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On transparency, objectivity, and the near occasion of subjectivity

Over the past several months, much has been said about transparency being the new objectivity in journalism. As news organizations figure out whether they’ll use social media, and, if so, how they’ll use it, the phrase has been popping up more and more in the blogosphere.

I agree with that sentiment to a point, and I support the idea of transparency whole-heartedly. But at the risk of sounding like the glutton who wants her proverbial cake and to eat it, too, I ask: Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we aim for both objectivity and transparency?

Objectivity is unattainable in my mind unless robots begin to replace journalists (and even then, there’s still the opinions of the humans programming the robots.) But I think it’s a goal worth shooting for. Journalists should, I believe, try with all their might to show all sides (not just two) of a story, to be fair, to be accurate, to hold their own opinions in check in the telling. Even viewpoints we disagree with should get the airing of open discourse.

I agree with those who say transparency is so important now because it is intrinsic to the way people use the Internet. We want to know why we should trust the people we’re reading. We want to know what they think. But I’d go one step farther and argue that transparency was always important, even in the days of print-only publications before the Web took off.

Avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity

Back in the old pre-Web days, we pretended the goal was avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity, not true objectivity.

We, as journalists, did things to make sure it didn’t appear that we had opinions, or beliefs, or baggage from our own lives that might impact what stories we told or the telling itself. In our effort to appear objective, we didn’t cease to feel things or believe things. We just refrained from telling our readers what we thought and felt and believed. And, somehow, we thought that would make us objective.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot because, for the past 20 years, when I worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers, I played by the “avoid the near occasion of subjectivity” rules. I was registered to vote, but I did not enroll in an political party. I didn’t donate to political parties or candidates. I never signed a petition for a candidate or a cause. No campaign signs dotted my lawn. Even as recently as a year ago, I didn’t publicly rejoice on Facebook or Twitter when Barack Obama won.

Then in June, I took a buyout, left the newspaper business, and promptly enrolled in a political party. (Democrat. I know you’re wondering.) For the first time in my adult life, I felt like a full-fledged citizen.

Then I questioned myself: Was I objective and fair during the course of my career? I think so, although, of course, my own way of seeing the world is shaped by what has happened in my life and what I believe. I gravitated to stories that gave voice to the voiceless. Was that my bleeding heart liberal beliefs oozing in, or was that just the right thing to do? Who knows?

Did I try to be objective? Sure. Was I always objective? Probably not. There’s no way to tell. We journalists get around that concept by salving our egos with the adage: If I’ve ticked off both sides, I’ve done my job. But in reality, does that make sense? Is making all your sources mad really a measure of success? Couldn’t that just mean you did a horrendous job and failed to capture the essense of the story?

What I didn’t do is be transparent.

Now, upon reflection, I realize that was wrong. By not telling people what I thought or felt or believed, I may have been avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity, but I wasn’t being a better journalist. I wasn’t building trust with readers. Refraining to tell readers where I was coming from didn’t make me objective. It just failed to make me transparent.

I’d suggest that perhaps there are journalists out there who really don’t care who wins or loses an election or who don’t have an opinion on the president’s health-care plan, abortion, or same-sex marriage. Perhaps there are journalistic automatons who feel nothing, who aren’t captivated by the politics of the day, who lack passion or principle.

Why transparency

As for me, I don’t want people like that giving me the news. I don’t want people who feel nothing making sense of the world for me. I want journalists who both know what’s going on and care deeply about it. I want journalists who are versed in the issues and understand the ramifications of all sides of those issues. I don’t want journalists who fear the near occasion of subjectivity.

I want journalists who are bold and perhaps sometimes brash but who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. I want journalists who feel something way down in the pit of their beings, and who aren’t afraid to show it.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying you insert that opinion in a news story. I’m saying that you don’t hide the fact that you have opinion. I’m saying you disclose opinions and say, “Hey, reader, here’s where I’m coming from.” I fully believe you can still write an objective news story while having beliefs. In fact, I know you can. I spent a career doing that.

I’m just staying we pull those beliefs out of hiding and disclose them, so the readers can decide more fully if we’re being objective or not.

Will some readers accuse you of bias? Of course. But then again, that happens now.

To me, the answer to this battle over objectivity versus transparency is to stop the fight. Call a draw. Both are noble goals. Focus on transparency, and greater objectivity will follow.

Journalism as an industry needs people with passion, opinions, beliefs. Having these feelings — and expressing them — won’t harm objectivity. If anything, it will enhance it.

Photo by Gisela Giardino used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Dave

    Not all of your readers are Catholic… I had an inkling from context what the phrase “near occasion of ____” might mean, but had to Google it to be certain.

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  • http://savethemedia Gina Chen

    Dave,

    You’re right. I’m Catholic. Guilty as charged. However, I thought the meaning would be clear enough to anyone. Apologizes if it wasn’t.

    Gina

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Hi Gina,

    Nice post.

    I think you’re right on a lot of levels, and i think that the fact that the blogging community has already adopted what you’re advocating as a norm speaks to the power and pull of this.

    I think of Michael Arrington and his recent “Scamville” series on TechCrunch about lead generation services that lock unsuspecting people into obscure monthly subscriptions to useless services and that are making $100s of millions of revenue for social gaming startups like Zynga. He was a man on a mission, and he didn’t hide it. I know I came to respect him more for it.

    That’s the rub: what you’re describing and advocating is something that people in the blogosphere and the new crop of young, growing media companies are already doing. It is only the dinosaurs in rapidly shrinking newspaper land that cling to this old notion of objectivity über ales. I don’t know that you need to make the argument (although it’s fun) so much as sit and wait for time to kill off the news orgs that don’t get it.

    -Matt

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    I see transparency more from the procedural side than the personal side. It’s not so much about letting the public know the obvious, that reporters have personal opinions. It’s about letting the public see exactly how journalists gather information and produce stories. It’s about letting them know the questions we asked, who we asked and what we don’t know. That way, the public can judge for themselves whether the coverage we produce is objective.

    (Thanks for the link, by the way.)
    I think that’s what Craig Newmark was getting at when he said that “objectivity is the new transparency.”

  • http://savethemedia Gina Chen

    Matt,

    True enough. Bloggers (at least some of them) get this concept more than many traditional journalists. But I hope there are still some trad journos to get it before they die out.

    Michael,

    I agree that transparency also includes clueing the reader into the process of the story. But I do think transparency applies to the journalists themselves and isn’t all that obvious. Yes, it’s obvious that journalists have opinions. Not sure it’s obvious to readers what those opinions are.

    Gina

  • http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com Carrie Brown-Smith

    Good post, Gina.

    What’s interesting to me is that transparency isn’t really “new” at all – it’s an idea that had been lost but was intrinsic to the original meaning of objectivity when it arose in the American context in the 1920s, according to historians like Mindich and Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism. The idea was not that the journalist him or herself could ever be objective/free of any personal feeling or belief- Freud, relativism, and other trends of the time made that increasingly seem naive – but that she would use an objective METHOD for testing and verifying information and then be transparent about that method so that others would know what to think. Much like the scientific method, albeit on deadline.

    But the Web with its interactivity has made it all the more vital that journalists use transparency.

    If you haven’t read it, Stephen Ward’s conception of “pragmatic objectivity” is the smartest explanation of having your cake and eating it too that I’ve ever seen. :)

    Cheers,
    Carrie Brown-Smith
    @brizzyc

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