Jun 17, 2014

Objectivity and Impartiality for Digital News

Richard SambrookProfessor of Journalism and Director of Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University

Are the traditional journalistic disciplines of objectivity and impartiality relevant or wanted in a digital news environment? Many practitioners and commentators argue that they are not – that editorial approaches suited to the middle of the last century, with a scarcity of bandwidth and in an age of media concentration, are now redundant in the digital age of plenty.
Broadcasters in many countries have been regulated to deliver impartial news. Print journalism has never been regulated in the same way, but the professional codes, standards, and norms of journalism, which developed in the early 20th century, delivered similar standards in the news pages for many decades. However, in the 21st century, much has changed.
As the American software entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen, recently argued:
The practice of gathering all sides of an issue, and keeping an editorial voice out of it is still relevant for some, but the broad journalism opportunity includes many variations of subjectivity. … the objective approach is only one way to tell stories and get at truth. Many stories don’t have ‘two sides.’ Indeed, presenting an event or an issue with a point of view can have even more impact, and reach an audience otherwise left out of the conversation.1
Andreessen is reflecting the popular growth in online opinion, advocacy, or activist news and ‘news with attitude’ in services like, Vice, Buzzfeed, and numerous YouTube channels.
But advocacy, of course, is very different from objective newsgathering. What might have been left out to strengthen a case? What evidence is there to support a subjective view? Can we believe everything we read?
Who and what we trust in the digital world, awash with information and opinion, is an important issue. It’s not a new problem. The English poet John Milton, arguing against the licensing of pamphlets in the 17th century, believed market forces would drive out falsehoods: ‘Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ he wrote (in Areopagitica).
However, some believe in today’s environment the truth can be outnumbered in an unfair fight. Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, commenting on conspiracy theorists after President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, wrote: ‘Here is the fact of the age: People believe nothing. They think everything is spin and lies. The minute a government says A is true, half the people on Earth know A is a lie. And when people believe nothing, as we know, they will believe anything’ (Wall St Journal, 11 May 2011).
As journalism reinvents itself in the digital age, the issue of trust – and brand – is crucial. Can a new trusted brand be built from the ground up (as Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald are trying to do with First Look Media)? Can old trusted brands like Reuters or the New York Times successfully reinvent themselves for a new generation and stay true to the values that they were built upon a hundred years ago?
Or, as Clay Shirky, Emily Bell, and C. W. Anderson argued in their Tow Center paper, ‘Post Industrial Journalism’,2 is the individual journalist rising above the organisation as the key driver of trust, engagement, and consumer loyalty?
This year’s research offers some important insight into these questions.
First, the consumer appears to be more keen on traditional approaches to trusted journalism than many commentators.

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