Objectivity Versus Expertise

Via Glenn Greenwald, McClatchy Newspapers’ DC Bureau Chief John Walcott delivered a barn-burner of a speech on media objectivity the other night. A lot of it is spent lamenting the decline of newspapers’ resources, but he also takes a hatchet to mainstream journalism’s tendency towards equivalence:

That brings me to may last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for all the truth is dumb, but it’s infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument.

My father, who’s with us today, made his living designing navigational instruments for aircraft, missiles and submarines, and although my mathematical and engineering skills are, shall we say, less evident than his, I learned two important lessons from his work.

The first is that if you want to know where you are, it’s helpful to know where you started. The second is a concept that’s called “ground truth,” which in a nutshell means checking your calculations against information collected on the ground. In other words, reporting.

I know that I’m wading into deep and muddy water here, but I’m doing so in deference, or rather, in reverence, to the fact that I.F. Stone was a scholar as well as a journalist. He taught himself ancient Greek to write about the trial of Socrates, and I still struggle with modern French, but I’ll wade in nevertheless.

Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that’s critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?

The idea that truth is merely a social construct, that it’s subjective, in other words, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it’s taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

I’ll leave the discussion of truth versus subjectivity to the experts, but I did find his criticism of the media’s “on the one hand, on the other hand” formulation telling. The question is: are journalists unable to render judgment because they’re weak-kneed, lily-livered liberals who quake at the very mention of “media bias?” Or is it because they’re nonspecialist writers who aren’t equipped to evaluate competing empirical claims?

Needless to say, I find the latter explanation a lot more compelling. In his speech, Walcott (rightly) observed that print media still does a lot of things (original reporting comes to mind) that blogs can’t do. One thing blogs can do, however, is serve as a platform for experts to discuss their particular fields. When the Connecticut Supreme Court hands down a pro-gay marriage ruling, for example, I find it’s a lot more informative to go to the Volokh Conspiracy for commentary rather than the Hartford Courant for on-the-scene reporting. Most of what you need to know can already be found via open source documents (i.e. the justices’ opinions), so what I’m really looking for in the wake of a controversial decision is quality analysis from a legal perspective.

Blogs tend to introduce a lot of subjective opinion (which is less valuable in this context), but I’m not sure why newspapers couldn’t adopt some of their habits for news analysis and straight-up reporting. If I was in charge of the New York Times‘ hiring practices, I’d emphasize finding writers with a background in a particular field. More importantly, I’d encourage them to focus their reporting on a relatively narrow range of issues within that field. Having a journalist with an MBA (or even an undergraduate econ degree) and some background in financial reporting would allow papers to print more than react quotes and excerpts from public documents the next time we’re debating the wisdom of a massive bailout fiscal rescue package.

Upon further reflection, this may also change the way some stories are reported. An initial news item might include little more than background information and a few good quotes. As the story progresses, reporters would retain the option of adding more details and analysis. This process might make a developing news story more like a blog in the sense that it would undergo several different iterations, but the finished product would be tailored to reflect new developments.

Maybe print journalism is unable to adapt to a more responsive media environment, but I’m not so sure. What’s to stop traditional papers from emphasizing continuity and context from issue to issue? Papers do multi-article investigations pretty frequently – perhaps it’s time to apply that model (on a smaller scale) to breaking news stories.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Objectivity Versus Expertise

  1. Pingback: More on Journalism and Objectivity «

  2. Pingback: Was The Edge Unavailable? «

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