I apologize for the light posting of late. This morning I was a guest lecturer at a Hofstra University journalism class, where I talked about the differences between neutral, “objective” reporting and opinion journalism. I found out when I got back to my desk that Michael Kinsley and Michael Barone had beaten me to everything I talked about. Last Friday, Kinsley wrote:
Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn’t have to hide its point of view. It doesn’t have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. Their “objective” counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths then gets tossed out, or perhaps put in quotes and attributed to someone else. That is a common trick used by objective-style journalists in order to tell their readers what they believe to be true without inciting the wrath of the Objectivity cops.
Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist’s most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Then I found this from Barone:
Surveys galore have shown that somewhere around 90 percent of the writers, editors and other personnel in the news media are Democrats and only about 10 percent are Republicans. We depend on the news media for information about government and politics, foreign affairs and war, public policy and demographic trends — for a picture of the world around us. But the news comes from people 90 percent of whom are on one side of the political divide. Doesn’t sound like an ideal situation.
Would abandoning objectivity, as Kinsley suggests, mean that mainstream journalists — 90 percent of whom are left-leaning — would suddenly be free to openly advocate their views? Yes. But that’s preferable to the status quo in which many of them disguise advocacy as objective reporting. There’s little we can do to change the fact that 90 percent of the people who go into news reporting lean left, but we can try to make the news media more transparent.
If only I’d found these articles before my lecture I’d have made them required reading.