July 15, 2009

Stop Pretending

Every now and then I find myself thinking that American journalism would be better off with an openly partisan news media similar to what we see in the UK.

Partisan news organizations are not necessarily unreliable. Journalists working for such organizations can operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification if journalism rather than advocacy is the primary value. In other words, there’s no reason why a partisan news organization cannot produce excellent journalism and do so ethically

The current ethical standards as written in the various codes of ethics, however, argue against that idea. I’m not convinced.

I’m wondering if an openly partisan system would mitigate the ethical lapses we see in this article from The State:

National media blitzed Gov. Mark Sanford’s staff, offering big ratings and, possibly, a sympathetic venue in an effort to land the first interview with the governor after his six-day trip to Argentina.

Offering a “sympathetic venue”  would stretch ethical credibility even in a partisan system. Reason: Journalism cannot be produced in a system where information workers (used here as a euphemism for propagandists) do not operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

It’s entirely OK for any given business, organization, or individual to publish or broadcast just about anything and pretend it is journalism. But it’s easy enough to know who is delivering the goods.

Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending. Forget “fair and balanced.” Let FOX be conservative and then hold them to specific journalistic standards (“fair and balanced” is not terribly specific). Let MSNBC be liberal and then hold them to specific journalistic standards.

5 Responses

  1. Steve Herzog 

    I like this idea for national news media – though I think it would cause problems at more local levels, mostly because there’s often a lack of real competition. Based on the examples, I think that’s what you had in mind anyway.

    But I do think it could go a long way toward eliminating some of the problems we face with consumers trusting large media outlets (FOX News and MSNBC being the examples cited most often). I think most consumers already believe these organizations are partisan, but because they pretend (sort of) to act like they’re not, the public refuses to trust them (and that’s pretty smart of the public).

    If you know organizations are partisan going in, you can have a little of this and a little of that, and decide for yourself. The outlets should balance each other – as long as it doesn’t become a huge pissing match.

  2. Tim 

    I don’t think “partisan” is the correct approach. I also don’t think “Opposition Press” is correct, but makes for interesting comparative reading with Democrats now controlling the Executive and Legislative branches.

    I do think news selection and narrative is inherently biased and denying or pretending that it is not biased (objective) hurts a credibility.

    I continue to argue that along with operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, journalist should provide the transparency of meta-reporting that I call “show your work” and includes the relationship of context and kairos.

    I think Jay Rosen took an interesting approach when he compared news ideology to skeptics and believers, hype-busting and exaggeration.

  3. acline 

    Tim… Welcome back. You may also be interested in today’s post which is slightly related.

  4. Tim 


    Thanks for noticing my absence and the welcome back.

    I thought today’s post was excellent and have enjoyed catching up with the ethics series.

    I appreciated that “show your work” showed up in today’s post. My intended PE would be for you to include “show your work” every time you mention operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m also trying to tie context (and rhemes?) to transparency and your revision of the illocutionary act of speech-act theory F^r(p) / C -> PE.

    I’m also thinking about how this series relates to our taxonomy and the “production of innocence“.

  5. Tim 

    More background …Context part 2, supplemental…

    … political reporters today are prone to discussing subjective assessments of politicians as if these were observations of verifiable facts.

    Using “facts” and “liberal” in the same sentence…

    [F]acts, as agreed-upon statements about the world, cannot possess ideology or bias except as they are employed rhetorically, or applied analytically, by the interlocutors and auditors in a given rhetorical situation.

    More on the Rhetoric Beat

    Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message.