Bias and Objectivity

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Schudson, “The objectivity norm in American journalism”
  • Alterman, Eric, “What liberal media?” Chapter 4
  • Lichter, S. Robert, “Consistently liberal: But does it matter?”
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”

It took more than telegrams, wire services, and a booming newspaper market to establish American journalists as the pioneers of objectivity, Schudson argues in “The objectivity norm in American journalism.” He identifies four specific social patterns at work that made journalism ripe for professionalization through explicit normative values and behaviors.

Going beyond the commonly accepted technological and economic factors behind journalism’s objectivity norm, Schudson also places it in the context of broader social and political movements leading up to the 1920s — the period in which an explicit objectivity norm first developed. It follows, I was fascinated to learn, the emergence of politics as “an administrative science.”

Given today’s culture of collaboration, Schudson’s second condition of “group egoism” seems especially important now as a factor that may help keep journalistic values normalized in a shifting media landscape. “Here the prescription that ‘the way we do’ things is ‘the way one should do’ things is a … way of defining the group in relation to other groups,” he writes. Establishing shared values and practices is an essential first step in working together, as for example NPR and ProPublica have done, and as more and more media outlets are finding a financial imperative to do.

Schudon’s drive to pinpoint an exact moment in journalistic history, a specific author responsible for the birth of the objectivity norm, seemed a bit obsessive to me. But I do wish that one of the authors on liberalism in the media would have been so driven. Neither of them discuss how or why or when it came to be that the media is (rightly or wrongly) accused of being liberal.

In “Consistently Liberal,” Lichter cites decades of journalist surveys proving that a majority of journalists are liberals (or Democrats). But, Lichter maintains, that doesn’t mean their journalism is biased. He points out, “The various conventions of journalistic ‘objectivity’ — separating fact from opinion, citing sources, checking allegations — represent practical efforts to deal with this philosophical problem.”

He also points out that, more recently, journalists have become more reluctant to identify their political affiliations. If it hasn’t already been done, this seems like an area ripe for further research: What is this journalist reticence a response to, and more importantly what does it accomplish? Anecdotally, I’m familiar with a sort of backlash against objectivity — one that rejects reticence — in which journalists feel it is more honest to acknowledge their biases to their audiences up front. I hope someone is measuring this trend so we can track its impact.

The trend that Alterman measures (or at least refers to) in “What Liberal Media?” that I found most useful is the “conservative colonization of the so-called ‘center.’” Conservative pundits, he argues, have successfully moved the metaphorical 50-yard-line so far back into their own territory that formerly moderate views have become liberal. Formerly liberal views are now regarded as so extreme that they can be marginalized as the belief of a radical, fringe, and possibly dangerous few. My question of how journalists are to respond to this in a constructive way is not one he answers in this chapter.

Lichter said in his article that “the news is less a mirror than a prism.” I couldn’t help but feel that, while interesting, Alterman’s prism was rather narrow. His critique of David Broder (Washington Post) ends with the assertion that “Broder’s embrace of a host of unproven conservative assumptions under the guise of anti-ideological, sensible centrism is hardly an isolated story. It is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception…”

But then Alterman goes on to detail the editorial struggles at “even the liberal New Republic.” And he stops there. For an author so critical of certain journalists’ embrace of unproven assumptions, he doesn’t do much measuring himself. We are presented with very detailed descriptions of two trees that, we are simply told, are highly representative of the forest as a whole.

While Alterman describes the politics of very high-level “punditocracy,” Duffy, Page and Young go the opposite direction in “Obama as Anti-American.” Pulling theories and techniques from many researchers before them, the group dissects the nature and content of “right-wing forwarded emails” as a digital folklore, pointing out the special impact of visual appropriation when used in political messaging.

This digital folklore is an example of what’s new as media (online publishing, photo editing software) becomes more accessible to the general public. In these social exchanges, not only are the group’s norms not explicitly stated, as has evolved among journalists, but they are also most certainly not about objectivity. The visual emails illustrate but a sliver of what journalists are up against in maintaining our objectivity and the public’s value of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *