A new way
Is objectivity even possible in today’s brand of journalism?
By Justin Chapman 10/21/2009
There are many contributing factors to today’s mass migration to online news sites. Two of them are the contradictions posed by so-called “objectivity” in print and broadcast mainstream journalism and stubborn uniform compliance with that concept.
The debate over objectivity and its misunderstood sibling, subjectivity, was central to my recent studies in the field at UC Berkeley and an internship before that at the Pasadena Weekly, after which I soon came to conclude that objectivity — at least in a strict sense — is unattainable. Even worse, when used in news gathering and reporting, it also sometimes leads to inaccuracies and partial truths.
By no means am I arguing that newspapers should revert back to the days of being operated by political partisans. Objectivity has an extremely useful purpose in the process of gathering, reporting and distributing news.
However, while dinosaur news organizations desperately cling to out-of-date standards of pure objectivity, the Internet is completely free of these ethical restrictions in revolutionizing the way people consume news in our increasingly participatory culture.
In the spirit of fairness (one former editor used to say that newspaper reporters really can hope only to be fair and honest), I have struggled with the implications of this long-standing tension firsthand.
As an intern with the paper, I wrote stories about local, state and federal issues and interviewed officials from each level of government.
But as a citizen, I ran for and won a seat on the Altadena Town Council (with the support of the Weekly), an advisory board with no spending authority that reports to LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich. I was 19 and I had beaten the council’s 57-year-old vice chair with 63 percent of the vote.
I was a journalist in Pasadena and a politician in Altadena, neighboring communities dealing with many overlapping political, social, cultural and economic issues.
But then, as an elected official, I had forged together a second, seemingly incompatible vocation, raising important questions about how I would walk this very thin line.
My editor and I engaged in countless discussions about what role I should be playing and if and how I should use both positions to their best advantage; to the benefit of the community that I grew up in and loved.
I couldn’t be a regular reporter on issues facing the council. But in certain situations, we came to the conclusion that I could use the Weekly as a forum to discuss issues that concerned me, including those in which I was the central figure, as long as I included the voices of people who disagreed with me. (For an example, go to http://pasadenaweekly.com/cms/story/detail/two_sides_of_the_same_coin/5585).
My case was unique, I admit. But I found that in journalism there must be a combination of both objectivity and subjectivity. Journalism is about dispassionately gathering facts and reporting them. That aspect of the business really is purely objective and crucial to the operation of an informative press.
But a person is not just a fact-gathering machine. People feel things about the stories they choose to focus their attention on, and that too should be part of the reporting equation.
In his book “The Logic of Practice,” acclaimed French social scientist, scholar and political activist Pierre Bourdieu attempts to erase the division between the subjective and objective by arguing that proper research must include the application of both concepts. I entirely agree, and my internship experience exposed me to ways of thinking about a new kind of journalism.
My experience with the Weekly wasn’t the only time that I found myself being part of the story. When I was writing about rural life in a poor, small village in Thailand, I had to live the way of the villagers, planting rice and other crops. I had to learn about their culture and beliefs and get to know them on a personal level. This need to truly understand the subjects of my story produced a non-negotiable, subjective immersion that incontrovertibly influenced the descriptions I provided to readers.
Both perspectives were needed, I felt, to paint a textual landscape that not only provided the reader with factual details of what life was like for these villagers, but also analysis, opinion and educated speculation, which many of today’s citizen journalists would include — and mainstream reporters should do more of.
The press should be a public square, a forum that fosters community discussion and awareness, not a stock ticker, or a list of sports scores, or the latest death toll without pictures to humanize the fallen. News offered on the unfiltered — uncensored — Internet already does all that and more and is already subjective to a large degree. If newspapers don’t soon follow suit, one of the greatest achievements in human history will tragically and unnecessarily fade into memory.
Contact Justin Chapman at firstname.lastname@example.org or tajlera.blogspot.com.