Changing the world, not just reporting it

August 16, 2007

it seems like I didn’t make a friend of Fairfax columnist Karl du Fresne at the EPMU’s Journalism Matters conference last weekend in Wellington. Karl’s written a column that appeared today in both the Press (Christchurch) and the Dominion Post (Wellington) Politics threaten media progress – Perspectives in which he criticises me for arguing that objectivity in journalism is dead and for declaring my socialist politics. You can read a previous post on market journalism and objectivity to see where I’m coming from.

I stand by what I said – that the point of journalism is to change the world, not just report it. I’ve written a letter to the editor in response to Karl’s column and here’s the text:

Letter to the editor

The Press

16 August 2007

I’d like to quickly respond to Karl du Fresne’s piece about the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington last weekend (The Press 16 August). The idea that journalism is more about changing the world than merely reporting it is not something new that has recently become entrenched in journalism schools. If readers care to look beyond the rhetoric it becomes clear that the news media has played this role for more than 200 years.

The original press in Britain, Europe and North America was a highly partisan operation. Newspapers took a stand on issues and attempted to influence their readers. The press was influential in changing public opinion about slavery for example. The French and American revolutions were also stirred by the press of the day. Radicals were keen to have their own press in order to inform and mobilise supporters.

If Karl thinks that this has ever disappeared from the news media he’s wrong. William Hearst and Joseph Pulitizer both used their newspapers to push the United States into a war with Mexico in the late 19th centuries. The American press was a propaganda tool used to great effect to generate public sympathy for the allies’ cause in both world wars this century.

The news media took sides during the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict too. Today, Rupert Murdoch is proud of the role his newspapers and television networks played in building public support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In a nutshell, the freedom of the press is now, and always has been, the freedom of the news owners to push their own views. On the other side of the ledger, some of the best journalism has also led to galvanised public opinion and, yes, world-moving change. The BBC’s Michael Burk reported famine in Africa and mad it clear that he was angry and upset about what he’d seen. This mobilised huge relief efforts that no doubt saved thousands of lives. The exposure of thalidomide in the UK in the late 1960s led to that drug being taken off the market as a treatment for morning sickness. John Pilger’s crusading work over many years is another example of what I describe as the journalism of engagement.

Objectivity as a principle of journalism is no longer the holy grail. The fact that some journalism educators are prepared to say so and to put such ideas in front of their students is just a recognition of this idea. In the respected Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham has written a thoughtful piece called “Rethinking Objectivity”. He makes the point that often it is an excuse for lazy journalism and that it forces reporters to rely on official sources. He also argues that it allows the news agenda to be captured by the “spin doctors”.

Finally, I would commend George Orwell’s famous essay “Why I write”, in which he argues for an engaged and partisan journalism that tackles the difficult political issues of the day. He was writing at the close of World War Two, but if you read between the lines, the sentiments expressed echo down the years. I come not to praise objectivity, but to bury it.

Martin Hirst,

AUT, Auckland


Objectivity and Market-Driven Journalism

August 15, 2007

At the Journalism Matters conference recently (see earlier posts on this), I got into a mini argument with a colleague about what should be taught in journalism schools about objectivity. He was quite miffed when I said that I don’t teach it at all. I think it’s an ideological myth, part of the mists of spin that revolve around the concept of professionalism. We cannot separate ourselves from our thoughts, our beliefs, or our work.

I was surprised, in a way, that there are still some old hands out there who think that journalists are not only supposed to be objective, but that it’s actually possible.

Even when it’s not, they argue, the “free” market will sort out the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, in my 50 years of living in a market economy I’ve grown to believe that there is no f*cking wheat, only various grades of mostly unpalatable chaff.

The market cannot solve the basic fault line in journalism– between the public interest and the profit motive. This is a dialectic contradiction that is built in to the system. In fact, it is the bl**dy system.

In 2003, the Columbia Journalism Review published piece, by Brent Cunningham is called “Re-thinking objectivity“. It seems to me that he might be on to something.

The debate has now broken out into the blogosphere, here’s some samples of what’s being said:

This isn’t to say that the objectivity problem is unsolvable, only that it’s going to take time, and it will have to be done incrementally. Paul McLeary

This is like saying we can incrementally get rid of capitalism by convincing the capitalists, one by one, to give up their stolen wealth.

Mark Kleiman, over at The Reality-Based Community, has a different view:

A news account isn’t an editorial. The ideal-type “reporter” is supposed to give “just the facts, ma’am,” and not his or her own opinions.

This creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat (or that tax cuts lead to revenue increases, or that there’s still legitimate doubt about anthropogenic global warming, or that soldiers in Iraq are mostly fighting al-Qaeda) should the reporter “objectively” simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?

To me this is not a bad position. There is “objectivity”, if you like, in the natural world. It rains and we get wet, there are floods and bridges collapse. If we don’t eat and drink well, we die. Smoking causes lung cancer. These are “facts”, but when we get into the murky social world of politics, economics and spin. Where the hell is the factual truth? It’s not some middle ground of “balance”. There’s right and there’s wrong.

Going back to Cunningham’s original piece, he puts this into the context of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003:

Before the fighting started in Iraq, in the dozens of articles and broadcasts that addressed the potential aftermath of a war, much was written and said about the maneuverings of the Iraqi exile community and the shape of a postwar government, about cost and duration and troop numbers. Important subjects all. But few of those stories, dating from late last summer, delved deeply into the numerous and plausible complications of the aftermath. That all changed on February 26, when President Bush spoke grandly of making Iraq a model for retooling the entire Middle East. After Bush’s speech “aftermath” articles began to flow like the waters of the Tigris — including cover stories in Time and The New York Times Magazine — culminating in The Wall Street Journal’s page-one story on March 17, just days before the first cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, that revealed how the administration planned to hand the multibillion-dollar job of rebuilding Iraq to U.S. corporations. It was as if the subject of the war’s aftermath was more or less off the table until the president put it there himself.

There is no single explanation for these holes in the coverage, but I would argue that our devotion to what we call “objectivity” played a role. It’s true that the Bush administration is like a clenched fist with information, one that won’t hesitate to hit back when pressed. And that reporting on the possible aftermath of a war before the war occurs, in particular, was a difficult and speculative story.

Cunningham makes some good points, among them:

  1. Objectivity has persisted for some valid reasons, the most important being that nothing better has replaced it.
  2. But our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to “truth.” Objectivity excuses lazy reporting.
  3. It exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the “he said” and the “she said,” and, thus, “balance.”
  4. More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president — or the governor, or the CEO — and risk losing our access.
  5. Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there.
  6. In short, the press’s awkward embrace of an impossible ideal limits its ability to help set the agenda.
  7. If space is a problem, time is an even greater one. The nonstop news cycle leaves reporters less time to dig, and encourages reliance on official sources who can provide the information quickly and succinctly.
  8. Meanwhile, the Internet and cable news’s Shout TV, which drive the nonstop news cycle, have also elevated the appeal of “attitude” in the news, making the balanced, measured report seem anachronistic.
  9. Perhaps most ominous of all, public relations, whose birth early in the twentieth century rattled the world of objective journalism, has matured into a spin monster so ubiquitous that nearly every word a reporter hears from an official source has been shaped and polished to proper effect.
  10. The genuflection toward “fairness” is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal.
  11. Reporters are biased, but not in the oversimplified, left-right way that Ann Coulter and the rest of the bias cops would have everyone believe.
  12. Mostly, though, we are biased in favor of getting the story, regardless of whose ox is being gored.

I think the most telling point, and the one that puts the kybosh on any bullsh*t about the virility of market forces, is the issue of class. Here’s Cunningham’s take, and I agree wholeheartedly:

Arguably the most damaging bias is rarely discussed — the bias born of class. A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism’s biggest blind spots. Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia’s journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, “It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It’s a little harder to do that now, and you don’t get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike.” That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.

He continues, and again, I concur:

It is important, always, for reporters to understand their biases, to understand what the accepted narratives are, and to work against them as much as possible. This might be less of a problem if our newsrooms were more diverse — intellectually and socioeconomically as well as in gender, race, and ethnicity — but it would still be a struggle. There is too much easy opinion passing for journalism these days, and this is in no way an attempt to justify that. Quite the opposite. We need deep reporting and real understanding, but we also need reporters to acknowledge all that they don’t know, and not try to mask that shortcoming behind a gloss of attitude, or drown it in a roar of oversimplified assertions.

I come not to praise objectivity, but to bury it. Any decent journalist who has a questioning mind should immediately abandon any attempt at objectivity and, instead, embrace their own political soul. Journalism should be about challenging the status quo, pushing for change and arguing for the oppressed and the underdog. I encourage my students to read George Orwell, particularly this passage from “Why I Write“:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

We live in such an age. The struggle between totalitarian ideologies, states and systems is going on all around us. Who can choose sensibly between the greedheads in Washington and the crazy mullahs in Teheran? It is, in my view, similar to the scenario that Orwell describes in 1984. A global war in which both sides struggle for a hegemony that can only come at the expense of real people.

That is the truth, but it sure ain’t objective.


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