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The holy grail for most serious journalists is “objectivity”– a Positivist concern with facts over values that has been the goal of most newsmen and women since the late 19th century, and that has been enshrined by accolades like the Pulitzer Prize (ironically named for Joesph Pulitzer, the “co-founder” [with William Randolph Hearst] of “yellow journalism”).

Indeed, in these times– that’s to say, on the heels of years of mainstream journalism that sacrificed both editorial focus and journalistic effort to economic and ideological agendas– objectivity seems more important than ever. In the haze of uncertainty that surrounds us today, fairness and accuracy matter as much or more than ever; but almost 13 years of “Fair and Balanced” (and all of its counterparts), it’s harder and harder to find.

So it’s with something like nostalgia that one reads the estimable John McPhee’s paean to the fact checkers at The New Yorker.  Those legendary guardians of accuracy are still at work…  but are more and more unique in the field.*

Objective journalism isn’t easy…  if it’s even possible.  Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and others have argued that “objective journalism” is inherently biased toward the powers-that-be (who’ve defined the terms of the “dialogue”); Tim Berners-Lee has warned that “objective”journalism on the web is vulnerable to “cults of thinking”– memes that gather momentum, even as they misinform (e.g., the concern over the MMR vaccine that left many English children unprotected).

Indeed, as a practical matter (and at the risk of waxing epistemological), in the best of cases a piece of journalism, a recounting of a situation, can never be absolutely “true”– that’s to say, a perfect representation of the event/situation/phenomenon recounted. It can only be truthful, or “true to”– it can have verisimilitude.  In that quest, objectivity is critical, at the same time that in its pure form it’s surely unattainable…

Nonetheless, many of us believe, it is critical to try.

It’s against this backdrop, as earlier posts report (e.g., “Inevitable Surprises: Gray Lady Down…“), that our legacy source of objective journalism, the mainstream media, is tanking.   Newspapers, broadcast news, news magazines– many (if not most) are in what looks perilously like a death spiral. (C.f., e.g., here and here.)

And that, incumbent journalists and publishers suggest, is a terrific problem for objectivity.  Unless we discover new business models– or, as is increasingly suggested, not-for-profit models– the implosion will continue; the resources necessary to full and objective coverage of the issues-that-matter will wither; and civic discourse will suffer…  It’s a pretty frightening prospect.  And the more local one’s concerns, the scarier it gets, as local media seem to be wilting at the fastest pace.

FWIW, I share the anxiety… but would note, by way of context, two things:

First, an irony:

It’s on the heels of the economic downturn, during which an advertising downturn has aggravated the growing competitive pressure of new media, that this civic-minded plea has found voice.  But the evisceration of journalism– the narrowing of coverage, the attenuation of objectivity– has been going on for well over a decade.  The consolidation of media ownership made for a landscape that was, increasingly, a monoculture.  In an effort to extract that little bit of extra value, unique (especially local) coverage was sacrificed to shared resources.  It was most visible (or better said, audible) on the radio dial, then in the shrinking local news holes (and staffs to fill them) on local papers.  It’s (at least ostensibly) least true of local television, where local “news” has exploded…  but even there, if one looks closely, one sees less and less actual local reportage and a richer and richer mix of acquired material (often from sources– corporations and interest groups– with axes to grind).

At a national level too, original reportage steadily shrank; and more concerning, reporters morphed from objective outsiders to entitled, vested insiders.  (For a terrific analysis, see Jim Fallow’s remarkable Breaking the News– published in the mid-90s).

Which is all just to say that civic discourse was already badly served by mainstream journalism well before the threat of “new media” and the travails of a recession.  The mainstream media weren’t bindsided; they had ample opportunity to take stock of emerging new technology (they did, after all, cover them), and to transform their services to take advantage of the opportunities new platforms create.  Had incumbents done so, they’d surely be less troubled by the current economy.  (For an example of a company that did change, and with success, in an adjacent media field, see this interview with outgoing Reed CEO, Sir Crispin Davis.) Instead, while the pickings were easy, most incumbent media/news organizations simply focused on efficiency, on sacrificing quality (including the breadth of reporting that makes for objectivity) to extract more profit from their legacy ways of doing their legacy businesses. Web sites and blogs notwithstanding, most of them narrowed their bases and made themselves more vulnerable..  So here they– and we– sit.

Second, an observation:

As mentioned above, much of the conversation about saving objective journalism and civic discourse– which is to say, the conversation among and reported by legacy media companies– is focused on how to save those legacy companies. After all, isn’t most new media news simply snatched from the old media and repurposed?  And more to the specific point here, if we let those legacy newsrooms die, where will we get objective reporting?

I’ve noted above that those legacy newsrooms had already sacrificed much of their objectivity.  But there’s a deeper assumption at work in these calls for preservation– the assumption that the only route to objective journalism is through newsrooms staffed by professionals.  Now I, for one, do believe that professional journalists who are actually trying to do an objective job and who have sufficient resources, can make a tremendous contribution.  I value them enormously, and am deeply grateful for services that range from The Atlantic Monthly to New America Media (and the ethnic/alternative press it embodies).

But I don’t believe that their more traditional approach is the only route to objectivity.  When Wikipedia came onto the scene in 2001 it was a novelty; soon, as contributors began to populate it, and as use built, it became the “easy, interesting, but untrustworthy” alternative to canonical sources like Britannica…

Wikipedia users “police” entries both for accuracy and for objectivity– two qualities that we seek in journalism.   By 2006, Wikipedia was pulling even in the credibility race; and now, research suggests that it is as accurate (or more) than its more traditional competitors.

So, it seems likely to me, we will see objective news coverage emerge from the scrum of social media and the blogosphere.  (See Clay Shirky’s terrific Here Comes Everybody and his Boing Boing post here.)

If we’re lucky, “social journalism” will co-exist with more traditional “professional newsroom” objectivity.  In any case, this crowd-keeping-itself-honest form of journalism promises not only to foster civic discourse, but in fact to be civic discourse… and that’s not a bad thing.

* For an amusing (and poignant) musical take on the mainstream media’s objectivity and accuracy issue, click here, then again on the link at the top of the post…

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