Demystifying the Sacred “Objectivity”

Objectivity: it’s taught as a golden rule in journalism classrooms around the country. The typical run-down goes like this: “As a journalist, your prime responsibility is to report the truth in a fair and balanced way. You must not let your personal opinions impact your writing and be sure to present both sides of every issue.” For years this has been what I have lived and breathed. For most of my college career, this has been the work I’ve been submitting in class. Every assignment follows that same “tried and true” formula: inverted pyramid, democrats say, republicans say, done. But, that model is a problematic one, and I think it’s high time we held this notion of “objectivity” under a microscope. 

David Carr, of the New York Times, conducted an interview with advocacy journalist Glenn Greenwald. In this piece, Carr explores the idea of journalism coming from an activist standpoint. Though Carr is wary of activism within journalism (he argues that reporting with an agenda takes away from responsibility to the truth) he does concede that there’s something to be said that Snowden decided to leak his NSA documents to Greenwald as opposed to other mainstream sources. This shows a shift in the way we think about journalism: we want analysis, we want well-informed opinion and most importantly, we crave journalism that takes a variety of stands.

As Greenwald put it:

“It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone call from Brazil, where he lives. “It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose — to serve as a check on power.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’d argue that rather than chasing a false notion of “objectivity” (which more often than not translates to “reporting on what people in power are saying”) we should be striving for a more transparent press. I’d much rather see a media-scape where journalists wear their biases on their sleeves, rather than covertly weaving bias into their work under slogans such as “fair and balanced.” There is nothing “fair and balanced” about presenting only two sides/ two solutions to any problem.

David Weinberger speaks to this idea on his Joho the blog. What he argues is that objectivity is just a false aspiration that in actuality is unattainable. He argues that transparency is a far more realistic ideal and actually would restore credibility back to the field of journalism:

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

 

Because journalists in the blogosphere religiously link to their sources and show, step by step, how they reached the conclusions that they did, they still retain their credibility. And if we were to have a flourishing free press full of advocacy journalists, then we’d have a plurality of opinions to choose from rather than just two. Sounds a lot more objective to me, but hey, what do I know?

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Recognition, Validation and a Sign of Better Times Ahead

No one, by any stretch, would call me a traditional person. I’m of the belief set that in order for society to progress, we need to always be changing. This applies to my life outlook, but more specifically, to my views on journalism. When the media wrongly lead us into the war on Iraq, it was a wake up call. Something needed to give in the way we were doing “traditional media.” 

In a time where a whistleblower first goes to an independent journalist, as with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, it’s a sign that something’s changing and we’re moving away from tradition. There’s no shortage of people arguing to keep doing traditional journalism the same way, just look at how Glenn Greenwald’s credibility has been attacked.

Despite all the non-believers and those clinging desperately to tradition, things are changing. Will Bunch of Alternet uses John Marshall of Talking Points Memo as an example. Marshall was given the highly coveted Polk award in journalism, and that in itself is a sign of the changing times:

But I want to highlight one Polk Award that shows there are emerging models for using the very tool at the root of the turmoil of the news business — the Internet — as a newfangled way to re-invent investigative reporting — by using new techniques that emphasize collaboration over competition and by working with readers and through collective weight of many news sources to expose government misconduct.

It would have seemed incredible a couple of years ago, but a George Polk Award was given to a blogger this year.

 

I agree with Bunch, and I’m always happy to hear of an independent journalist getting credit where credit is due. As more and more minds change, the mediascape will follow. The Polk award is just the beginning. 

Youtube: A Game Changer

In a matter of years, Youtube has come to be a part of our everyday lives. We now live in a world where, at a relatively low price, news can be made and seen by millions. It’s decentralized journalism as we know it, and much like the blogosphere, it comes with a lot of useless fluff. But the fluff does not belittle the hard-hitting side of Youtube.

Indeed, through all the phases of the Egyptian revolution, the world was able to watch on youtube. Many have even gone so far as to argue that social media, youtube included, is one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring. It’s important to note that Youtube does have a huge impact, but we must not lose sight of the fact that people start revolutions. Youtube has changed the game, maybe even served as a catalyst, but without people-power there would have been no Arab-Spring.

All that being said, it’s impossible to ignore the youtube phenomenon. For some, it’s even become a lucrative business. Brian Stelter of the New York Times writes: 

One year after YouTube, the online video powerhouse, invited members to become “partners” and added advertising to their videos, the most successful users are earning six-figure incomes from the Web site. 

 

This very clearly hi lights the fact that citizen journalists, entertainers and others could easily making a living off of Youtube, but it also raises a critical question: how is advertising going to affect the content?

The answer may lie in the numbers: most of Youtube’s high-earners, as the New York Times article demonstrates, are purely of entertainment value. I don’t hear as many success stories of investigative journalists making livings off of Youtube, though the Young Turks have witnessed relative success.

The most important thing, in my opinion, to remember is that Youtube is still a new tool. We can discuss it, its impact and role in the world but there is still plenty of room for growth and change. The Youtube we know now could be completely different in a years time, whether it be through new funding mechanisms for journalists on the site, or if a revolution comes along that Youtube tries to censor. Any number of factors could change, so be wary before putting all your eggs in the Youtube basket.

Big Brother Wants You to Shut Up

Here in America, we’re big fans of touting rights that we don’t actually have. If I received money every time I was preached to about the glorious free-press of the United States, I would have been able to pay for my journalism degree no problem.  We love to look at other countries and write patronizing articles about government censorship of journalists and simultaneously ignore the censorship that goes on here at home. 

In a piece by Fox News’ Michael Park, it is revealed that Google censored journalist Matthew Lee after he posted coverage that exposed corruption within the United Nations: 

How big do you have to be to earn the wrath of the United Nations and Internet giant Google?

If you’re journalist Matthew Lee, all it takes are some critical articles and a scrappy little Web site… 

Many of Lee’s stories were featured prominently whenever Web users looked for news about the U.N. using the powerful Google News search engine, a vital way for media outlets both large and small to get their articles read.

But beginning Feb. 13, Google News users could no longer find new stories from the Inner City Press.

This should raise a red flag for anybody who believes in the notion of a free press and anyone who believes in true democracy. To de-list a publication due to an editorial disagreement is outrageous, and something that an American would normally associate with a terrible dictator “somewhere else in the world,” but this clearly shows that we need not look beyond our own borders to find government censorship. In an editorial from the St. Louis Dispatch reposted on Commondreams begins with some very poignant questions that more of us should be asking:

Should your cell phone company decide who can send you a text message? Should your Internet service provider block your Internet movie because it doesn’t like the file-sharing service you’re using?

We suspect that most consumers would say no. When people sign up for a communications service, Big Brother shouldn’t come with the deal.

 

But Big Brother is, and will continue, to be involved in the equation. As we’re censored at home by Google, an article published by AP/ the Sydney Morning Herald revealed Google’s complacency in internet censorship in China as well: 

Google promised to “obey Chinese law” and avoid linking to material deemed a threat to national security or social stability, said Zhang Feng, director of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s Telecoms Development Department, at a news conference.

Why aren’t we more alarmed? Shouldn’t this be an indication of how close the United States is getting to the very same censorship we decry in China? Why is it that everyone’s ok without complacency in censorship both abroad and at home? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I sure as hell will continue to raise them.  One thing is for certain, though: we can’t keep celebrating our free press in journalism classrooms when our free press is eroding at a rapid pace. 

A Part Way Meeting of the Minds

Earlier this week I spoke to my nervousness for hearing from the founder of Legal Insurrection, William Jacobson. While I disagree with much of the content and political views of the material Jacobson’s blog presents, I admire his drive to go against his environment and continue to report on what he thinks is morally correct. He explained that Cornell University is a fairly liberal-leaning institution and that his position as a conservative professor and blogger has garnered a fair share of criticism, with some going so far as asking the school to shut down his blog. Thankfully, Cornell University seems to value free speech and has protected Jacobson’s rights as both a blogger and an ordinary citizen to present dissident opinion without the fear of being prosecuted. 

Jacobson explained that before he started Legal Insurrection, he didn’t even know what a blog was. This is a testament to the fact that the blogosphere has, in many ways, radicalized the accessibility of journalism. It speaks mounds that someone who didn’t even know what a blog was at the beginning has witnessed so much success. (Indeed, his blog is very heavily trafficked.) It reaffirmed the fact for me that journalism should not just be something presented to the public by a ‘specialized class’ as Walter Lippmann might have liked. Rather, our journalism should be for everyone, by everyone. On this Jacobson and I agree.

But, of course, there were a number of red flags that arose to me when he spoke, the first being that Jacobson himself admitted that his blog does not produce a significant income for him that he could do it full time. This is a scary reminder, but also an important one. It’s far to easy to glorify the idea of a blog as allowing everyone to make a living off of journalism, but the truth is you still need to know how to work the system. Jacobson’s blogs are loaded with advertisements and still he says at the end of the day Legal Insurrection is breaking even (though this could be partly due to the fact that he doesn’t offer his readers any incentives to donate.)

Another problematic point, as well as a point of Jacobson and my disagreement, is that Jacobson is under the belief that all mainstream media aside from that of Fox News has a left-leaning slant. I implore him to realize there is a difference between the democratic party and left-wing progressives. Indeed, both parties since the Reagan era have shifted dramatically to the right leaving true left-wing politics out of the United States political structure. I would hope Jacobson keeps this fact in mind in the future before saying that all mainstream news outlets aside from Fox have a leftist slant. He’s wrong, but I think I’d like our media better if he were right. 

The Fight for Free Speech: Corporate Sell-Outs and Political Censorship

It’s a scary world for an independent journalist. On one hand, the internet has shaken up the journalistic establishment, shifting resources back into the hands of citizens so that in today’s day and age (it’s said) anyone can be a journalist. For some, this notion is exciting and I’d agree with them. Citizen journalism and blogs are what have brought us WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald as well as coverage that can be seen in Mother Jones or Democracy Now! who rely on tips and footage from their readers.

But, there’s a counter movement to re-assert the idea of a professional journalist and both the political and corporate establishment are seeking to trivialize bloggers and citizen journalists. Sarah Lazare argues in a piece for Common Dreams that Senator Diana Feinstein (who it’s worth noting has significant stakes in the surveillance industry) is trying to define a journalist but identifying those at Wikileaks as “flawed.”:

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y). “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”

It’s dangerous to draw such moral lines between “real” journalism and “flawed” journalism, especially when we know that Wikileaks has revealed heaps of information pertinent to the American public about government deception. We cannot simply cast aside these revelations as “flawed” because they paint power structures in a negative light.

But this repression is not only in the political sphere. Indeed, corporations play their role as well. Take for instance, the Huffington Post which was once hailed as a beacon for independent journalists. The online news collective pioneered in independent ownership and citizen reporting, but as Guardian’s Paul Harris reports, Ariana Huffington sold HuffPo to AOL, and that raises many new concerns about the quality of their coverage:

But not so much now, especially after Huffington said she had always envisioned the HuffPo as more than just a politics website and said it had no overall ideology. To many observers that seemed like a deliberate rewriting of the past, and certainly a strong suggestion that AOL’s corporate ownership would see it tone down the site’s liberal campaigning.

Something is lost when an independent voice becomes dominated by corporate interest, and the Huffington Post isn’t the only example of this. In Hartford the mainstream daily worked tirelessly to buy up it’s alternative competitors in an attempt to restrict the dialogue again.

It’s troubling in a nation that touts in independent press and diversity of opinion that we are still trying to belittle the idea of citizen journalism. Whether it’s through the political sphere and trying to define a “real” journalist, or corporations using their resources to simply buy out and silence differing coverage, we need alternative voices more than ever.

Agreeing with the means, not with the content.

I must confess, I am equally dreading and anticipating hearing William Jacobson speak today. Jacobson’s blog, Legal Insurrection has pioneered the conservative blogosphere. His blog seems to work off a somewhat sustainable model. His voice and perspective seems to be unabashed, and he ruthlessly provides links which bolster his credibility. Indeed, Jacobson is holding power accountable and offering coverage that is often lacking in the mainstream. It would appear as if advertising is a large part of his revenue stream (given that my gaze is unable to avert the Chili’s ad blaring at the side of the page) but it warms me to know that he’s found a way to create his own independent and seemingly sustainable blog. From a technical standpoint, I greatly admire what it is that he does.

His content, on the other hand, makes my skin crawl. The bulk of his coverage appears to focus on debunking Obamacare (and beyond that still believes in the notion of death panels) despite mounting evidence that the cost of healthcare infrastructure in the United States would drop if we extended health coverage. Some of his coverage is divisive, taking swipes at people who insult the GOP  for being racist despite evidence to the contrary by way of voter ID laws.

Jacobson’s blog presents me with a lot of moral conundrums. His surveillance coverage far surpasses that of the mainstream media, and for that he deserves to be commended. His blog allows him to retain an independent and sometimes rightly critical voice but I disagree with his claims. But isn’t that the point of a free press, to promote this sort of dialogue? I guess I’ll see this afternoon if the dialogue plays out in the classroom.