Saturday, 17 May 2008

The Pseudo Objectivity of the News Media

The Vulpine Dress of the No Spin Zone

In recent days there has been a thread over at Poneke's Weblog on the purported objectivity of journalists and media. (q.v. "Should the News Media Endorse Political Parties", May 11th, 2008) The initial question up for discussion was whether newspapers in New Zealand ought to endorse political parties or candidates as is done in other countries.

The case was made that, in fact, they ought not to do so. Poneke argued: “In New Zealand, as in other countries with an 'objective journalism' tradition such as the United States and Australia, the news pages have traditionally reported the news as factually as possible and without the newspaper’s or the reporter’s political opinions being in the story. The leader and op-ed pages have been the preserve of comment and any calls to support some issue or cause or party or another.”

He went on to state that. “Personally, I don’t believe a working news reporter should express party political views as part of their job. I never did, and never would, not even in this, my personal blog. I genuinely do not have party political views, and that comes from years of working as a journalist. Many journalists, I believe, are similar. Most New Zealand journalists see their job as reporting the news, not campaigning for a party or an ideology or a cause.

“I think it is pretentiously elitist of a journalist to think their view is so important that they would tell readers or audiences how to vote.”

He concludes: “Call me old fashioned, but I still believe that you should expect to find news, not opinion, on the news pages of a major daily newspaper. ”

Forgive us for reacting with a healthy dose of amused cynicism.

“Objective” or “just the facts” journalism that leaves it up to readers to decide is a farce. It always has been. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. How Poneke can write as he does with a straight face is almost beyond belief. The cognitive dissonance is extreme. Those who know that his blog is worth reading will also know that he regularly uses it as an opportunity to air his opinions on all kinds of political issues—corporal discipline of children, for one.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this—but please, let's have some integrity about it.

How many of the journalists gravely endorsing Poneke’s post would be the first to “tut tut” at (Fox) Bill O’Reilly’s claim that when you listen to his programme you are entering the “No spin zone”. Everyone knows that there is spin at every turn in the “No spin zone”–and it will always be the case. Every news media, and every journalist, is no different. At best (and it is rare that we see examples of the best) we are only talking about relative objectivity–which, of course, means that every journalist and every news media is more or less subjective and biased.

Therefore the media and its journalists would do us all a great service is they would stop trying to maintain a patina of false professional pride and tell the truth. It will do wonders for the soul.

Every thinking person knows that objectivity in media is a farce. Let’s just quickly count some of the main ways that the medium itself provides the message, to borrow from McLuhan:

1. Space/time is limited, so the “facts” become a highly selected menu of the truth–which requires selection, ranking, discarding. Bias and pre-commitments intrude from the outset and through the whole process.

2. Placement/prominence. This requires ranking stories according to their perceived level of importance, which in turn draws upon one or more value systems.

3. Revenue and profitability. The need to make a buck is paramount–and rightly so. Don’t tell us, therefore, that news media do anything else than try to garner readers/listeners. In order to do that the medium has to have a view of who the readers are and what they want to read/hear. Bias, bias, and more bias. Brute objectivity in such a world is completely impossible. Why not be honest about it?

4. Career dynamics. Reporters and news media employees are as bound to their employers as anyone else. In order to get ahead they have to deliver what employers want and require. Don’t even suggest for a nano-second that this does not bring untrammelled bias into everything news reporters, sub-editors and editors do. Not to be upfront about such things is simply unbecoming–and somewhat embarrassing.

What’s the solution? Journalists and news media need to do what everyone else is required to do in the real world–engage in disclosure, disclosure, and more disclosure. It ought to be mandatory in every news media that regular disclosures are given of ownership, how the media makes its money, what its beliefs are about what its audience wants, what the world-view of the particular institution is, etc. Such disclosures ought to be audited regularly to ensure they meet a defined code of standards.

Imagine, for example, the integrity that would come into the process if Radio New Zealand and TVNZ had to disclose regularly to their audiences that they were owned by the government of New Zealand and were finally accountable to the Minister of Broadcasting. Having to make such disclosures would go a long way to helping the respective organisations prove their objectivity and independence as they covered stories.

Moreover, each news story should declare any conflicts of interest of any (named) journalist briefly at the end of each piece. For example, if the journalist happens to believe that privatisation of state assets is wrong, and he/she is writing a story on the State’s re-purchase of trains, he/she ought to be required to declare their belief at the foot of the story. Failure to declare ought to result in formal notification (and publication) of a breach of ethics.

Every journalist and every sub-editor should be required to draw up a Personal Disclosure Statement, covering all the major issues or themes their employer has determined the business will run with. That statement should be made available to readers or listeners. This sort of thing is done in financial journalism all the time. It is well past time that the rest of the profession caught up.

In the light of this, we have no problem whatsoever in a paper endorsing a political party or candidates–provided the paper declares overtly the basis of its endorsement and continues to publish its commitment and bias in this regard. It should also be required to give a health warning that its pre-commitments are likely to influence its selection and presentation of all news.

These are not hard concepts. Fiduciary obligations to one’s clients is a well-established, widely practised, and a universally required duty in common law. And the clients of the news media are its readers.

In fact, it would be a great deal better than our current Alice in Wonderland world where the media and journalists gravely intone noble ideals of objectivity, which everyone knows are completely untrue. It's almost as bad as the kind of parody of the truth which plays out in regimes where official propaganda is the received truth. Everyone intones the official line, but no-one really believes it.

Poneke says that he regards it as “pretentiously elitist of a journalist to think their view is so important that they would tell readers or audiences how to vote.” We demur. The real pretentiously elitist position is for journalists to make out that they don't have opinions or bias which reflects how they look at and assess the world, which in turn colours and shapes the way they massage the “facts”. To believe one is beyond or above bias is truly pretentious. On the other hand, to declare and disclose the inevitable bias that every human being has helps keeps it under scrutiny and check.

It is only when bias and pre-commitment is disclosed that truly objective discourse can occur, since bent and bias on the part of every human being is inescapable and inevitable. If everyone else in the real world has fiduciary requirement to disclose conflicts of interest, why should the media be exempt?

If the news media would be rightly indignant at a real-estate agent who did not declare a conflict of interest in a house sale, why should the media itself be excused such basic ethical behaviour when it comes to its own conflicts. If the real-estate agent were to claim some sort of professional objectivity which meant that he really did tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the client, despite not disclosing his conflicts, he would be laughed out of court. But why, then, a double standard for the media?

We suggest that this intrinsic duplicity, represented in all media in New Zealand, is one of the key reasons why the media is held in such low esteem almost everywhere.

However, no doubt media professionals would reply that disclosure of conflicts of interest when it comes to monetary gain or loss is in a different category from bias regarding news or concepts and ideas. Not so. It is because of the immensely influential position of the media, and its responsibilities as the Fourth Estate, that demand adequate disclosures. It is precisely because the media can abuse its privileges and position and consequently cause great harm to a democracy (particularly one as small as ours) that a higher standard of care is required. The media is capable of doing great damage, as well as much salutary good. It is too important to be allowed to escape the obligation to disclose.

We would expect that if such a comprehensive disclosure regime were to come into play, the professionalism and relative objectivity of reporters, newspapers, and other media would rise enormously. We would also predict that respect for the media would increase commensurately.

In fact, we predict that were any media business to enter such a regime of self-disclosure voluntarily it would prove so powerful, and resonate with such integrity, that within six months it would have to be emulated by its competitors. Otherwise their naked silence would beg all sorts of questions about their respective integrity and professional standards.

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