Tuesday, May 4, 2010

should journalists be neutral?

In discussions with friends over the last several months, the topic of journlistic neutrality has come up more than once.

When I studied journalism in school, I was taught that to be a real journalist means to maintain neutrality in one's writing. Gather all the facts and disseminate them in clear, compelling language that will make the reader think hard about the story. If you need to include opinions, they should be the opinions of subjects interviewed for the story -- not the opinions of the reporter.

Today the rules of journalism seem to have changed, in large part because, in the electronic age, anyone can write an article and post it online. Today we have bloggers and wikipedians who write and submit articles to the ether that is the Worldwide Web -- without editing for content, accuracy or even correct grammar and spelling. While the Web has opened up the pathways of written communication and in that way helped to democratize it more, it may have sacrificed a devotion to accuracy that previously existed in "reporting".

For an example, consider the excellent blog BikePortland, the work-in-continual-progress of Jonathan Maus and a host of contributing writers. They are to be commended for the work they've done in raising bicycle awareness across Portland and the rest of the country, and they've provided a well-organized forum where bicyclists (and those who love or despise them) can hash out the issues pertaining to sustainable transportation, racing and other bike-related topics. In addition they also provide links to stolen bike listings and a calendar of bike-centric events. Overall, the blog is an excellent resource for the bicycling community. But is it a "news source" in the most traditional sense?

Maus has said more than once in the pages of his blog that he sees himself as straddling a line between journalist and activist, and sometimes finds this to be a precarious position. I've even suggested to him that, based on what I was taught about journalism, perhaps it might serve him better to emphasize the activist side of himself and step back from the title of journalist. He disagreed with me, responding that is possible to be both.

In other light bedtime reading, the reporting in such august publications as New Yorker magazine and The Nation also show evidence of sometimes not-so-thinly-veiled bias in reporting on certain topics (though, in the case of New Yorker, the topics most open to slant continue to be fashion, literature and the performing arts, where reporting often becomes, more properly, reviewing -- an altogether different journalistic skillset). Based on these and other examples of "news sources" that are becoming more opinionated in their reporting, it would seem that journalism and advocacy are on their way to becoming pretty much the same thing.

But is that appropriate?

When articles indicate a bias, a slant towards one or another viewpoint, is that journalism? I was taught that it isn't. But perhaps the whole understanding of what constitutes journalism is changing, and perhaps a steadfast commitment to utter neutrality is no longer considered a worthy goal. Maybe it's not even possible anymore, especially since the freedom of blogging has given rise to millions of blogs, some of which actually self-identify as "news sources".

I need more time to think about this and perhaps my views on it will evolve. What do YOU think about the evolution of journalism? Should we expect at least a resonable attempt at neutrality? Is such a goal even possible anymore?



rickrise said...

I think "journalistic neutrality" has never existed--certainly when I briefly lived in france in the '80s, it was known that you could tell a person's political stance by noting which newspaper they carried under their arm as they strolled.

And in the US the "new journalism" which came into being in the '60s and '70s served mainly to expose the personal bias that is inevitable in any writing, and put it in the forefront so that the reader understood it. (Though it led to a lot of self-indulgence too.)

Present-day mainstream journalism abounds in bias, as journalism always has. Certain newspapers have been overtly conservative or liberal for centuries--London Times vs. Observer vs Guardian, Le Monde vs. Liberation vs. l'Humanite, etc etc. And the organs that lay claim to "neutrailty" today--cf Fox news's motto is "Fair and Balanced Reporting"--are simply lying.

True journalism requires the reporter to admit his or her prejudices so that the reader can adjust for them in reading (or seeing) the reportage in question.

It also (in my mind) comprises exposing your sources of supporting arguments--by which I mean not whistle-blowers or others whose lives or careers could be endangered by public revelation, but studies, statistics, and other such corroborative information.

IOW journalists cannot be neutral, so it is misleading to pretend to be so, as Fox News does.

Paul Johnson said...

You crack me up!

Unbiased journalism, really! I got two words for you: Carbon Fiber and Beth Hamon. Well OK, four words there, but arithmetic is not the point.

The bigger question is what is journalism? Webster gives us that idealistic thought you describe, but really journalism usually falls somewhere between advocacy and infotainment. I do not consider myself a cynic but I cannot think of any current source of unbiased journalism just now. Even science writing is an endeavor to pursuade; "Our studies have absolutely, positively eliminated any possibility of bias!" (are you pursuaded?)

Perhaps some of the most egregious violators of the concept (and totally unintentional) are those who wrap themselves in the cloth. They are just perfectly blind to their own biases. The flaming advocates (ie Fox and MSNBC)at least most of the time can accept that they view life through a curved lens.

I subscribe to the notion that all ‘journalism’, in fact all writing is advocacy, right on down to the dictionary or wiki. History being written by the victors and all that.

I have a guilty pleasure to admit to. Guilty because it is expensive, and environmentally wasteful (a weekly paper and ink pub) but a pleasure in that it lends a certain regimen to my reading: I subscribe to The Week. A weekly journal of mainsteam media that does not attempt to present an unbiased view, it attempts to cover current events by presenting the biased views of contemporary 'journalists. I am not usually surprised but at least I am generally ‘up’ on mainstream left/right takes on weekly events, and every so often they slip in a different take from the fringes.

I am a newshound, and an opinionated blogger who does an awful job of editing foe spellerng and : punctuation.

Yr Pal Dr C

bikelovejones said...

Hey Docter Cod -- I am happy to provide affordable entertainment!

This is a tough one for me, especially in light of what I was taught by an obviously idealistic teacher back in The Dark Ages. I admit to being occasionally just as idealistic, even now.

Still chewing on this.
I expect to become even more hilarious as the conversation progresses. Cheers --blj