A new report on non-profit news startups from the Project for Excellence in Journalism has been attracting a little bit of attention in media-critic circles since its release Monday morning. (Well, a little bit of the attention not devoted to Murdochgate, anyway.) And the report is worth a quick read for the cautions it raises about the transparency, or lack thereof, surrounding funding sources at the 39 state and national non-profit outlets it analyzed.
But less useful, if perhaps more revealing, is the way the report’s authors handle what might be called the “objectivity issue.” Though the freighted O-word is never actually used, the report is shot through with a circa-1991 sensibility that what makes journalism trustworthy and valuable is a commitment to “balance.” (That’s a word that is used, repeatedly.) It’s a blinkered approach, and one that leaves the PEJ study often seeming oblivious to what is good, and what is not-so-good, about the new non-profit ecosystem.
The tone is set in one of the opening paragraphs, which asks (emphasis added):
Who are these new players in journalism? Are these sites delivering, as they generally purport to be, independent and disinterested news reporting? Or are some of them more political and ideological in their reporting? How can audiences assess this for themselves? In short, what role are these operations playing in the changing ecosystem of news?
The study finds that the fact that a news site is a non-profit does not define what kind of news it produces. Some fit squarely into the traditions of independent news gathering, which dictates offering a wide range of perspectives and ideas about current events. Others fall more closely toward what might be considered partisan news or even political activism.
Many of the sites examined here, moreover, purport that they were started precisely to fill the gap left at the state level from cutbacks in traditional media, especially newspapers, and thus present themselves as functioning much as traditional media once did.
The idea seems to be that nonprofit sites that report the news from a particular ideological perspective have worked some deception on the public, perhaps on behalf of shadowy funders with political motivations. The concerns about funding and transparency are not unwarranted, and CJR has written about those issues before.
But the notion that when nonprofit news sites work from a particular political perspective—just as political magazines have done, well, forever—they break some implied promise is, as new-media scholar Chris W. Anderson notes on Twitter, a little perplexing. For example, the American Independent News Network (AINN), deemed one of the most “ideological” news sources in the PEJ sample, writes on its own “About” page that its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare”—so the fact that the network’s stories tend to highlight the virtues of government programs, or the peril represented by cuts to those programs, is hardly surprising.
The deeper problem, though, is that the study defines “ideology” in a way that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about the quality of the reporting being analyzed—and it’s quality, measured in terms of accuracy and honesty, insight and significance, that we should be worried about.
The report’s discussion of ideology depends heavily on judgments about whether stories capture multiple viewpoints, or whether, by weighting one view more heavily, they favor a preferred theme. (Including multiple viewpoints, and a balance between views, is clearly the correct way to do journalism, in the eyes of the report’s authors.) That sounds good, and indeed the sites that score as “non-ideological” under PEJ’s framework—which include ProPublica, California Watch, and The Texas Tribune—do outstanding work.
But the limits of the authors’ approach become clear when they apply it to individual stories. For example, they write:
Some sites commonly offered multiple points of view. A Sept. 16 synopsis of a gubernatorial candidates’ debate in MinnPost, for instance, featured three candidates from three different parties—a Republican, a Democrat and a member of the Independence Party, and gave roughly equal space to each of the three candidates and their differing points of view.