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Monday, January 30, 2012

The guise of objectivity

Posted by on Mon, Jan 30, 2012 at 9:41 AM

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.

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