Kirk Caraway: The death of objective journalism
Vail CO, Colorado
I’ve come to respect what Fox News Channel has done for journalism in this country.
It was a brilliant move by News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch. Carve out a wealthy niche audience by presenting news with a conservative slant to compete against a lineup of bland competitors.
My only real criticism is that they can’t come out and admit this is what they have done. They can try to say that they are really “fair and balanced,” but their viewers know better. A survey of Fox News viewers after the 2004 election showed that 88 percent voted for George W. Bush, while only 7 percent voted for John Kerry. That’s not an accident.
MSNBC has now followed Fox’s lead in the opposite direction, pitting Keith Olbermann’s unabashed liberalism against Bill O’Reilly’s conservative bluster. And now we are getting some real choice in news, unlike the days of the Big Three networks with their interchangeable programming.
What Fox News, MSNBC and the Internet have done is to drive a stake into the heart of a cherished mainstream media principle: balanced and objective journalism. And with it, hopefully, will be the end of the whole monopoly structure of mainstream media.
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The concept of balance was born with the rise of advertising as the main business model for newspapers. Once there were many competing newspapers in most markets, each presenting their different skews on the news. Many carried names like Democrat and Republican to tell readers which side they were on.
But with advertising, the newspapers barons of yesteryear found that taking the overt slant out of news could make them more money, as they could grab larger market share and make their news bland enough to satisfy advertisers. Eventually, they were able to create news monopolies in most markets, and as they did, the news became more bland and meaningless.
Objective reporting is portrayed as unbiased and “just the facts,” akin to being assembled by machines. But that’s not reality. A reporter’s job is to summarize issues and events, picking and choosing what goes into a story, and what is left out. Many of those stories can involve thousands of documents and sources ” and the reporter must make judgments on what’s important enough to make it into the small space allowed for that story. And those judgments are greatly affected by one’s personal biases.
The whole concept of objective and balanced journalism is dishonest at its core. Note that it’s O.K. for reporters to have biases, but news organizations’ policies and ethical guidelines require them to hide those biases from their readers.
While reporters’ personal leanings may be obscured, that doesn’t mean they don’t creep into the stories they produce. I’ve seen plenty of liberal reporters who purposely skew their stories to favor conservative viewpoints, so as not to be tagged with that “liberal” label.
The end product may look unbiased to the casual reader, but too often it’s not. Mostly what we get is he said/she said journalism, where both sides are quoted somewhat equally, leaving us to decide which to believe.
We don’t just deserve to see the facts of a story, but how that story was put together, who put it together and what their biases are. I ask you, which is more honest: the reporter who keeps his personal biases secret, or one who presents them for all to see and evaluate?
I have my own biases on this issue. I’m an opinion writer, so of course I think it’s a good thing to show one’s bias. My biases are out in the open, and I invite you to judge them, and compare those biases and what I write with others who write from other perspectives. You may not agree, but at least you know where I’m coming from.
The old ways still prevail for now in mainstream media. But they will likely be pushed to the side soon as the Internet breaks down the old monopolies, destroying the basis for which so-called objective journalism was created. Bloggers are having a field day taking mainstream media to task for their failings, and in doing so have added to our knowledge and understanding of issues. Now, alternative viewpoints on issues are just a click away, and in many cases the readers can add their views directly to a story with just a few keystrokes. This is great for journalism and society in general.
I think it won’t be long before mainstream reporters start adopting the style of bloggers, letting the audience see how the sausage is made, and hopefully giving them a better product.
It will never be perfect, but it at least will be more honest.
Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.