Objectivity: The Mortal Ethic that Started the ‘Quest for Innocence’

A response to Jay Rosen's theory of the newspapers' quest for innocence: sources are going direct, the Fourth Estate has lost its teeth, and Objectivity is killing good journalism.

heads up: this is a pretty old post, it may be outdated.

While newspapers, TV journalists, and news radio bemoan the internet as an attack on journalism, Jay Rosen’s excellent piece, The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism explores the failures of journalists themselves. In an attempt to cling to the standards of an obsoleted era, journalists, not the internet (read: those of us who use the internet) are failing as the Fourth Estate. The 'quest of innocence,' that stems from the need for objectivity seems to run counter to the mission of reporting facts. This leaves Prof. Rosen to end with a question: “How the hell could this happen?”

There are of course, far too many reasons to answer the question succinctly, but let me posit a few observations in an attempt to respond:

The need to remain relevant

If “sources are going direct” then one of the roles of the traditional news institutions, to report fact, has become obsolete. To remain relevant, newsorgs are left with three possible methods of covering the news: a) present an opinion on events, b) cover parts of the story the sources themselves will not reveal, c) curate the sources into a digest. Traditional journalists feel the need to remain objective (more in a bit), which eliminates opinion and leaves only a combination of behind-the-scenes reporting and factual curation as a means of covering news. Since access is the easiest way to cover what the sources won’t self-reveal, newsorgs live in fear of angering any one party and cause them champion the shield of objectivity.

Objectivity means detachment

If the only way newsorgs can provide value is to gain access and curate, the desire to use the blanket of objectivity has never been so strong. Seemingly, only objectivity can persuade sources to provide access to a reporter. A strong reputation for only reporting facts … and who a fear of reporting any facts that might run counter to the source’s interest is always best. The ethical tenant of objectivity is perhaps the greatest hinderance to reporting ever conceived.

This is an age where objectivity is treated as a moral impossibility and therefore a mortal flaw. Though perhaps its editors don’t like to admit it, the NYT doesn’t have a reputation for objectivity. The Gray Lady is known as anything from liberal rag to a shining example of the liberal media. Not that they’re singled out – I can’t think of a single newsorg that has a untarnished reputation for unbiased reporting.

Not that it matters, because newsorgs themselves aren’t in question – its the individual reporters that are. We live in an era of transparency, and more apropos – access. **We no longer trust the ‘voice from nowhere’ – we trust personality. **Hence, the rise of Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, Michael Arrington, and oh so many more.

The editorial desire for objectivity misses the point.

“This was a news story, an attempt to report what’s happening out there, as accurately and fairly as possible. Which is not the place for the author’s opinion.” Or: “I was trying to describe the Tea Party movement, and to understand it, which is hard enough; I’ll let others judge what to make of it.”

The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

Statements like those are the equivalent of a photographer showing up without caption information for his photos. A truly objective report is an omission of context that, for photographers, has long been criminal in newsrooms.

Journalists don’t have a view from nowhere. We value them precisely because they have _a view from somewhere_**. **Journalists are experts in their field. They have knowledge, contacts, and experience that we can’t replicate – so we go to them for their expertise. Just a doctor presents a diagnosis, journalists present the best accumulation of facts they can find and create not an opinion, but a conclusion.

NYTimes microfiche at UCBerkeley's JSchool Library

Fear of Failure

Perhaps the most dreaded words of any traditional newsorg have been “we regret the error.”

Newspapers and broadcast TV have both been terrible at owning up to their mistakes. With apologies coming too late, or not at all. Organizations that persist with this culture of objectivity foster the need to never be wrong – the idea of right or wrong can’t exist in an institution masquerades as objective.

If journalists are experts, and express a conclusion just as a scientist would present a theory, newsorgs need to be willing to accept that even the best conclusions might be wrong. After all, at one time, the best theory of the day said the world was flat.

In my experience, the web has shown that people forgive failure more quickly than obstinacy. We trust experts, not institutions. We forgive failures that are owned, and shy away from mistakes that are glossed over. TechCrunch, for example, doesn’t have an unstained reputation, but who sets the agenda for tech news – TechCrunch or the Wall Street Journal?

Once, they feared the press

The struggle with objectivity and fear of failure lead to the elegant phrase from Prof. Rosen – “the quest for innocence.” This quest, spawned out of a fear of failure, a desire for objectivity, and a need to remain relevant, has created the real problem: the toothless media.

I’m not sure when the cudgel changed hands, but The White House has now mastered the manipulation of the press. President Obama, in a sources-go-direct move, is phasing them out of traditional roles. Journalists are scared of loosing access.

I’m was pretty sure that this its supposed to work the opposite way – the media, as the Fourth Estate, has the duty to check the first, second, and third. Remember when organizations used to invite journalists to events because they’d get bad press otherwise? I don’t. I don’t know if that age has existed in my lifetime. At one point, the press was scary (and only in part because of the paparazzi). Now, the press is controllableJournalists shouldn’t be scared of loosing access. Politicians, companies, stock holders, the military, ought to be afraid of loosing coverage.

Could the source go direct? Sure they can. But, who’s going to trust The White House critiquing the president’s performance at the State of the Union? Who will believe the military’s assurances that their new plan for the three-month-turned-nine-year war is really the right call? Are we really taking Toyota’s claims that they’ve fixed all their problems at face value?

We’ll be looking to the Fourth Estate to provide not just facts, but conclusions. Sources can present all the information they want, but if they want trust, they’ll need transparency. That means giving access to the press.

This, does of course, mean journalists have to work. The church of the savvy has failed. It’s not possible for journalists to just take the access granted to them. Sources going direct is a liberating experience – it should free journalists from the menial task of simply re-wording press releases. Shift the cudgel back to the press.

All this complaining…

There’s no point hand wringing that the mainstream media just has it all wrong. There are solid steps to be taken to move forward.

  • Abandon the view from nowhere. Embrace journalists as the experts they are. Capable of expressing not an opinion, but conclusions.
  • Allow for the possibility that the world might be round. Failure is an option if its not a habit. Wrongness isn’t a sin if its admitted and corrected quickly.
  • Abandon objectivity in favor of transparency. This is an old one now, but it’s a cultural shift as drastic as Jeff Jarvis's turning off the presses for traditional institutions and therefore a tough pill to swallow.
  • Get some cajones. If journalists realize that sources going direct has freed them of many of the traditional, menial tasks, of reporting, they can focus on the isn’t the right way to do business – that sources on the inside aren’t the only sources – they can release themselves of the need to remain ‘objective’ and avoid access lock-out. Rely on old fashion reporting instead of softball access.


I published both this post and a comment on PressThink at the same time, but my comment seems not have made it past the moderation filter though many others have. I resubmitted my comment a day later, and after waiting another day, the comment had still not made it past moderation. I'm going to go with the notion that my comment was rejected by a spam bot because of too many links, or perhaps I twice mistakenly didn't finish the submittal process. I will however, go ahead and publish it here:

Prof. Rosen–

Thank you for writing this piece. I’ve attempted an answer to your last question on my own blog as it got too long for the comments, but I wanted to respond to your example of tyranny.

I’m a moderate, registered independent, voter. The Tea Party goes down in my book as great fodder for The Daily Show but not much else.

That said, the word “tyranny” though a bit exaggerated, shouldn’t so quickly be belittled. I’ll point to the rise of presidential power which has only increased over the last 80 years, and the last two presidents have dramatically increased that power. One of the greatest examples of this expansion of power is the use of signing statements.

President Bush issued more signing statements than any other president. In these statements he affirmed that he wouldn’t enforce certain portions of bills because he believed them to be unconstitutional. Now, President Obama has said that he won’t be issuing some signing statements at all if he’s previously spoken against the issue.

Tyranny might be a strong word for that in todays politically correct society, but I think anyone would admit, there’s something not right with a President saying he can make, enforce, and decide the constitutionality of the laws – especially if he’s not even going to write it down for us. (For those not keeping track, The Constitution states that only Congress can make laws, the President is obligated to enforce them, and The Supreme Court is solely tasked with decided constitutionality.)

Of course, this argument is really just a good example of why the claim should have been explored in the NYT. I’m fairly certain it wasn’t because sources are going direct, the Fourth Estate has lost its teeth, and Objectivity is killing good journalism.