Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thinking about "ideological innovation" in journalism

Jay Rosen's thoughtful PressThink on "The Politics of the New Huffington Post at AOL" inspired some mostly congruent thoughts of my own. This is adapted from a comment I left on his blog:

As you'll discover reading the hyperventilating “journalism manifesto” I wrote as a 25-year old in Alaska, I’ve been advocating against the notion of artificial neutrality for a long time. 

Abandoning false equivalencies in news reporting and pretensions of a journalistic tabla rasa are essential. In my judgment, Arianna’s “move beyond left/right” posture is just marketing that means what you suggests it should: continued abandonment of the construct of fairness-through-artificial-neutrality. I hope so.

Having said that, I also hope readers don’t think declaring an institutional View From Somewhere adequately substitutes for a journalistic ethic grounded in intellectual honesty.

As an opinion editor at various points in my career I always asked writers for just that: to discover facts and reach conclusions, not start with conclusions and then gather supporting facts. In this sense, I worry about equating the View From Somewhere with ideology. Ideological publications and writers serve real needs, but they do not substitute for journalism produced with an ethic that demands fearless willingness to follow facts to whatever conclusion they reveal. Ideologists just don’t do that.

Institutional point of view is readily apparent in any case. Journalists are traditionally taught the 5 Ws — who, what, when, where, why — but rarely reminded of the sixth W that trumps them all: Which? Point of view and intention are best demonstrated by which stories get pursued. Editing is about allocating scare resources — things like talent, space, and (most importantly), reader attention. In deciding to cover X instead of Y, we proclaim what we think is most important.

None of this suggests that ideological publications aren’t welcome to the debate. As the Great Helmsman said, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Let’s have Views From Many Somewheres. But let’s not pretend disclosure is inoculation against deceit.

Finally I’d add that I am wholly on board with your final point. In the 1980s the Anchorage Daily News started checking on reporting by sending accuracy questionnaires to people mentioned in news stories. It helped us correct some errors and, more importantly, made our commitment to accuracy both public and measurable.

It also gave me a great talking point for all those speeches I had to give at hostile Rotary Clubs.

Posted via email from edge & flow

1 comment:

Aaranged said...

Your "Manifesto" was fascinatingly prescient (the demise of print journalism has only much more recently been acknowledged, at least on a broad scale), not to mention the fond nostalgia that reading those manually-typed pages invoked.

It's interesting that online news sources like HuffPo are challenging the "fairness-through-artificial-neutrality" doctrine at the same time that adherence to it has reached absurd proportions in the "traditional media," and especially television. Television networks no longer report news, but instead are chroniclers of opposing viewpoints, regardless of the factual or logical merits of those viewpoints. This sort of "balanced" reporting inevitably favors entrenched interests, since the entities representing these interests are always able to find media outlets willing to act vicariously as their soapbox.

Ironically this "objective" reporting isn't objective at all: it subjectively presumes prima facie that all assertions have equal merit. Carrying stories that critically examine and challenge assertions (as distinct from simple editorial advocacy) blandly regurgitated by big media in the name of "fairness" has been been one of the things that has distinguished HuffPo from the pack. Hopefully this won't change with the AOL merger.