Transparency or objectivity? Yes.

Jay Rosen linked on Twitter to this post by Terry Heaton, a consultant and journalism professor, on new media ethics that frames the subject in a damaging manner:

There are basically two forms of ethical conduct in the press today. One espouses a traditional set of canons and exists with self-restraint as a guide. In this world, objectivity — or attempts at objectivity — are the norm, for balance and fairness are the goals. Here, truth is presented as existing between two or more “sides” to stories. In the second world, however, transparency replaces objectivity in the belief that the audience can determine bias and figure out where the writer is coming from. In this view, objectivity is a farce and truth determination is up to the reader.

I don’t have much to say about the specific example Heaton examines: a gripe against American Express by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington.

I have to object, though, to the general frame of objectivity vs. transparency.  I do take issue with the press’s misguided preoccupation with objectivity, and I do support greater transparency.  But I’d hate to see the two unnecessarily juxtaposed.

Not either or

For all the problems with today’s impartiality in journalism – and Rosen’s “Cult of Innocence” post is the place to start on that – there is real value in factually accurate reporting that aspires to a certain kind of objectivity.  (Here’s how I think that could work in the internet age.)  And transparency is aiding experiments in how a new kind of objectivity might look.

The best example I’m aware of here is Wikipedia.  Its community aspires to a certain kind of objectivity, based on a neutral point of view, and is heavily reliant on transparency.  While its process is by no means perfect, it offers some insight into the potential interaction between objectivity and transparency.

Transparency has real advantages if your goal is successfully transforming journalistic objectivity.  First, it offers outsiders a chance to help improve the process.  It’s much easier for the average reader to discover shortcomings in Wikipedia’s process, and to suggest improvements, than it is to do the same with a traditional media outlet.

Second, transparency helps build trust.  And producing accurate journalism that aspires to some version of objectivity is meaningless if no one trusts your process.

Transparency is not enough

Transparency may offer journalists the opportunity to reinvent objectivity within the press, yet transparency alone is no cure-all for journalism.  Just as we’re beginning to see innovative experiments in transparency, I hope we’ll continue to see experiments in objectivity building on successes like Wikipedia.

UPDATE: Also via Rosen, I just came across this 2009 David Weinberger post “Transparency is the new objectivity”.  He makes a good case, but I continue to think the juxtaposition will do damage in the long run, if only via those who fail to read past the subject lines.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate your thinking and do agree that we’re headed towards something new. We must, however, stop using the word “objectivity,” because it is impossible given human nature, and the pursuit of it leads to manipulation by the other side of journalism’s coin, public relations. Transparency and objectivity must be juxtaposed, because they are, in truth, opposite. Both are fallible, but at least transparency is honest. I could go on, but I just wanted to stop by and say I appreciate the discussion. If you want some real enlightenment, I recommend Christopher Lasch’s 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” It’s in the Harper’s archives, although I think it costs ten bucks. Historian Lasch argues brilliantly that the decline in the political process in the U.S. tracks with the rise in the professionalization of the press.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s