Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Subjective objectivity

Objectivity, many in the business will tell you, is a cornerstone of journalism. Reporters report, they do not analyze. Their mission is to dig up the facts of a story, without analyzing or passing judgment on what those may reveal. Judgment, in theory, is up to the reader.

True objectivity, especially in today's media culture, is an illusion that stands in the way of the media's role as a watchdog acting on the part of the people to root out hypocrisy and hold the right people accountable for injustices that occur in every city on earth every day. Journalists and news organizations seem to adhere to the idea that to be objective is merely to report, not to analyze, the news, leading them to often relay anything the Bush administration spins their way without pointing out the ways in which government spokespeople contradict themselves all the time.

Watch Fox News and you will see a clear conservative Republican bias through the thin smokescreen of its ridiculous motto of "We report. You decide.", or Bill O'Reilly's laughable "No-Spin Zone". It is not a problem that certain stations and their funders have agendas and views that they want to express, but they could at least be honest about it! At least Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is up front about his disapproval of the lies and manipulations of the Bush government.

Subjectivity is OK. Propaganda is not. Subjectivity does not mean covering only one side of an issue, but rather investigating both sides of an issue with the ability to acknowledge which side the evidence favors. Just because there are many sides to a given issue does not mean that each one makes as strong an argument as the others.

An easy example that bothers me concerns global warming and climate change, a hot hot topic (pun intended) that has gotten tons of media attention thanks to Al Gore. The truth of the matter is that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that human activity is creating pressures on the ecosystem at rates never before seen on the planet. And this is, after all, a question whose answer lies in the realm of science and research, not politics and opinion.

So, as news programs and magazines grab onto the issue of the day, they do so in a way that they hope shows a balanced treatment of the issue, giving equal weight to alarmists and doubters. The end result is a grossly skewed coverage of climate change that treats global-warming skeptics as the other side of the coin, giving unwarranted attention - and, consequently, credibility - to loud, aggressive non-scientists with no expertise and pockets full of oil-company money to produce fancy-looking rebuttals to "An Inconvenient Truth".

Objectivity is rather impossible. Subjectivity is rather unavoidable. The happy medium is for news agencies to report based on a principle of Subjective Objectivity. Objectively presenting the arguments on any side of a contentious or newsworthy issue, while subjectively pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. The judgment comes in the reader/viewer's determination of how much value to give each of these strengths and weaknesses.

Responsible reporting means taking a stand and having an opinion, to speak on behalf of your audience. Mainstream media have lost it, but I must believe a solution is still out there somewhere.
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