Over the weekend, Mark Kleiman resurrected the well-worn objectivity conundrum. Kleiman says that while a reporter’s job—for a hundred years or so now—has been to simply convey the facts, without adding his opinion to the mix, “this creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat…should the reporter “objectively” simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?”
Kevin Drum picked up on the theme, adding that no matter the merits of Kleiman’s critique, he still hasn’t seen anyone offer a solution to the problem. He identifies the difficulties inherent in trying to change the way contemporary American journalism practices its craft: “Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren’t subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line?”
These are all legitimate concerns, and not one of them is easily solved. The issue of “objectivity” in reporting is something CJR has long grappled with, and there’s no quick fix for what has become one of the most prominent criticisms of American journalism. If reporters start serving as the arbiters of factual disputes, charges of bias—already prevalent and shrill—would surely escalate. Still, simply reprinting obvious falsehoods along with a countervailing point of view is a frustrating, and indeed damaging, way to practice journalism.
So what is to be done? Matt Yglesias picked up the thread on the debate this morning, arguing that a market-orientated approach is the way to go: “As we move toward a world where the internet provides consumers with a large degree of choice, managers and reporters who manage to consistently cover the news in a way that people find useful will prosper, while those who fail to do so will suffer.”
There’s a good point in there somewhere, but his take sounds a bit too simplistic. This isn’t to say that the objectivity problem is unsolvable, only that it’s going to take time, and it will have to be done incrementally. For better or worse, our newspapers produce the vast majority of original reporting being done today. While much too much of it is marred by the ineffectual back and forth as dictated by the need for “balance,” the best of it produces the kind of public service journalism—warrant-less wiretapping, CIA “black sites,” Walter Reed, to name a few—that the Web hasn’t been able to equal.
But for all the hard-reporting success, newspapers should think seriously about shaking up their formats. A good way to start would be to develop a kind of two-tier system—which seems to be developing organically, anyway—where the big news organizations deliver the goods in the form of hard news and investigative pieces whose production requires the kind of investment in time and money that most Web sites and blogs can’t match, while the blogosphere takes the lead in opinion writing and analysis. In fact, it doesn’t seem implausible that some time in the not too distant future, newspapers will choose to get out of the op-ed business altogether, ceding that niche to the sharpest minds on the Web. It’s one thing that the Web does much better than traditional media, since in many ways it is a true meritocracy, in the way that Yglesias describes, and not the old boys club of too many calcified newspaper op-ed pages.