Monday, September 06, 2010

New York Times Public Editor seeks to maintain "sacred cloak of impartiality." Isn't it a bit late?

In his second column, Arthur Brisbane, the new New York Times Public Editor, is already wading into deep waters.

His column yesterday, In an Age of Voices, Moving Beyond the Facts, expresses alarm about news articles that contain "opinion" or "interpretive journalism":
When I asked Matt Bai about his Aug. 12 “Political Times” column on Representative Paul Ryan — the one Mr. Johnson criticized — he said: “I guess my column is part of a broader effort to take some chances in the paper and explore different formats for a new era. I think that represents a great and exciting trend for the paper; none of us can afford to think in old rubrics for new generations of readers.”

Bai’s editor, Richard Stevenson, the deputy Washington bureau chief, elaborated on how The Times is navigating the new norms. “We are still exploring how much of a voice you can have ... what kinds of conclusions you can draw when it comes to politics,” he said.

A news-page column like “Political Times” carries the “freedom to reach a reported conclusion,” he said. Not to “throw opinion around,” but to “express in a restrained and fact-bound way a conclusion about something.”
The "reported conclusion"

I think the notion of a "reported conclusion" is legitimate. Why? Because the Times, and the "objective" press, is full of implicitly reported conclusion.

Consider, for example, the egregious example of the Times quoting, without qualms, the claim last September by a New York City Economic Development Corporation spokesman that Atlantic Yards was "a site that is now an open railyard without any public benefit."

What made that claim even more egregious was that, well before the deadline for print, I posted a comment on the CityRoom blog demolishing that claim. I ran this all by Brisbane's predecessor, Clark Hoyt, who, predictably enough, ignored it.

The question might be: how to get to better reported conclusions?

The confusion

Brisbane makes the legitimate point that the Times is confusing its readers by suggesting fine distinction between rubrics such as “Man in the News,” “Reporter’s Notebook,” “News Analysis,” and “News-Page Column.”

He concludes:
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.
So Brisbane wants the Times to maintain the "sacred cloak of impartiality." If so, then he'd better focus not only on explicit efforts to inject opinion--or conclusions--but also implicit ones.

Giving Gillmor short shrift

Brisbane gives one critic short shrift:
Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, the whole effort to demonstrate impartiality is wrong-headed to begin with... He sees no conflict between “having a worldview and doing great journalism,” and points to British papers like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph as examples.
But Gillmor, in 1/20/05 blog post on The End of Objectivity, points to much more than the British press. He cites the importance of thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency.

The practice described by Gillmor that I've taken to heart is this:
Another way to be transparent is in the way we present a story. We should link to source material as much as possible, bolstering what we tell people with close-to-the-ground facts and data. (Maybe this is part of accuracy or thoroughness, but it seems to fit here, too.)
And an online format allows for that.

Readers react


Most readers, some of whom froth that the Times, as a liberal newspaper, is infecting its political coverage with liberal cant, agree with Brisbane.

Some of the more thoughtful ones, to my mind, disagree, pointing to the bigger picture. Three excerpts are below.

Bruce:
IT SEEMS to me that news coverage in the past few decades has been neutered by the need to keep up the appearance of being neutral. the fear of being called biased has cowed, in this case, the nyt reporters into being stenographers instead of reporters.
Suzanne Lainson:
I think there is inherent bias in everything we do. We all bring some sort of perspective to what we write. We decide who to interview, how to organize the information, how much space to give the story, where to feature it, and so on. Therefore, I would much rather have those biases very visible, and then, in order to get a broader picture of the story, I may seek out a variety of viewpoints. At the same time, there is a place for information, so that readers know how a particular story may impact their lives. There may be disagreements about a reporter's conclusions, but it is still helpful to be told why a particular story is important.
JH:
I recommend (a) Rosenstiel's dictum that impartiality should be regarded as a method, not as an outcome, and (b) the late Paul Foot's observation that "facts are the gold standard of comment." And, by the way, is there a difference between "comment", which, at least inferentially, is fact-based, and "opinion", which can be completely fact-free, or even fact-averse? Perhaps a greater threat than the type of articles discussed here is the threat from the subliminal use by news reporters of prejudicial language, juxtaposition, and selectivity to shepherd the unwary reader towards a pre-ordained view of the significance or meaning of events that coincides neatly with the undeclared and probably unexamined prejudices/world view of the writer. This s a much older and more intractable problem than the heading of the section in a paper where particular article appears.
B J E:
To me, even the most "objective" of news stories has a slant to them, either by omission or inclusion, so a jump to an opinion news piece is the next step. The real need then is to have the writer use reasonable facts to explain their conclusions, otherwise the article is purely an opinion piece and just a "he said, she said" piece.
Rosenstiel on fairness

The commenter referred to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. He co-authored a 2001 book (updated 2007)with Bill Kovach, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

From a review by Dane Claussen in Newspaper Research Journal:
In their "Journalism of Verification" chapter, where they do discuss "fairness" and "balance," they argue that impartiality is not necessary for the news media. Later, Kovach and Rosenstiel conclude that journalists should be independent, not neutral. They embrace a lost meaning of objectivity that refers to the reporting method, not results. In fact, they wisely point out,

"Balance, for instance, can lead to distortion. If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create the impression that the scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often journalistic balance is misconstrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides. As journalists know, often there are more than two sides to a story. And sometimes balancing them equally is not a true reflection of reality."

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