September 6, 2010

Struggling to Keep Myths Despite Change

Arthur S. Brisbane, the new Public Editor for The New York Times, on Sunday examined the issue of opinions in the news section published under such headings as “reporter’s notebook,” “news analysis,” and “news-page column.” His conclusion:

These narrow distinctions reflect the struggle to remain impartial while publishing more and more interpretive material. How to resolve this tension?

One path is to do a much better job of labeling the work — and please don’t bother with the fine distinctions. Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand.

That, or abandon the sacred cloak of impartiality.

I vote for the former but concede that the latter may offer better traction in the opinion-gorged landscape of the future.

Do readers really not understand? It seems to me they understand perfectly but don’t like it when the opinion expressed challenges their ideologies.

Opinion, or “voice,” is not a problem as long as it is based on proper journalistic work — a topic I’ve examined in my criticism of my local paper. Punditry is a problem. So I’m good with both of Brisbane’s solutions. I do not recognize the dichotomy. I prefer to split the world in two based on opinion journalism v. punditry.

Further, there is no sacred cloak of impartiality. There is a myth about this cloak that helps journalists understand themselves in a particular relationship to an equally mythical general audience. That relationship — characterized by the rhetoric of lecture — has been breaking down in our electronically-mediated, interactive age. The rhetoric of lecture is giving way to the rhetoric of conversation. Journalists are still struggling with what this transition means for practicing ethical journalism.

It doesn’t help that there is a large misunderstanding about what objectivity means — it is supposed to be a process, not a stance. And it has nothing to do with getting “both sides of the story.” There are many “sides,” and sometimes one or more of them don’t have their facts straight. It’s OK to point that out (and point out why, and point out what it means) because journalists (are supposed to) operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification ( i.e. that process I mentioned).

As long as that is happening, this thing called “voice” we assign to reporters doing labeled opinion, if paired with transparency, can still fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. I would argue the rhetoric of conversation fulfills this purpose better than the rhetoric of lecture.

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