Wednesday, September 22, 2010

‘Objectivity' vs POV: Sorry, it’s more complicated than you think

Scott Rosenberg’s recent post (Journalists follow their voices, vote with their feet) introduces an important, oft-neglected perspective to the continuing debate about journalistic credibility and accountability. And as he suggests, it isn't really a binary question of “dull and mushy" versus "opinionated and exciting." 

Journalists have always longed for greater freedom, and the great ones have gotten it. You can read journalism from the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights struggle or Nixon era that proves it. Jay Rosen's aptly named "view from nowhere" represents laziness more than imposed restriction. It's simply easier to adopt the gambit Peter Goodman admits to: call and quote an expert you know will say what you want. (There are many variations on this technique; this is only one).

I am absolutely all for transparency and clear voice. I advocated it as the “manifesto” for a weekly I helped start in 1976 and I have known ever since that it’s essential. But the cure for the "view from nowhere" syndrome isn't as simple as declaring “here’s where I'm coming from.” The test of journalism’s worth and value must be, "OK, that's where you're coming from — but what did you bring me?" Simply having and declaring bias is itself mildly useful but it’s hardly determinative. If proffered as a license for dishonest reporting (“If I hadn’t believed this with my own mind, I never would have seen it”) then it’s worse that doing nothing.

Passionate advocacy journalism is altogether consistent with the accuracy, honesty and fairness the discredited “objectivity” standard claimed to advance. In simplest terms, the question is whether the writer starts by searching fearlessly for all the evidence and then comes to a conclusion, or sets out with a conclusion and gathers selected facts to advance it.

Many good journalists can honestly say that where they're coming from is a disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome. That's a POV, but not an opinion.

Likewise, nobody is coming from just one place, either. I have shades and degrees of passion and opinion and expertise on different subjects; my reporting on them will have to filtered through several lenses. We do no good by pretending that this is an easy journey from “nowhere” to nirvana.

Albert Einstein famously advised that everything should be made as simple as possible — but not simpler. 

Just so.

Posted via email from edge & flow

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:37 PM

    OK, I've just been a lurker here, but I have to emerge from the shadows and say that your "Manifesto" is wonderful and inspiring. Now, since I live in Hawaii, and I understand that you've been involved in Pierre Omidyar's Peer News venture, can you make that online effort live up to those ideals? Because, while it is performing a valuable service, it's just a tad boring (not to mention inaccessible behind its expensive pay wall.