What the Spot.Us Community Thinks of Objectivity

    by David Cohn
    August 31, 2010

    Objectivity in Journalism Wordle

    The following post comes to us from Sameer Bhuchar, who is helping Spot.Us from Austin.


    It has been said a thousand times before: The landscape of the
    modern media is changing. With today’s more complex, active Internet
    ecosystem, the accepted norms of journalism are constantly being
    rewritten or tossed out all together. The Internet has bypassed the once
    highly regarded norms of gatekeepers at a news desk, and it now
    seems to be challenging the long held model of objectivity in journalism.


    If there is an underlying theme to Spot.Us it is the idea that we expect our community to tell us what is important in journalism,
    rather than dictate it ourselves. With that in mind, several weeks ago,
    thanks to a generous sponsorship from Clay Shirky,
    we asked for your honest feedback about objectivity and journalism. We
    let the 500 users who took the survey decide
    where the sponsorship dollars should go. In other words, we handed over a
    part of our budget to community members who let us figure out what the
    ethos is around objectivity in journalism. Community-focused sponsorship for the win! (Try our newest CFS. Let us know about important story ideas in your region and fund a story on Spot.Us for free).

    Survey Results

    Is there a clear divide between those who support the traditional
    idea of objectivity and those who take a different stance? Are there
    exceptions to the standard? How should journalism work for you? Some
    believe objectivity means reporting facts without bias, and that an
    article must be balanced and include multiple points of view. To
    many, objectivity in journalism is the most important standard of the
    profession. It was once considered the glue of the business, the one aim
    that let media consumers decide for themselves what was right and

    Increasingly, however, the idea of traditional objectivity is
    being challenged by this new, proactive age of media consumers. To those
    who challenge the ideal, it is an outdated standard that has crippled
    journalists from digging deep into stories.

    Keep in mind the survey results are not scientific and, as the
    political leanings graph shows, there was perhaps a self-selecting
    audience (the Spot.Us community). Nonetheless, with 500 respondents
    there was a diverse set of answers.

    First and foremost it is important to note that about 52 percent of the survey takers were female and 48 percent male.

    Also, close to 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as liberals,
    with only 10.8 percent identifying as conservative. Close to 30 percent
    said they were independents. This could be reflective of where Spot.Us’
    traffic comes from (heavy in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York).

    Responses to the question, “Is objectivity even possible?” show there are a large percentage of people with a changing idea about objectivity. Of the survey questions, perhaps
    this one and the responses associated with it were the most telling when it comes to attitudes towards objectivity. Only 13.5 percent (60 respondents) very
    clearly identified “objectivity” as being what
    journalism is all about.

    This view point can best be explained through Spot.Us member Craig Gaines
    extended response. “I define an objective piece as one that represents
    all viewpoints in a piece and allows readers to make up their minds
    about those viewpoints,” Gaines said. “To do anything less is a
    disservice to, and disrespectful of, the reader.”

    A staggering 44.6 percent (199) people agreed with the answer, “Objectivity is possible but difficult. It separates
    wheat from chaff.” In essence the answer implies that objectivity should
    be seen more as a quest for honest, factual reporting. Spot.Us member (and NewsTrust executive director) Fabrice Florin summed up this viewpoint well.

    While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an
    important journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual
    news reporting, not for opinion pieces,” Florin said. “For news reports,
    a neutral perspective helps present views from different sides without
    interjecting the author’s personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post
    their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are
    clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as
    neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on
    public issues they cover.

    Of the respondents, 27.6 percent (123 people) chose the answer
    “transparency is the new objectivity,” implying that it is the reporting
    of truth that is most important, rather than a detached account of a scene.

    “I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as
    part of the narrative so as to partially disarm whatever criticism of
    bias they may receive,” said member Paul Balcerak. “Doing so will provide a better
    service to the public and will create better journalism.”

    There were also 55 people who believed objectivity was impossible,
    and 9 people went as far to answer that objectivity “is a crutch to prop
    old media up.”

    This is all just the tip of the iceberg. Other questions sought to discover the community’s view of how important objectivity is (always required, sometimes, never, etc.), and to help gauge the respondents’ relationship to journalism
    (a professor or as an avid news reader, for example). We believe that in aggregate this
    survey provides unique insight into what people from the
    Spot.Us community want and expect from the media.

    To drive the point home, we’ve included anecdotal responses
    from our insightful community members who gave us permission to publish
    their answers. (These were used to create the above Wordle.)

    Perhaps what we can learn from all of this is that objectivity, while important as an ideal of fairness, should not be seen as a way of achieving “detached-ness,” if you will. But heck, this blog post is by no means
    unbiased, so even that assumption may not be accurate, or apply to you
    personally. One thing the respondents did uniformly agree upon is
    that reporters should unabashedly seek truth. While pure objectivity may
    be impossible, being honest isn’t.

    Community Views

    Below is a selection of comments from the wisest people we know — our community. Here’s what they had to say about objectivity:

    “In journalism school I was very swayed by the ‘Transparency IS the
    new objectivity’ school of thinking, and the notion that everyone has
    bias and perspective, and so any attempt to avoid that is foolhardy.
    From my insider perspective, my own biases and opinions seemed magnified
    and huge. However, since I haven’t been working as a journalist and
    have been, instead, consuming local media (increasingly independent and
    citizen/blog driven, as the local establishment journalism withers away)
    I’ve longed for the ideal of objectivity while recognizing it might
    never have been truly practiced. I’ve grown to strongly dislike the
    strongly and biased opinionated citizen journalism I am now surrounded
    by, because it so often willfully refuses to dig deeper and more broadly
    and is so very proud of its ‘perspective’. I am often left with a long
    list of simple questions I think I would have asked just to get the
    whole story.” — Saheli Datta

    “I don’t believe what we’ve traditionally defined as objectivity in
    the media is actually objectivity—it’s more like perceived impartiality.
    I think that reporters ought to reveal their biases in each story as
    part of the narrative (writing in first-person would make the process a
    lot less awkward, by the way) so as to partially disarm whatever
    criticism of bias they may receive. Doing so will provide a better
    service to the public and will create better journalism.” — Paul Balcerak

    “Objectivity was a marketing technique invented by the AP 100 + years
    ago. It’s well suited for monopoly style newspaper production but shits
    the bed when media representation of similar events increases… Debunking objectivity as a concept is as easy as shooting ducks in
    duck hunt, but fact of the matter is that if we didn’t believe in
    objectivity our lives would be intolerable.

    “Therefore the question isn’t about whether objectivity in journalism
    is possible, it’s how does a person come to see media as objective?
    That’s where things get interesting and where a lot is getting
    disrupted. The meaning of an event doesn’t happen until it’s represented
    and what we are seeing is an explosion in meaning at the sign of *any
    event*. See Stuart Hall, he’s pre-Twitter but his points are just as
    valid.” — Cody Brown

    “Transparency means more than understanding where the journalist’s
    bias lies; it means that the journalist or reporter does things like
    crowdsource some questions, work in partnership with community
    journalism initiatives already underway, blog about the progress on a
    story and explain what the next steps are (unless it’s a super-secret
    undercover investigation), record interviews and give public access to
    the full transcript as well as the audio file, etc. Transparency means
    addressing reader concerns and input about pieces and continuing the
    conversation after one story is published.” — Suzi Steffen

    “A journalist’s background certainly matters in how they interpret
    subjects, but the job is to look close, ask questions, and get the
    details right. More and more, unfortunately, it’s also about checking
    out sources and making sure none of them are lying. With more and more
    resources dedicated to “spin” this part is important and often accounts
    for why a lot of people reject a good story as objective or biased –
    because they’ve been dished the spin in other platforms. But objectivity
    really is the name of the game.” — Lee van der Voo

    “In most mainstream news reports I hear, including a good number on
    NPR, there’s an annoying trend toward presenting one side and then the
    other, while completely evading the question of which side might be
    right! This is a perverted effect of the mania that journalism has for
    supposedly unbiased an objective reporting. Too often in the name of
    objectivity journalists avoid taking principled stands on anything; too
    often monied interests can distract the public’s attention from their
    own dubious business practices by trotting out a voice of dissent
    rationalizing their stand — which, of course, will get equal air-time.” — Anneke Toomey

    “There is a saying somewhere: Objectivity is not possible, but
    fairness is. That is to say: are all sides, all points of view
    represented honestly and with the same weight? Ultimately, I’d say
    objectivity is a personal trait, fairness is a professional trait that
    pertains to our profession as journalists. Strive for fairness.” —  Barbara Gref

    “No journalist is truly objective, if that term is meant to mean
    someone who has no opinions about the subjects he or she covers.
    Subjectivity starts right from the point at which a journalist chooses a
    subject to cover and goes right on through to who is interviewed, what
    quotations are selected, how the headline is written, and on and on. But
    what makes journalism different from other practices with which it is
    sometimes confused, such as PR or politics, is that journalists are in
    the business of independent verification of fact.” — Robert McClure

    “No one is truly unbiased or objective but that doesn’t mean that a
    good reporter doesn’t look for the truth behind everyone’s agenda.
    Objectivity means not sitting on a story that would make someone look
    bad just because you’re invested in their success. I almost said
    “Transparency is the new objectivity” only because it is the latest and
    most fabulous word to throw around. Transparency only helps identify
    lapses in objectivity, it doesn’t replace it. As for transparency, it
    certainly helps identify lapses in objectivity, but it doesn’t replace
    it.” — Amanda Hickman

    “Objectivity often means portraying both sides of the story but
    without considering power & privilege, you can never get both sides
    of story. It would be like looking at African Americans & crime in
    inner cities without looking at the effects of institutional racism and
    how poverty/availability of drugs/housing blight/welfare policies etc
    contributes to crime. Journalism needs to put more emphasis on telling
    the stories of the underserved and marginalized and those most impacted
    the those who have power.” — Micky Duxbury

    “No one is objective. The best we can do (instead of  pretending to be
    objective) is being transparent about our biases so readers are aware
    and can judge our content as they feel is appropriate. That said, it
    doesn’t mean we should turn every article into a ranting, biased blog
    post, or even take a side on an issue we’re covering. We just need to
    stop pretending true “Objectivism” exists.” — Lauren Rabaino

    “While objectivity is difficult to achieve, it is an important
    journalistic quality to strive for, particularly for factual news
    reporting (not for opinion pieces). For news reports, a neutral
    perspective helps present views from different sides without
    interjecting the author’s personal opinions. Authors are welcome to post
    their own perspectives in their own opinion pieces, as long as they are
    clearly labeled as such. But journalists who want to serve society as
    neutral observers and referees should continue to report objectively on
    public issues they cover.” — Fabrice Florin

    “I find writing by people who disclose and discuss their
    biases/backgrounds dramatically more compelling than sterile
    I-refuse-to-take-sides-so-decide-for-yourself writing. I think it’s
    possible to explain and analyze both sides of a story and fulfill a
    journalistic purpose without sitting on the fence.” — Katie Lohrenz

    “Everyone has opinions, and we are all entitled to have them.
    Journalists are no different. I like it when a journalist tells me how
    he/she arrived at an opinion, and any part of his/her backstory that
    will help me to assess credibility. Transparency is certainly part of
    the picture. What isn’t helpful is a journalist who simply reports the
    sound bite from one side and then gathers the sound bite from another
    side and calls it a story – without stopping to investigate whether the
    facts can back up either side.” — Laurie Pumper

    “I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to be objective, but if you
    aren’t going to be objective, it is absolutely necessary to be honest
    about it.” — Luke Gies

    “Objectivity should be the goal for journalism. Reporting all sides of
    the story without bias is ideal. Unfortunately we live in a very
    polarized climate. Shock value, knee jerk reactions and stubborn opinion
    rule the day. I really appreciate news sources that don’t resort to
    playing to that audience.” — Marie Rafalko

    “Basically, ‘objectivity’ in journalism began post WWII as a strategy
    to make news content more palatable to a broader advertiser base. That
    worked — and it helped enable newspaper consolidation in many cities.
    But the strategy took on a life of its own — and while it yielded some
    benefits, it’s a fundamentally not credible premise. Journalism is
    created by people, and people are not objective. As media has become
    multidirectional, it’s become ridiculous to try to ignore that reality.
    News organizations that choose a veneer of objectivity over the practice
    of transparency undermine their own credibility. The sad thing is, many
    news orgs cling to their veneer of objectivity because they think it
    builds credibility. They’re eating their own dog food.” — Amy Gahran

    “I chose my answer by eliminating the others. I know it’s not always
    possible. It’s really tough. But transparency is absolutely not an
    alternative to objectivity. Fox News is transparent. It’s not good
    journalism. Saying transparency can replace objectivity basically says
    that journalism can be produced by interest groups, as long as they’re
    honest about who they are. That’s no good for anyone, except for the
    interest groups.” — Molly Samuel

    “The U.S. journalism establishment has determined that they are
    smarter than consumer sand therefore must talk down, water down,
    simplify news stories. Their fear was that no one would read the paper.

    “If all the facts were reported AND an effort was made to make media
    literacy an elementary school requirement we might have real journalism
    again in this country in a generation or so. Or promote and support
    online platforms that present facts and commentary separately. Then let
    traditional media fend for themselves.” — Todd O’Neill

    “It’s never possible, but always desirable. That is, complete
    objectivity is probably impossible, because we aren’t always aware of
    our prejudices. But, it is what we should strive for, regardless. So, it
    is very important to attempt, but also to be aware that we may have
    blind spots, in order to avoid the arrogance of believing you are able
    to step completely out of your own biases.” — Rebecca Church

    “To an extent, I agree with ‘Transparency is the new objectivity,’ but
    I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think pursuing objectivity while being
    transparent is crucial. Journalists should make every effort to escape
    their biases, explore other perspectives, and challenge their
    assumptions of what are and are not significant/authoritative voices,
    but they shouldn’t do so at the cost of reporting and storytelling.
    However, they should acknowledge where they can where they are coming
    from, what perspectives they might take into the discussion, and what
    assumptions they are starting with so readers/audiences are able to make
    an informed analysis of the journalist’s credibility.” — Bill Lascher

    “‘Transparency is the new objectivity’ is a fun riff, and it’s close,
    but I think we (in the media business) grossly overstate the public’s
    interest in our affiliations and conflicts.” — Ryan Sholin

    “Science, going back to the Heisenberg principle in the 1920s has
    proven that observation has an effect on the thing observed. Also, you
    can play ‘he said-she said’ journalism, but one statement has to come
    before the other. Determining the order is the reporter or editor’s
    subjective choice and determines the slant of the story.” — Kellia Ramares

    “Objectivity is not rewarded by anyone, not the public and not the
    corporate new organizations. It’s become like Don Quixote chasing
    windmills.” — Shari Brandhoy

    “Objectivity is impossible. There is no such thing as a human or
    institution without opinion. Therefore, it’s best for us to know the
    bias of the reporters. That said, a statement of bias doesn’t give
    license to lie or omit facts. Transparency is twofold:

    • a statement of bias

    • a commitment to releasing all information in an honest manner.” — Joey Baker

    “Shirky has made me bias on the topic – journalist was a special class
    of citizen when you needed a press. Now every resident has a
    responsibility to be a journalist. Who is going to write about
    neighborhoods – when crime is not the topic? Newspapers and other media
    outlets have always done a poor job covering my home. So who does that
    responsibility fall to – someone with a stake in the future of that
    neighborhood. And while I want accuracy and independence, I want the
    reporter, journalist, or citizen to offer their educated take on what
    this all means for the future of the area.” — Eddie North-Hager

    “The very definition of dialectic is pastiche. How can anyone be
    objective while still being informed? Transparency at least offers
    honesty and a path for the reader to follow.” — Clarisa Morales Roberts

    “I define an objective piece as one that represents all viewpoints in a
    piece and allows readers to make up their minds about those viewpoints.
    To do anything less is a disservice to, and disrespectful of, the
    reader.” — Craig Gaines

    “There is fairness but not objectivity. Everyone decides where to
    look, what facts to portray, how to frame what they’re seeing. Even a
    pointed camera is not objective — where the lens is pointed, how the
    zoom is set … these all determine what’s seen and how.” — Dorian Benkoil

    “Debating object/subject is an endless philosophical waste of time. Facts, and trends, data, information, systems analysis all are much more
    relevant to discourse around solving the complex problems we face today
    and in the future.” — Stephen Antonaros

    “I believe that objectivity is the single most dangerous goal
    journalism can work towards. It is impossible for a human being to
    produce a genuinely non-biased piece of writing, but it is simple for a
    writer to mimic the tone of authority that a member of society is
    educated to frame as truth. Journalism should strive for transparency –
    not as a new objectivity, but as a drastically different and more
    democratic concept of media’s responsibility to present and portray
    information.” — Rebecca Glaser

    “Objectivity is impossible, it’s an illusion and a myth often used to
    maintain flat, two-dimensional reporting that implies there are simply
    “two sides.” What’s far more important is accuracy, vigorous inquiry and
    story dimension—looking for texture and layers of debate, and letting
    the facts tell the story; two ‘sides’ are not ‘equal’ if one is heavily
    fact-based and the other is just opinion.” — Christopher Cook

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    Tagged: clay shirky education journalism media objectivity spot.us
    • Thanks for such a provocative exploration of journalism’s evolving relationship with notions of objectivity. I wonder if it’s time to reframe the discussion and instead pose the question of whether perspective actually improves reporting. I think it does. I agree with Dorian Benkoll that even photography, which allegedly captures reality in a quick-snap, has a perspective at all times. I don’t think “objectivity” or distance should be part of a journalist’s fundamental creed. That makes us an alien species. I’m a believer in fairness, accuracy, commitment to truth, diversity, and controversial though it may be, human compassion. These values produce better citizens and better journalists.

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