Monday, August 07, 2006

On "Objective Journalism"

Big Media has been caught with its pants down again. The wire service Reuters has withdrawn two photographs and fired a photographer for doctoring photographs of the war in Lebanon to make Israeli assaults appear more dramatic than they were. As The American Thinker notes, the most telling criticism of the whole episode, like the CBS memo supposedly composed by a National Guard officer in the early 1970s but in fact looking exactly like a modern Microsoft Word document, was not discovered by Reuters, but by (properly) skeptical news consumers who spotted the fakery immediately. Even now, the scandal hardly generates a mention in the brontosaurus outlets of legacy journalism – the major global television networks, newspapers and magazines – even as it is a huge story in much of the blog world.

The curious thing about these episodes is that they always seem to play out the same way – a story favorable to the global left is found to be fraudulent. This casts strong doubt on any illusion that might remain of media “objectivity.” An objective media would presumably have errors that cause damage at random points on the political spectrum. What is going on here clearly suggests that modern, Officially Credentialed Journalists have worldviews, and that the mistakes they make, whether by omission or commission, tend to promote those worldviews. More concrete evidence for such bias was found by two economists, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, who measured bias by the frequency of citation from think tanks of various points of view, and measured the point of view of those think tanks by how frequently congressmen with externally generated ideological ratings cited them. The New York Times came across as one of the most leftist news producers in America. (The paper, which was subsequently published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, is here. Only recently, with the lower costs of competitively decentralized knowledge production enabled by the Internet, has this oligopoly been subjected to more competition. And as the scandals demonstrate, so far it is coming up wanting. (Jonathan Klein, a former high CBS poobah, extravagantly demonstrated his ignorance of the possibilities of decentralized fact-checking when he dismissed the criticism over the Bush National Guard memo by arguing that "[y]ou couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at '60 Minutes'] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing." The pickings hardly get easier than that.)

The whole idea of objective journalism, itself a relatively modern invention (the crusading journalist, not the studiously impartial observer, used to be the mode), is a mirage, and a costly one at that. Even if journalists were properly trained to be “objective” and are all pure of heart, subconscious bias would prompt them to see, and report, the world as they think it is rather than as it actually is. And of course these assumptions about journalistic training and motives are heroically naïve; journalists are no less self-interested than the rest of us, and they use their influence to try to achieve results they want just as any pressure group putting out a “biased” report or study does.

This puts the news consumer in something of a bind, the best solution for which is to abandon the whole fragile edifice of “objectivity.” He wants information in order to allow him to make better decisions, but he must get information from organizations whose biases and decision-making processes are largely opaque to him. I think that journalists would do better to think of him as like a decision-maker in a court of law – a judge or a juror. (They would also do better to stop calling themselves “journalists” and to start being “reporters again, but never mind.)

In the Anglo-American system, truth is said to emerge from an adversarial process in which each side presents its arguments as vigorously and self-interestedly as possible, even as it has a chance to subject the arguments of the other side to withering scrutiny. The media analogy of this would be that news organizations would be transparent about their biases, and would simply produce whatever information they think best advances their causes. (An alternative legal system is the inquisitorial system, in which the judge decides what information he wants rather than leaving it to the parties to decide what information to represent. Both have their strengths and weaknesses with respect to achieving the right result, but I am unable to think of any media analogy to an inquisitorial system.) This approach - of more or less free production of information, combined with confession of biases and frequent challenging by competitors - is arguably why the scientific method works so well. Any theory must be tested, any experiment must be meticulously described in ways that make it replicable. (Indeed, the failure of some medical researchers recently to disclose ties to drug manufacturers is, properly, seen by medical journal editors as very troubling.)

This does not mean that media reports must be reduced to simple propaganda. One can jettison objectivity – the pretense that one has no beliefs about the state of the world, and must therefore treat them all as equally probable – while still practicing fairness - the responsibility to contact advocates of particular states of the world and get their answer to what you have written. This has always been the model of the British press, in contrast to its lackluster (with declining circulation and viewership to prove it) American counterpart. (When Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw recently all left their positions in rapid succession I realized I hadn’t watched network news in twenty years.) For all its transparent biases, The Guardian or The Telegraph is fundamentally different from the old Pravda. To the extent that Pravda had biases while claiming it didn't, it is arguably a more accurate model for the modern American press.

In the fair-bur-biased model, a newspaper might still have to get the views of the guy who thinks the earth is flat. But it would not have to treat it equally with the views of the rest of us who think the earth is round. Of course, most questions about the world are not as clear-cut as that. But the cause of allowing citizens to get at the truth, and then in the civic arena to act on what they learn, would be better served by ending the pretense that journalists with their years of training in “objectivity” are simply passive providers of information. It is better they be seen as the passionate activists that they always piously urge the rest of us to be.


Post a Comment

<< Home