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?


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