Gizmodo’s take on objectivity is regrettable

I’ve got plenty of complaints regarding the sort of he-said-she-said faux objectivity that has overwhelmed much of the traditional media, and I’ve written as much here on the blog. It’s Jay Rosen’s “quest for innocence” – the desire to be blameless that drives impartiality off the deep end to the point where it hurts readers. And at the philosophical level I recognize that “objectivity” in the abstract is impossible.

Fine. But the basic premise behind journalistic objectivity still has tremendous value. So it’s a shame to see Gizmodo editor Matt Buchanan trashing it in a post today. Here’s the opening:

Gizmodo is not objective. It never has been, I don’t think. And I hope it never will be. Because the point isn’t to be something as meaningless—and frankly, false—as objective. The point is to tell the truth.

As long we’re going to get philosophical, the whole notion of “the truth” is itself problematic. But in the context of journalism the point of “objectivity” is to tell the truth. And to appreciate that the truth is often very tricky, so a special ethic is required that is deeply skeptical of truth claims and devoted to exploring competing truth claims.

But Gizmodo ignores this and says:

But objectivity, very often, is bullshit. Even science, which proclaims to be objective more than any other discipline, is very often not, unable to decide whether or not coffee will kill you—or more tragically, has been systematically deployed over and over in history in the service of racism and misogyny. Objectively speaking, the earth was flat and the center of the universe, for a very long time.

Presumably some sort of honest Gizmodo ethic that just calls ’em like it sees ’em would have totally gotten that whole round earth thing right off the bat.

It gets worse.

Oh, and then there’s “bias.” What we hear about the most. That we’re biased about one product or another. What is an “unbiased” review of technology, or assessment of anything? A list of specifications, numbers jammed together with acronyms? What good does that do anybody?

I take from this that the author just doesn’t really spend much time thinking about bias. Here again it’s just not that hard, and it goes back to the point about telling the truth. Bias is about people making clearly false judgments in a systematic way. It’s measurable against broadly agreed upon truth claims, and in some cases it can be tempered by good practices of thought.

Journalistic objectivity is about a deep commitment to truth-telling paired with an acknowledgement of the pervasive power of bias that then leads to a skepticism of truth claims, which naturally breeds some interest in competing truth claims.

How does that work in practice when the quest for innocence is removed? I continue to go back to this great Jim Henley post describing the “blog-reporter ethos” which he sees as basically the same of that of a magazine writer:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

This isn’t that hard (well it’s hard to do, but it’s not that hard to grasp as a concept). We don’t just need transparency. And we don’t need the concept of objectivity to be so trashed that we can’t rebuild it.

Explainers and Transparency

Since the recent unrest began in the Middle East, Mother Jones has gotten attention for their invaluable explainer posts like this one on Egypt. These posts do more than report on events. They begin by asking and briefly answering questions like “How did this all start?” and “Why Are Egyptians Unhappy?” It’s a deceptively simple format, but the posts go a long way to providing some basic context prior to reporting what’s new. The Wall Street Journal has a similar feature today on “How Nuclear Reactors work… And the Dangers When They Don’t”.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with these sort of explainer features. (Jay Rosen at NYU is leading a project that explores the issue in depth at Explainer.net.) But context is arguably trickier than news reporting when it comes to providing some level of “objectivity.” There are often multiple reports of what happened, but even more of why it happened.

So explainers will need to think extra carefully about how to update “objectivity” – a thorny subject under the best circumstances – to fit these features.

The excellent analysis offered by Mother Jones and WSJ reminded of a post I wrote about back in August: the magazine-reporter ethos. The original post is by Jim Henley, and here are his key points:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

It’s relatively easy to come up with rough guidelines like these, or these ones by Factcheck.org:

1. Keep an open mind
2. Ask the right questions
3. Cross-check
4. Consider the source
5. Weigh the evidence

And explainers would do well to incorporate these guidelines into their efforts. But I’d argue they need to go even further, beyond rough guidelines, and develop more detailed rules and descriptions of their process. There are lots of advocates of transparency in future-of-news circles, often as a substitute for “objectivity.” But too often those calling for transparency focus on explaining the writer’s perspective – I’m liberal, this is my worldview, etc. – and less on transparency of process – we consider x to be a more reliable source than y and shaped our analysis accordingly, etc. Let’s see more process transparency. And keep up the great explainer experiments.

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject