Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blogs, transparency, objectivity and bias

We're all supporting blogs on our sites, in no small part because we hope that blogs will create more meaningful opportunities for true conversation between our newsrooms and our audience. Increased transparency of the sort created by such conversations, we hope, will prove a powerful weapon in differentiating what we do from the echo-chamber ‘journalism of affirmation’ practiced by what Richard A. Viguerie and other partisans are labeling ‘new and alternative media.’

But are we really prepared to have those conversations? And are we prepared to answer the questions our audience is increasingly asking?

One thing I hope is now clear: Reader largely don’t know or care about the steps we on the news side have taken to maintain our objectivity. They don’t see a distinction between the editorial pages and the news pages, and they largely don’t distinguish between columnists and reporters. Most of all, they don’t trust the careful lines we’ve drawn to maintain objectivity. Rather than seeing those lines as journalistic standards, they instead suspect they just convenient shields we use to hide our biases.

Leading up to the election, the reporter behind our most active news blog found himself mired in just that sort of vicious circle. His audience was large and dedicated. And overwhelmingly skeptical. Rather than valuing his contributions more because he was objective, many argued that his refusal to disclose his personal leanings made them trust him less. The left-leaning readers saw bias favoring Republicans, the right-leaning readers saw bias favoring Democrats. And while many of us may see that as proof that he was doing his job, the end result is that both groups said they found the blog less relevant and less trustworthy. Yes, it’s a select group. Yes, it’s a partisan group. But do we honestly believe that such skepticism isn’t found throughout our audience?

Last spring, Michael Kinsley grappled with the problem and suggested a middle way: Ditch our claims of objectivity and instead just stick to the facts. Here’s a quote:

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist's most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Kinsley’s complete Slate essay can be found here.

As our reporters, particularly those covering politics, wade deeper into the conversational world of blogging and other two-way media, these questions seem impossible to avoid. Sure, we could attempt to steer clear of these ugly issues by keeping news reporters out of our blogging plans. But we won’t be solving any problems that way, we’ll just be ignoring them. Kinsley’s solution is probably overblown. All journalism can't be opinion journalism. But some sort of more aggressive transparency certainly seems to be called for.

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