Objectivity (noun): “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”
Math problems are objective. The Yellow Pages are objective. Journalism is not objective.
At the Indy we sometimes hear from readers that a story is not objective. You’re right, it probably isn’t, because the Indy, in its 29 years of publishing, never has been and never has claimed to be.
Now we strive to be fair, to listen and analyze the viewpoints of all sides (not “both sides,” which implies there are only two viewpoints) of an issue. We use documents and interviews to try to ensure the stories are true and factual. (Red flag alert: Truth and facts, I once heard a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explain, are not the same thing; if anything, facts, when manipulated, can obscure the truth.)
But the Indy’s philosophy is we must give readers more than an august recitation of the “facts.” We’ll leave that to the Associated Press—and that’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of that news organization’s philosophy.
We believe readers want meaning and context, not just information, to help form their own opinions about an issue. We trust that the Indy isn’t the only food in readers’ media diet, and that they can gather enough facts and viewpoints from many places to draw a reasonable, well-informed conclusion about an issue.
It’s not enough to tell readers what happened, but we need to tell them why and how— and that requires analysis. Will you get analysis from a left-leaning perspective? Yes, but we’ve always been transparent and unapologetic about that. In contrast, if I read a news story in the right-wing Carolina Journal, I know what I’m getting. I may disagree—well, I always disagree—but I’ll give the CJ points for not publishing under the guise of objectivity.
There was a dustup recently at The New York Times when the public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column asking if reporters should fact check their sources’ claims rather than just dutifully writing them down. A chorus of journalists and readers chimed in, and said, and I’m paraphrasing, Hell yes, they should—it’s what journalists do. (Brisbane later defended the column to Howard Kurtz on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that reporters should do so, but that it is a “question of degree” because reporters risk appearing that they’re fighting with their sources in print.)
I would argue a little public scrum with a news source, if that person is fibbing, embellishing or dodging, is necessary. We wouldn’t want it to consume the whole story, but it would make the point that reporters are not glorified stenographers. We will write down (or record) what a source says. And then our job is to check it out to see where he or she may have stretched the “truth” like circus taffy. And then it is our job to tell the readers.
Readers will rarely get objectivity in news, despite what media outlets may claim. But readers do deserve transparency from sources and the news organizations themselves.
Now playing: Wilco A.M.
I received a voicemail this morning from a concerned reader regarding an ad in the back of the paper. The ad says that on average, escorts have sex with seven men in a day, while women in general have sex with seven men in a lifetime. (It being an ad and not a news story, there was no attribution for these figures.) The ad was offering hookups with "real, clean women." As opposed to unreal, clean women?
First, this ad is for a company that matches married people looking for sex with someone besides their spouse. The company slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair." (Want life to be shorter? Get caught.) But it's really none of my business how people run their marriages.
My point is—and please tell your family, friends, coworkers, pets—as editor, I have no control over our advertising clients. And it should be that way because I wouldn't want the advertising department controlling editorial content. I explained this in a previous blog post. This is known as the "editorial/ad wall" and no, Mr. Gorbachev, this wall won't be torn down.
I don't like some ads that run in the Indy. I'm sure there are stories that make our sales reps cringe. That's the newspaper business. People sometimes ask, "Why do you run these ads?" The answer: "It helps pay the bills." That's the unvarnished truth.
My suggestion to people who don't like ads of a sexual nature: Don't read them.
Last night I received an email from a reader upset because in the Indy's print edition this week, our cover story about the Iowa caucuses included a picture of Michael, a 28-year-old textile worker, in a string of photos of GOP candidates. From left to right: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum—and then there’s Michael.
The rugged-looking, bearded Michael is wearing a baseball cap turned backward—with some errant hair jutting from under it—and a shirt that reads, “I’m a stoner … and I vote.” Now Michael didn’t materialize out of nowhere, unless you consider Iowa nowhere, which I don’t, because I’m from central Indiana and that’s really nowhere.
Indy columnist Jonathan Weiler, who covered the caucuses for us, interviewed Michael for a story that appeared on our Triangulator blog. A friend of Jonathan’s shot the photo, which we used with permission. Michael attended a Ron Paul campaign event and told Jonathan that he supports Paul.
The reader wanted to know why we would place a photo of “an unkempt man” wearing such a T-shirt in juxtaposition to photos of Republican candidates in formal attire. He also asked why we ran the photo when the article didn’t mention the candidates’ positions on the War on Drugs. And the reader questioned why we picked a marijuana activist to photograph and if we were trying to say that Ron Paul supporters are “a bunch of idiot stoners high on grass and out of touch with the reality of how complex politics are in this day and age?”
Well, one man’s unkemptness is another man’s wedding attire. Michael’s a bit burly, but he looks clean to me. It’s not like I could smell him through the photo. And we don’t know that Michael is a marijuana activist. He may just have a sense of humor.
Speaking of humor, there’s no reason to be paranoid (although I’ve heard pot can make you that way, at least temporarily) about our decision to run this photo. I approved of running it in this manner because I thought it was irreverent and funny. It wasn’t an indictment or an endorsement of drug use, or commentary on our failed War on Drugs. (By using the word "failed" here, that is commentary.)
I liked the underlying message that by placing Michael’s photo next to the candidates’—all the pictures were the same size—that he, a young, blue-collar worker, is every bit as important as and equal to the politicians who pretend to have his best interest in mind. If anything, the question should be “Why are those gussied-up mannequins featured next to a real person?”
The photo was merely a small thumb in the big ol’ eye of the powerful. It was to add levity to a ridiculous political charade or, as Jonathan called it, “a depressing spectacle.” As an alternative newsweekly, we're expected to be cheeky. That's what alt-weeklies do.
Given the political climate, one can choose to laugh or cry. This week we chose to laugh.