it was the MSM was more liberal. His explanation was that, because journalists were extremely career-oriented people, they tended to not have strong family values. And many conservative viewpoints stem from strong family values. Journalism is a very intensive job field and it pays very little, he told me. People that go into journalism usually put their whole life into it and therefore don’t really have time to manage their own private life, where things like religion (including moral absolutes) and family come into play.

    That to me seems like a pretty good explanation. Would you agree with this Jolie — if not in totality, in partiality?

    I realize that’s a HUGE rabbit trail I just went down and has very little to do with the crux of your post. I just thought I would share anyway🙂.

  2. Perfect objectivity as impossible as a perfect circle. But we still eat bagels (or donuts, as the case may be). Whether a writer is writing news or opinion or fiction, no one is going to read lifeless copy, written while striving for perfect objectivity. Let the writer create what she loves first, and what sells second, and what’s most objective last. If a writer loves the traditional news story with its now-perhaps-quaint objective perspective, let him write it. The readers’ attention will determine if he’s successful. Bloggers enjoy an almost limitless reach to potential new readers–so write what you love and let the readers come.

  3. Bloggers should not need to be objective. What they, and all media outlets need to be, is HONEST.

    Too many reporters these days uncritically report the spin from both sides without bothering to check the facts. All that does is give lies equal footing with the truth. And it’s how our media has gotten in such bad shape in recent years. In fact, a big part of the problem stems from reporters pretending to be fair and balanced while going out of their way to misrepresent the real story.

    I have no problems with journalists that keep their political views up front. What I have a problem with is when they start bending the truth to accommodate those views.

  4. There’s a tremendous difference between an editorial piece and a straight news story. Bloggers oftentimes cross that line when they present their spin on the news. With today’s emerging technologies, where “everyone is a journalist” it’s a bit frustrating to the ones that have grown up with pure journalistic morals and values.

    In the modern age, the line between professional and “blogger” is blurred. A journalist generally gets little praise for their work, yet continues to do because of their love of presenting those facts to the public. Many bloggers write not just for this purpose, but for fame. When fame is entered into the equation, it is no surprise that objectivity is thrown out the window.

    The pressure is now more than ever on the consumer to separate fact from spin. In my mind, a more educated and aware public is not a bad thing… but on the other hand, leaving it up to the masses can oftentimes be disappointing given the demographics of most consumers whose reach is limited in their consumption of media.

  5. Those “journalistic morals and values” are killing the media. There’s a place for objectivity in straight event news: Here’s a thing that happened, and it happened exactly like this. But if you’re writing about an issue, an election, or legislation, being unbiased is impossible, and striving for it is harmful. As reporters, we should keep our minds open to being swayed, but once we’ve gathered the facts, we must report the true conclusion. Even if it’s biased. Also, coloring our writing with some emotion, whether it’s highlighting the absurdity of a city ordinance or sympathy for victims or anger at criminals, can only improve a reader’s interest.

    McChesney’s “The Problem with the Media” is a good read on the subject.

  6. I strongly believe that at one point a distinction should be made between Rants, Editorial, and good old Journalism.

    Hunter S. Thompson aside (love the guy but still wonder why we refer to him with the middle initial even when spoken), I personally watched the world turn a LiveStation.com hoopla into a full blown international incident. That is in reference to the Gaza Flotilla incident.

    Most of the crap we see out there are Rants. Frog! Even my own blog posts are “rants”.

    Let’s be honest. Bloggers sometimes break stories straight from the when and where as far as a story is concerned, i.e. Iran. But that is a few in millions that we can’t tell apart between activist, civilian journalists, and the mass majority of straight up douchebags.

    Apologies for my language but I’m so glad somebody is writing about this. I mean… I’m not even gonna start on “mainstream media”.

    Who’s editing these complete abominations and what happened to the real stories, facts, and undeniably real photos/footages on the wire?

    I rest my case.

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