Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The End of Objectivity? (Version 0.9)

Ed: Dan Gillmor is a longtime former reporter/columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and is author of We the Media. He recently left the Merc to begin working on a project on "citizen journalism." He posted this to his blog earlier today. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Maybe it's time to say a fond farewell to an old canon of journalism: objectivity. But it will never be time to kiss off the values and principles that undergird the idea.

Objectivity is a construct of recent times. One reason for its rise in the journalism sphere has been the consolidation of newspapers and television into monopolies and oligopolies in the past half-century. If one voice overwhelms all the others, there is a public interest in playing stories as straight as possible -- not favoring one side over the other (or others, to be more precise, as there are rarely just two sides to any issue).

There were good business reasons to be "objective," too, not least that a newspaper didn't want to make large parts of its community angry. And, no doubt, libel law has played a role, too. If a publication could say it "got both sides," perhaps a libel plaintiff would have more trouble winning.

Again, the idea of objectivity is a worthy one. But we are human. We have biases and backgrounds and a variety of conflicts that we bring to our jobs every day.

I'd like to toss out objectivity as a goal, however, and replace it with four other notions that may add up to the same thing. They are pillars of good journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency.

The lines separating them are not always clear. They are open to wide interpretation, and are therefore loaded with nuance in themselves. But I think they are a useful way to approach quality journalism. They are, moreover, easier to achieve in an online setting.


Thoroughness

When I was a reporter and, later, a columnist, my first goal was to learn as much as I could. After all, gathering facts and opinions is the foundation of reporting. I liked it best when I felt I had left 95 percent of what I'd learned out of the final piece. The best reporters I know always want to make one more call, check with one more source. (The last question I ask at all interviews is, "Who else should I talk with about this?"

Today, thoroughness means more than asking questions of the people in our Rolodexes (circular or virtual). It means, whenever possible, asking our readers for their input, as I did when I wrote my book (and other authors are doing on theirs). Competitive pressures tend to make this a rare request, but I'm convinced that more journalists will adopt it.


Accuracy

Get your facts straight.


Fairness

This one is as difficult, in practice, as accuracy is simple. Fairness is often in the eye of the beholder. But even here I think a few principles may universally apply.

Fairness means, among other things, listening to different viewpoints, and incorporating them into the journalism. It does not mean parroting lies or distortions to achieve that lazy equivalence that leads some journalists to get opposing quotes when the facts overwhelmingly support one side.

Fairness is also about letting people respond when they believe you are wrong. Again, this is much easier online than in a print publication, much less a broadcast.

Ultimately, fairness emerges from a state of mind. We should be aware of what drives us, and always willing to listen to those who disagree. The first rule of having a conversation is to listen -- and I know I learn more from people who think I'm wrong than from those who agree with me.


Transparency

Disclosure is gaining currency as an addition to journalism. It's easier said than done, of course.

No one can plausibly argue with the idea that journalists need to disclose certain things, such as financial conflicts of interest. But to what extent? Should journalists of all kinds be expected to make their lives open books? How open?

Personal biases, even unconscious ones, affect the journalism as well. I'm an American, brought up in with certain beliefs that many folks in other lands (and some in this one) flatly reject. I need to be aware of the things I take for granted, and to periodically challenge some of them, as I do my work.

Another way to be transparent is in the way we present a story. We should link to source material as much as possible, bolstering what we tell people with close-to-the-ground facts and data. (Maybe this is part of accuracy or thoroughness, but it seems to fit here, too.)


To the extent that we make thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency the pillars of journalism, we can get a long way toward the worthy goal of helping our audiences/collaborators. I don't claim it's easy, but I do think it's worth the effort.

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