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.
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.