The End of 'objectivity' in new journalism era: a good thing?

by Joe Strupp, Editor and Publisher

When Michael Paulson began covering religion for The Boston Globe eight years ago, the paper had no blogs or online video, he did almost no outside speaking work, and the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic church sex scandal was still years away. Today, Paulson finds himself going well beyond the straight news stories of the print edition — to more analysis, public speaking and commentary, and, in just the past few months, a religion-focused blog.

He's not alone. While Paulson, 43, contends the objective approach to reporting is maintained on all fronts, he says that keeping up in so many journalistic outlets can be difficult: "There is a difference between being analytical and being opinionated. A blog is much more challenging because it is first-person. It is very fast, and in the world of blogging, most bloggers are offering opinions all the time. When newspapers add the format of blogging, I am not allowed the leeway of the traditional blogger."

Paulson's challenge is one that more and more print journalists are confronting as they are asked to write news stories, blog items, do analysis (often minutes after an event has occurred) and, in many cases, provide commentary for radio, television, and even online outlets. As newspaper Web sites blend in more with blogs that do not hold to the same journalistic rules, there is greater pressure to "write like them" — and sometimes cut corners on the principles of objectivity and balance that have been the oft-stated mainstay, for better or worse, of newspaper news coverage.

"I see a lot of cheering in the press box that used to not be the way," says Carla Marinucci, a 12-year political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who noted a much more partisan tone at this year's political conventions due to many bloggers in attendance than in the past. "All of us have to be very careful in this brave new world — a lot of places are calling for your opinion."

Paulson's boss, Globe Editor Martin Baron, agrees that the challenges are greater, but stresses that is no excuse for newspapers getting away from the core demands of journalism: "We need to be honest, accurate and fair. Those are the principles. Those are the words that define what our mission is. The others send us in odd directions." But, he adds, "that doesn't mean a blog cannot have a personality or be more casual or irreverent in certain ways. It has a certain style to it, much like a feature has a different style to it. But it is still grounded by core principles."

Others claim the reporter's rule of remaining objective has never really been the case, and for newspapers to pretend to "hold on" to it in the growing age of online opinions and fast-moving facts only holds them back. "I'm not a believer in the myth of objectivity to begin with — what we are talking about is fairness," says Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute. "We may aspire to [objectivity], but we have not come close to achieving it."

Woods explains that as reporters move into new areas, it becomes much harder to keep your opinions to yourself as you move across forms. "Invariably, one leaks into another. Writing a blog, then going on radio or TV to give an opinion, then writing a staff news story is more difficult."

He points to the changes in media for readers, who just 10 or 20 years ago had much less opinion- driven content from which to select. Even CNN, which launched more than 25 years ago, has taken a decidedly more personality-driven and opinionated tone, something on display even more so at somewhat newer competitors like MSNBC. When a viewer of those channels turns to a newspaper, in print or online, they may be expecting a slanted viewpoint — and sometimes want one.

"I have given up watching CNN to try to determine who is a pundit and who is a journalist," says Woods. "The public no longer sees the printed page as the only domain of the journalist. They are in all of these forms. Too often now, opinion is substituted as fact, and the collection of opinion is substituted for reporting."

But some newspaper stalwarts like John Walcott, McClatchy Newspapers' Washington bureau chief, say such a mixed bag of media these days requires reporters to keep to the core journalistic standards more than ever. "The process is well under way, lumping all of us together," he says of the public's perception of the media. "We have to keep our standards as high as we can."

He adds, however, that the new forms such as blogs and video and analysis are necessary, and his site has launched numerous such options in the past few years. "They all have fairly strict guidelines" on keeping personal opinion out of the mix, he says of the blogs, many of which emanate from foreign bureaus. "Once you cross the line, there is no easy way to cross back."

The Chronicle's Marinucci says she already sees the impact non-newspaper outlets have had on public perception, noting numerous instances in which she is accused of slanting one way or another, much more than even a few years ago. She cites a blog post in early 2008 about John Edwards, long outspoken about poverty, accepting $50,000 to speak at a college campus on the issue. "I got very nasty, obscene e-mails, supposedly from Edwards supporters," she says. "Even though I kept my opinion out of it."

Andrew Malcolm, who has covered politics since 1968 and blogs at the Los Angeles Times' "Top of the Ticket," says he still treats each item like a fact-based story, but with some buzz and style. "Most non-newspaper blogs are committed, one way or another — there is a slant," he says. "They are selling a particular view. Our niche is to be sort of unexpected. But it is possible to be a real professional. Cover something straight and develop a perspective to inform your discussion."

L.A. Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus points out the different views of what is objective. "I think it means presenting every side of an argument fairly in ways that the proponents would accept as valid," he says.

But more and more, both new media and old-fashioned news types are disagreeing with that approach. The growing trend is that the truth must surpass the 50/50 doctrine. "We have gotten it so wrong with the idea of giving equal play to both sides," says Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of Huffingtonpost.com and a longtime proponent of trading arbitrary "balance" for truth. "We are not always going to be balanced. Very often, it is one side or the other." She cited the ongoing arguments against global warming, which she contends mainstream journalists allowed for too long to go unchallenged: "We wasted a lot of journalistic capital on global warming trying to be balanced." She says the recent government rescue of financial institutions is another, noting too many mainstream outlets did not question if the bailout was needed: "Those of us who live online already dismissed certain elements of the bailout, such as the lack of oversight."

Adds Woods at Poynter: "Whether you quote both sides does not change what is the truth. We allow the 50/50 idea to substitute for truth. Where we often fail is when we may get somebody on one side with deep knowledge, understanding, perspective, and credibility to speak and on the other side someone with just an opinion, but they have no credibility."

Baron at the Globe agrees: "We are involved in journalism, not stenography exercises. It is finding out what is actually happening. Balance means every story gets 50/50? I don't believe that."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey