Good Journalism Is Transparent AND Objective

transparent_cropped

Journalists’ claim to credibility has traditionally been based on their objectivity. However, as with just about everything else in journalism, that has been thrown into question as the Internet continues to revolutionize the way the craft is practiced. The notion of objectivity has been dismissed by many as unattainable, passionless, cowardly, and even as “the view from nowhere”. An increasingly popular currency for credibility is transparency. This post by David Weinberger is a good representation of this school of thought.

You can read my annotated thoughts on Weinberger’s piece here. My main critique of his post is that I think it’s a self-serving strategy for him to lump objectivity and transparency into the same category — as trust mechanisms. This sets up a premise in which he can then make the argument that since mechanism A and mechanism B occupy the same niche, and since mechanism B is obviously superior to mechanism A, we should replace A with B.

That premise, however, neglects the fact that while objectivity is in part a mechanism between journalists and the audience, it is also (and more importantly) a mechanism between journalists and the information they work with. In this sense, objectivity does not occupy the same niche as transparency, which is strictly a journalist-audience mechanism. To earn trust using transparency, the journalist is telling the audience, “Trust me because of how I interact with you.” The act of being transparent is itself the trust-earning action in that mechanism. To earn trust through objectivity, however, the journalist is telling the audience, “Trust me because of how I interact with the information.” But the mere act of telling the audience you are objective is not the trust-earning action in the mechanism. The journalist has to actually BE objective first, and that is a relationship between the journalist and the information, a mechanism whose aim is not earning trust, but arriving at reliable, accurate information.

When one takes this distinction into account, one can then easily see how transparency AND objectivity are both important and do not occupy the same niche (and therefore one cannot muscle the other out of its niche). Think about it: What good is being transparent about your process if your process is suspect? Showing the audience how you arrived at your report through biased and flawed methods doesn’t earn their confidence; it only alerts them that you are not trustworthy. Transparency without having a trustworthy process to show serves only the audience, not the journalist. That’s where I believe objectivity comes into play.

About That Whole “Objectivity” Thing

Part of this is also just pure semantics hinging on how one defines “objectivity” — as a synonym for “he said, she said” or as something different. If the mere sound of the word “objectivity” makes your skin crawl, we can talk instead in terms of the principles underlying objectivity, as laid out by Dan Gilmore — thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency (it is interesting to note that in Gilmore’s piece, transparency is part of objectivity, while Weinberger’s piece argues that transparency subsumes objectivity).

This is a good time to talk about how I define “objectivity”. My view of the concept is pretty similar to the dictionary definition for “objective”:

expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.

Nowhere in that definition does it say anything along the lines of “taking no particular viewpoint”, “not reaching any conclusions”,  “not having any opinions”, or “giving every side equal weight”. To me, the act of being objective means that when you are investigating the claims of opposing sides on an issue, you deal strictly in facts, or at least as much as possible. In this sense, objectivity IS very much attainable, because we are not demanding that the journalist be some mutant specimen of homo sapien that has no opinions. We are not even asking the journalist to not form an opinion through the examination of those facts. Rather, we are asking the journalist to temporarily set aside his/her own opinions — which most of us have done at some point in our lives, some more than others — and look only at the facts available and proceed from there. Then, based on those facts, the journalist reaches a conclusion about which side’s argument has greater merit and reports accordingly. Or if the evidence available does not indicate a clear “winner”, the journalist should then present to the audience a fact-based critique of each side’s argument.

Many have blamed objectivity for creating “he said, she said” journalism. However, “he said, she said” is not objectivity, but rather a very poor practice of objectivity. “He said, she said” journalism gives equal weight to all sides of an argument at the wrong stage of the process — in the presentation of their claims to the audience. Objectivity, on the other hand, only requires that all sides be given equal opportunity to make their case during the journalist’s examination of their claims and that they all start out with the same burden of proof, which would be impossible if the journalist does not temporarily set aside his/her own preconceptions on the subject and look only at the evidence presented. Saying objectivity is the cause of “he said, she said” journalism is sort of akin to pointing to a Little League game in which the teams committed 15 errors and saying that baseball is a sloppy sport or that baseball players are terrible athletes. What’s needed here is not the abandonment of objectivity, but a reform of the way it is too often practiced.

What Kind of Trust Do Transparency and Objectivity Engender?

Let’s examine how transparency earns trust, and what kind of trust it is. What doe showing people your process accomplish? It conveys to them that you are honest about how you arrived at your conclusions/information. The trust you earn through that is the trust that you are being honest about your process. While that may add to the trust in the conclusions/information you present, they are not the same thing. To earn trust in the information rather than trust in your honesty about the process, you must convince them that the process was sound. Otherwise, they might give you credit for being honest but would place no more trust in the information you present than before.

The question then arises: How can your investigation yield reliable results if certain parties are disadvantaged right from the beginning of the process because you did not remove your personal bias from your examination? The retention of personal bias places a heavier burden of proof on some parties than others, creating an inherently unfair investigation which, in the audience’s mind, yields unreliable results.

Therefore, the only reason anyone believes that transparency increases trust in their work is because they believe that, when the audience examines their process, they will find it to be thorough, accurate, and fair — all the principles that underlie objectivity. It’s a two-step process: They have to trust you are being honest about your process (transparency), and then they have to trust your process (objectivity).

So instead of saying “transparency is the new objectivity”, let’s revise it a bit and say “transparency is objectivity’s new best friend”.

Bookmark the permalink.

2 Comments

  1. Journalism historians like to discuss all the ways the objectivity norm may have come into being in American journalism. Among them are the theories that the AP had to be objective so that reports could go into any sort of partisan newspaper or that publishers determined that newspapers could be more profitable if they were politically neutral and appealed to a general audience. There are others, but the one that has always interested me most is that objectivity came from an early 20th century emphasis on the natural sciences: journalists were better educated and co-opted some of the scientific method as a reporting process. If you define objectivity as a process of reporting and evaluating information, not as an end result, then transparency fits right in because you're simply opening up the process for view and involvement by the audience.

    • Thanks for the comment Michele. That's an interesting note about journalists co-opting scientific method, because I've always seen some similarities between the two fields. Maybe it's from being the son of a scientist, always having an interest in the natural sciences, and having worked in the scientific realm for the past few years.

      On an unrelated note, here's the thing that has always gotten me about the "objectivity was a business decision" argument: Can we not say that about transparency as well? Or the opinionated reporting that has become more popular with Internet journalism? Didn't both of those things catch on in part because they were financially advantageous? How do we judge whether a new practice is working on the Web? By traffic, of course. If an approach didn't help boost traffic and revenue, would anyone keep practicing them? Economics plays a role in basically all of these journalism practices as long as there is the need to make money and the desire to draw as large an audience as possible.

      Also, critics of objectivity sometimes point out that before objectivity became the standard, newspapers were often strongly partisan. But to me, that's beside the point. People used to think the Earth was flat, too. The important thing is not whether a principle has always existed, but whether it is an improvement over the standard it supplanted. And I'll admit to my bias as a journalist trained in the era of objectivity here, but I do believe objectivity, practiced correctly, is an improvement over partisan reporting. There's plenty of room for opinionated reporting as well, but I think the public is better served if they have at least a few sources that they know aim to base their reporting in fact rather than personal opinions or ideology.

Comments are closed