August 03, 2010

Living the Contradiction

Clay Shirky and are doing a survey on objectivity in journalism. More info here from Amy Grahan.

If you register, $5 will go to a charity (automagically -- apparently -- matched to your IP address -- I'm traveling for a conference and my $5 went to local event coverage where I am). You can share what you think (anonymously.. they won't share your name with the answers).

Below are my answers.. upon doing the survey I realized I did want to share.

Is objectivity in journalism even possible? my answer (chosen from their list of possible answers): It's not possible. Let's stop pretending
Can you explain your thoughts on the subject? It's not possible to be truly objective... however, i do believe it's an ideal to strive for... and that information collectors should be trained to strive for it simply as a personal stance when they collect information.. but also trained to look for their own leading and biased behaviors that will change the collected information.
Articles often don't share the wording of the questions asked of subjects in articles.. they just share the answers. And depending on the way questions are asked.. it's easy for a subject to be led or mislead to an answer that isn't natural or that leads to a very subjective conclusion that readers cannot see.
Fairness is the real goal in articles and other kinds of reporting.. but in order to replace 'objectivity' with 'fairness' as a journalistic goal, I believe we would need to develop a whole school of 'fairness in reporting' the same way 'objectivity' has been articulated and taught to journalism students to date in Jschools.
Is striving for objectivity in Journalism a good thing? my answer (chosen from their choices): Always - it's required

Yeah.. I get it's a contradiction to say that journalists and information collectors should strive for objectivity even as they also are trained to strive for fairness and to filter out their own natural biases. The reality for me is that even when I collect information, mostly as I do usability studies, I know my biases can show through, that the framing of questions can radically alter the answers from subjects, and that in the end, I have to do my best, though there is no human on the planet who can perfectly seek information and attain perfection in the results. Therefore I have to be honest about these imperfections slipping into the work product. I think the same is true for journalists.

Information collection is a tight-rope walk... it's about trying to stay above the bias while balanced in fairness. No one can do it perfectly.. but fairness in journalism is the ultimate goal I believe, followed by the physical embodiment of the objective stance, even as journalists and other information collects realize they can't be truly unbiased. It's as tricky as high wire work.. and I think information collectors and reporters need to respect what this is about.. to maintain the balance while making the ultimate expression in their reports focused on fairness.

At the 30,000 foot level, all collecting and reporting work is subjective. Collecting information, choosing what is fair, what is worthy to include in a report, what to reveal about a reporters' questions and stance involves personal decisions and judgments. In a usability study, I always include in my reports the questions and tests, so that readers can evaluate for themselves what I've done in my report. This is not typically done in journalism reporting.

Maybe the new fairness in journalism should combine a sense of personal objectivity as a behavioral stance at information collection, fairness in the choosing of who and what to investigate, fairness in what ultimately makes the published report, and disclosure of how the reporter did these steps. It means bringing forward the reporter into the context of the story.. but maybe the new fairness is about holding reporters more accountable within the story. Since the internet allow articles to go on with as much backup as possible, this kind of accountability disclosure wouldn't cost anything but the reporters time to add in a little context about who they talked to, what they asked and how it was done. And it would radically change the conversation about what is going on in journalism as an objective or subjective medium.

Posted by Mary Hodder at August 3, 2010 11:34 AM | TrackBack

new fairness in journalism should combine a sense of personal objectivity

Posted by: max at September 21, 2010 07:54 PM

Reporters should be accountable for what they write, whether online or offline.

Posted by: Jerry at October 21, 2010 05:13 PM