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September 20, 2007

Objectivity as genre

John Stoehr

I don't come from a journalism background. I never went to j-school. I never took Reporting 101. I was indoctrinated by music school, Western philosophy, the classical and jazz traditions, and graduate courses in literary theory, rhetoric, new historicism and lots of Shakespeare and American and English poetry.

So when I began writing for general interest publications like alt weeklies, music magazines and especially daily newspapers, I had to learn quickly about objectivity. What is it?

For me, unlike, I suppose, those reared in journalism schools, objectivity wasn't an ethos or mode of thinking as much as it was a genre of writing. As someone who closely studied storytelling as practiced in the Western tradition, objectivity clearly had its own set of conventions, tropes and cliches, just as Restoration comedies, miracle plays, epic verse and horror movies had theirs.

In learning how to write in the genre of objectivity, just as I learned to write an academic paper (or a limerick or doggerel), I discovered something interesting and frustrating: that the rules of objective writing -- he said, she said, officials say this, critics say this -- were very limiting. Ironically, as I strove to tell the truth to the best of my ability, the writing conventions I used were sometimes keeping me from telling the truth.

Case in point is a piece I wrote about a ballet company. The group is called Ballet Savannah. It has problems. Two, mainly. One was hiring an artistic director to professionalize the organization, lead fundraising and execute a 32-week season.

I know, that doesn't sound like a problem. That emerged when it became clear the heads of Ballet Savannah were obsessed with staging "The Nutcracker." They had hired the new director, one with fine credentials and a clear vision, but then hired another when the first couldn't make the transition fast enough to lead a staging of Christmastide ballet.

Hiring two artistic directors is weird. I know this. Dancers know this. It's not unheard of, but for a fledgling group with little identity, little momentum and no infrastructure, two is bad. It means the administration -- in this case a husband and wife with a daughter involved in ballet -- doesn't know what its doing. Incompetence isn't a crime by any means, but incompetence does mean that readers shouldn't take Ballet Savannah seriously.

Which is, of course, just what the husband and wife -- two wealthy, prominent citizens ubiquitous in Savannah's upper crust society -- wanted. They wanted the spotlight but not the scrutiny that comes with being in the spotlight.

As a reporter writing in the genre of objectivity, what to do?

I thought about my experience when I read Jay Rosen's comments in Steve Outing's Aug. 28 column, "Stop the Presses," for Editor & Publisher. Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said that objectivity was an invention of the early 20th century. It was not a means of communicating impartially but of "limiting liability."

"Part of the problem is that journalists don't realize what objectivity was in the first place," says Rosen. "From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it's hard to figure out who's right and what's really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to 'de-voice' or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product [my italics]. But the costs of that system have built up over time.

"One of the most insidious and deceptive things about the system of objectivity is how it persuades journalists that the alternative to it is 'subjectivity.' From this angle, to relinquish objectivity means to surrender to partisanship, opinion, bias. Not very attractive, that. But what if the real alternative is truthtelling itself?" Rosen adds.

In other words, perhaps my hunch was right: that objectivity was a genre of writing. It was a way of writing, not a way of thinking or behaving, that allowed reporters to dodge inevitable charges of bias, slander and sticking his nose into places it didn't belong.

Through the years, objectivity as a way of writing became conflated with objectivity as a way of thinking and behaving. It follows logically that the opposite of objectivity would then be subjectivity, which is still taboo in mainstream journalism.

But what if it weren't so taboo, asks Saul Friedman in an insightful column for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism? The blog is called the Nieman Watchdog and I plan to read more of it.

Friedman makes the case that justification for the Iraq War would have been challenged more aggressively if reporters had been unchained by the conventions of objectivity. He writes that investigative reporters knew what the truth was, but adhered to the obligations of journalism (i.e., the genre rules of objectivity) fearing of being called partisan by partisans in the White House.

Here's a pattern he saw much of:

One or two investigative reporters were probing for and finding holes in the administration's claims. But the news of each day came out of the Pentagon and White House and they led the paper, day after day, straight stories quoting administration officials or the president or the defense secretary. Only occasionally, did the reporter write, "But critics say," or "some Democrats say." It was the obligatory throw-away line to show the story was fair and balanced. Maybe it was, but it was also wrong. Many of the reporters knew the nation was being led into war and that the reasons were questionable, but they hung onto the bandwagon of war because all they could do with their brand of journalism was to become, in Lenin's words, a "transmission belt."

Later, on the charges of partisanship . . .

Telling truth, with good, solid reporting, will be called partisan by those who disagree with the conclusions. That has always come with the territory. Howard Kurtz quoted blogger Arianna Huffington: "too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of 'what is truth' to their readers -- refusing to admit there is such a thing as truth ...The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt." Thus we are forced into writing, in effect, "on the other hand, the White House says..."

As for Ballet Savannah, I was forced to write a straight news story for fear (not mine, but my editor's) of being branded a maverick, muckraker or whatever. It was all bullshit.

In the end, though, no one really found out Ballet Savannah shouldn't be taken seriously. They didn't, that is, until they bought tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Only then did some patrons tell me -- this is true -- that I had deceived them into thinking Ballet Savannah was more than it is. They said they wished I had told them not to take the company seriously.

Given the rise of opinion journalism, advocacy journalism and interpretative journalism, perhaps now would be a good time for daily newspapers to challenge objectivity as the pre-eminent genre of writing.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 20, 2007 3:57 AM


Your comments about objectivity and its perils brought to mind George Orwell's wonderful book, "Homage to Catalonia."

Orwell is anything but "objective." In fact, he makes his politics abundantly clear and is quite involved in the unfolding events in Spain. Yet he is anything but a political hack or a partisan-talking head. One of the most engaging aspects of the book is the sense that Orwell is trying very hard to grapple with the events that he is witnessing, trying to be fair-minded, trying to see inconvenient and unpleasant facts. Traditional canons of objectivity would have ill-served Orwell and his readers.

The relevant question for journalists isn't "Are they objective?" The relevant questions instead are "Are they willing to have their minds changed in light of new informaton? Are they willing to struggle with facts that don't fit into their preconceptions of what they think a story is about?"

Posted by: gary panetta at September 20, 2007 2:26 PM

The conventions of objective news reporting do pose difficulties, but the way to solve them is not by encouraging the reporter to give up and start spouting opinions. It's by having the reporter do more reporting.

First, a proposed definition: Objective reporting is that which lets all reasonable, directly-affected constituents in a controversy put forward their best arguments, yet does not shrink from comparing those arguments to relevant facts, neutral experts' analysis and opinions, and the historical record. It does not advocate an outcome, but it also does not deviate from the core element of professional news reporting, which is repertorial skepticism -- in all directions. Or, as they teach in the journalism classes John missed (but which are hardly the only way to learn what you need to be a good reporter): "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

So: please don't blame the lapses of journalism on the principle of news objectivity. Let's blame them on reporters who are too lazy or too overburdened to find authoritative sources who will give straight answers to all the questions that a skeptical reporter wants and needs to answer.

Let's take John's "Nutcracker" conundrum as an example. He wants to tell his readers that it is highly irregular and possibly a sign of disarray for a fledgling ballet company to hire an artistic director with solid credentials, then undermine said director by hiring a second artistic director to do a rush job on a production of "The Nutcracker." Why not flat-out say that? Because then you've lost your repertorial credibilty, and your newspaper's, as honest brokers of information who hear everybody out, saving judgment for the opinion pages and clearly labeled arts and entertainment reviews.

So, how to get across to the good folks of Savannah that their ballet company may be off its hinges? First you call the respected but now humiliated artistic director's friends, associates and former colleagues and teachers. Mr. or Ms. Humiliated can't talk, because he or she needs the salary, or has to take it like a good soldier to avoid being perceived as a difficult artiste by possible future employers. But maybe a buddy or her old prof or a dancer who loved working with her at another company will express outrage. If this first circle fails, you move outward a bit. Does a college or university in your region have a faculty member who teaches arts administration? Run the scenario by that person, who is likely tenured and can say whatever the hell he/she pleases and in fact earns brownie points for being quoted in the media. Talk to the leaders of other respected ballet companies from cities comparable to Savannah. Talk to the producers of the performing arts seasons at universities, or at regional arts centers. Ask the experts what it takes in time and resources to put on a decent "Nutcracker." Make the local ballet company look like the idiots they are, cutting them with their peers' neat razor slices, rather than your own clumsy, self-damaging bludgeon.

Armed with the conventions of objectivity, and enough time and energy to deploy them properly, you'll have considerably more power than if you abandon objectivity in the news report for advocacy. Not to diss the alternative press, but there's a reason it's a pipsqueak compared to the local mainstream rag when it comes to actually effecting change. If it's doing its job, the alternative paper can make a lot of noise and break important stories that help influence the public agenda, but it just doesn't have the juice and solid-citizen seriousness of purpose that comes with armoring a publication in objectivity.

As for the NYU professor's scholarly notion that the principle of objectivity has been bad for journalism and the diging out of truth, what a load of bosh. Lack of objectivity gets you newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, circa 1950, functioning as a partisan battering ram that does damage to truth and fairness while trying to end civic debate rather than provide an undisputed factual basis from which debate can proceed. So, paradoxically, objectivity not only adds to publications' power to drive the public debate as honest brokers, but it's a brake on any inclination to abuse that power by distorting the news report.

See the Wall Street Journal, at least pre-Murdoch. It's a shame that many small-city publishers are so cheap and driven by profit-maximization that they try to run their cultural coverage as a one-person shop, forcing a single writer to wear the two conflicting caps of cultural news reporter and cultural critic. I don't blame John for bailing out of such a situation in Savannah. A news organization that won't, at minimum, staff the cultural beat with a reporter (who may do some reviews) and a critic (who may do some news and feature stories, but not the controversial ones where he or she must be at the remove necessary for hurling opinionated thunderbolts), is woefully short of having a professional standard of coverage for an important facet -- I'd say, in the long run, the definitive one -- of the life of its community.

So, can we please lay off trying to reinvent the wheel of how to do good journalism, when we already know that? The real crisis we old-media types all face has to do with changing business structures and revenue shrinkage in the Internet age. It doesn't mean there's anything obsolete about the principles we follow in gathering and presenting the news. Objective journalism is a method that is proven and reliable and strong, but like a superbly designed automobile, how fast and how far it will take you still depends on how much gas you put in the tank. Let's not make the silly mistake of confusing an empty gas tank for a blown engine. Now, fill 'er up, please.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 20, 2007 10:57 PM

This is the only forthright and succinct analysis I've seen of the role of media in the betrayal of our nation. In a mass society, everything we "know" as individuals must come through the filters of "the media." If no effort is made to compare what is said and done with other relevant but contradictory or potentially corrective facts, and with history, democratic society and governance cannot be sustained. "We make our own reality," as one staffer of the current ruling junta has said. This is the most frighteningly consequential statement of our times.

I'm not sure how I've addressed "the betrayal of our nation," but thanks anyway, Charlton -- J.S.

Posted by: Charlton Price at September 25, 2007 1:26 PM