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to Think About
bias and judgement - does journalism need to rethink its fundamental canon:
ROSEN, a journalism professor and director of the Project on Public Life
and the Press at New York University, is a press critic who often draws
criticism from reporters and editors by saying journalism needs to rethink
its fundamental canon: objectivity. Mr. Rosen sat down for a
Q. What is journalistic objectivity?
It is the value of fairness, which is extremely important. It's the ethic
of restraining your own biases, which is also important. . . . It's
the idea that journalism can't be the voice of any particular party or
sect, which is also important. All those things are very honorable, very
Q. Do you think we make judgments?
Of course. And I think you think you make judgments all the time. . . .
I don't think the kind of bias journalists are usually accused of -- ideological
bias, personal animus -- is generally worrisome. Far more subtle and more
dangerous are the conventions of journalism: the ways in which
Q. What is behind that framing?
A. In every area of coverage, from politics to sports, there are these kinds of lenses. When we talk about politics and public life, the frames journalists employ are very identifiable and narrow. There is, for example, the strategy lens: seeing everything through the eyes of the tactician. There is the emphasis on winning and the game aspects of politics.
And what does that have to do with objectivity?
Q. And is that not what we ought to do?
A. That is not a description of what's possible in journalism. When journalists say, "All we do is present facts," that is misleading.
Q. Do we mislead intentionally?
A. Sometimes, to avoid criticism, yes. To escape from discussions about your craft, yes. To sever the conversation about journalism and its values from the rest of the political culture, yes. Journalism doesn't admit that criticism is legitimate. One of the most powerful things about the declaration "I'm objective," is the hidden corollary: "You're not."
Q. Who's you?
Everybody but the journalist. So everybody who comes at the press with
a dissatisfaction, with a complaint, or even with an idea, is seen by journalists
as subjective. And those who are "subjective," who are interested, who
have a stake, are almost by definition unqualified to pass judgment on
Q. But isn't that one of the reasons journalism exists, to be a third party, the Fourth Estate?
A. If you're saying good journalism is independent journalism, I agree completely. However, I also believe that an objective press has to be in conversation with the rest of the country and the political culture about what's a good lens to take.
Q. But the reality of the rest of the culture is that it's highly partisan and the press ought not to be.
A. Ah, but see that view of "everybody else but us is highly partisan" is itself an artifact of the ideology or doctrine of objectivity.
Q. Isn't it the case that there's a great deal of partisanship?
Q. And don't you need somebody who is not partisan to provide the information so the partisans can function?
Yes, you need an independent source of information in politics. The issue
is: How should we describe what this independent institution does? If we
describe it simply as providing facts, we're going to miss a lot of what
this institution does. . . . The political drama given to us by the
Q. The press often feels it should stay as far out of the story as possible, doesn't it?
A. That is a fantasy that journalists have about themselves. If you look at Washington political culture, journalists are completely involved in that culture in a whole variety of ways. They are constantly involved in what gets on the public agenda, who's getting attention.
Q. What would you call the role the press plays in politics?
A. I would say the press is framing the story of public life for us in a particular way. It's inescapable. It's in the nature of what they do. And it's not working. . . . It's not working for citizens.
Q. And the press won't admit it?
A. They won't admit it because they would face a very different criticism of what they do, which they don't know how to deal with. It would require them to rethink a lot of their most basic assumptions, and it would require them to take a certain basic level of responsibility for how we conduct ourselves as a public society. At the root of objectivity is the wish to be free of the results of what you do.
This article speaks about objectivity and does not mention fair-play. Journalist spalsh huge headlines across the front pages in order to sell but when those headlines are in error, when lawsuits for defamation occur the apology and retraction is tucked away in a tiny column buries deep within the newspaper or magazine. The damage has been done and the seed sown in the minds of the reader.
Now here's a bit of subjectivity in a current situation! The sexual abuse cases by Catholic Clergy. Each new case is BIG NEWS! But we never hear about any of the other denominations, or about fathers, or about teachers, or about social workers, or about policemen, all of whom in my opinion hold just as much of a responsible role towards children as do Priests, or about any other group in society. This must be purely a Catholic Priest condition!
I often wonder at the real agenda behind such reporting. Yes, it is good that these cases are being brought out into the open and it is high time the Church was purged of these evil-doers. But where is fair and balanced reporting? Where are the statistics to show that in truth the percentage of child abusers by Priests are actually much lower than the percentage in the population at large.
Sure much of the blame must lie at the door of the Bishops for neglecting their duties towards their flock and the laws of the land. But has anyone looked back at the laws at the time of these abuses of 20 years ago to see what sort of legislation was actually in place for situations like these?
In the mid-eighties I did a brush-up nursing course in psychiatry and paedophilia was classed as a psychiatric medical condition at the time. It was only in the late 80's that laws were passed for child protection.
The pen is mightier than the sword and nothing could me more true. One headline of a false report is enough to ruin a career, a marriage, and a life. Journalists need to get back to the ethics of the job they hold for in their hands they virtually 'hold life'!
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