An idealist would say objectivity arose from a desire to have an enlightened, rational discussion. A cynic would say it was a good business decision made to sell more newspapers by catering to partisan readers of all varieties. It’s been about a century now, but I’d guess from my own studies that the truth is probably somewhere in between.
Check out Jay Rosen’s well-worded take on objectivity:
“Part of the problem is that journalists don’t realize what objectivity was in the first place,” says Rosen. “From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it’s hard to figure out who’s right and what’s really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to ‘de-voice’ or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product. But the costs of that system have built up over time.”
My sense is that Outing’s column comes less from a desire to save polar bears and more from a desire to see a passionate, interesting newspaper. I also sense it comes from frustration with us journalists worshiping objectivity while many in the public shamelessly hate us and call us biased anyway.
Throwing out the expectation of objectivity in reporting isn’t the answer. The answer is not being ashamed of our editorials and of the discussion we generate.
When confronted by some random person on the street with accusations of my news organization being biased, I don’t placate him or her with cries of objectivity and drone on about the newsroom/editorial board “firewall.” Instead, I spit back that newspapers are supposed to take a stand on issues and do their best to dig up the truth — even if it pisses people off some times. I say that if you have something to say, then here’s my card and come spit fire on one of our blogs or message boards; I’d love to have ya.
The standard newspaper writing style is often stale and homogeneous. Newspapers seldom publish (in print) commentary from the blogosphere and message boards. Many newspaper Web sites bury their interesting blogs at the bottom of their home pages and don’t regularly link to local blogs. And, most poignantly, killer editorials almost never appear on the front page; they’re buried in the back of the A-section.
Let’s begin with truly respecting objective news stories and subjective opinion slinging as being partners in creating a compelling newspaper. Let’s do our best to be fair to the subjects of stories while increasingly embracing our role as discussion leaders in our respective communities.
Otherwise, I foresee many news organizations literally dying of boredom.