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The future of journalism: ‘Take a Stand’

If you would like to spare yourself a bunch of hazy, crazy soliloquizing by me, you can skip everything below and just follow this link. It goes to “Take a Stand,” a smart, brave piece by Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review. Cunningham posits what he calls a new “way forward,” basically a new mission and a new attitude, for mainstream journalism.

(CJR, for reasons you can imagine, no longer puts all of its content online right away, and this piece isn’t up yet. But I obtained permission to post this version of it.)

Cunningham starts with a critique of “reactive” journalism (writing about things that have “happened,” often orchestrated, sometimes not), and calls for journalism to perform “other, more important roles; investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation.”

Cunningham thinks there is a way for journalists to do this without being so ideological that they lose credibility and whatever is left of a reputation for fairness and open-mindedness. I’m not so sure. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder and I am skeptical whether the more polarized portions of the audience would accept an “arbiter” who didn’t come down on their side in disputed matters. But I also think that, as with the U.S. health care system, the status quo of traditional U.S. journalism is not an option.

Sections of the Cunningham piece had me cheering in my easy chair because it spoke to some of the reasons that I write here now, instead of the Strib where I scribbled for 30 mostly happy years.

Over the last few of those years I felt more and more imprisoned by what I call the norms of journalism, especially the mega-norm of objectivity.

Objectivity in journalism sounds like a noble goal. The more reflective among the craft acknowledge that it can’t be achieved, but tend to say that in striving for it, the best, fairest and most credible work will be done.

I’m no longer on board that train for reasons that I’ll hint at below, (but try to stop before I am fully foaming at the mouth).

Problems with objectivity

In the last of those reaching-for-the-unreachable-star years at the paper (that’s a “Man of LaMancha” reference by the way), I felt that trying to preserve the illusion of objectivity was:

1. Not really fooling anyone; and

2. Used as an excuse for journalism that was timid, formulaic and borderline dishonest.

There’s a longer list that I’ll save for another day. But I’ll just tarry a moment on that last word, “dishonest,” and try to use it to illustrate a few of the issues that pushed me off the objectivity train.

The vast majority of what is written in newspapers under the old model is technically accurate, in a cramped sense that feels safe to those steeped in the journo-norms, but is sometimes well short of truth or honesty. (You’ll find that journalists are a lot more comfortable with a vocabulary about “accuracy” than one about “honesty.”)

For example: You cover a public appearance by a certified newsmaker, let’s say an elected official. Official says something that’s in the vast grey area between really true and really false. (A huge portion is in this area.) Reporter can quote the grey material and leave it at that. It’s “accurate” in the sense that the official spoke the words. You can also leave the quote out. A journalist has tremendous discretionary power over such matters, which is one reason that the objectivity model won’t get you very far.  There is no reliable scientific or even convincing pseudo-scientific method of deciding what goes in and what comes out. Leaving the half-truth out is the path of least resistance and will probably cause the whole process to go more smoothly. (Note the word “timid” in No. 2 above.)

You can also quote the half-truth and then dissect it a bit, emphasizing the half-truthiness of it. (You may be able to quote an expert or a document so that the judgment of half-truthiness doesn’t seem to be coming from you.) Many journalists are doing more and more of this kind of truth-squadding. That’s a good thing and, in my view, the more the better. It’s a step in the direction of Cunningham calls “arbiter of our national conversation.”

We can never, for reasons of time and space limitations (among other reasons), truth squad every important half-truth. So you are back to that discretionary power. But once you exercise it — since it is clearly an act of discretion — it was a choice you made and you are accountable for it. And you will soon very likely be accused of tipping your bias by truth-squadding this statement by this speaker when you failed to truth-squad that statement by that speaker (presumably from the other party).

Plenty of smarter, braver journalists than me have navigated these thickets with skill and fortitude, and plenty of good work has been published within the constraints of the norms. But for me, ultimately, I had to get out of the constraints to do work about which I could feel more consistently OK.

That’s still a work in progress. But here, on MinnPost, if I chicken out on writing the most honest story I can, I can blame only my own lack of intestinal fortitude.

OK, end of me soliloquizing. I did call Cunningham and told him of my skepticism that a journalist as self-appointed arbiter would be accepted as fair by those who disagreed with the ruling. His reply:

“Yes, surely, there are diehard ideologues on the right or left who are unreachable from somewhere between those poles. But the audience in the middle is the one worth going for.”

‘Painful change’

Here, for those who don’t click through to the whole piece, are a few of the passages of the Cunningham piece that got me jazzed:

“American journalism, too, is in a protracted moment of painful change. Both its business model and its sense of mission are in full retreat. Much experimentation is under way, with different financial-support structures, narrowereditorial missions, collaborative projects, etc. There is an urgency, a humility, at news outlets about the need to rethink things that is long overdue. So the press needs a new mission, and the nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century. It is not at all clear that our best news outlets have the will to become true arbiters of our public discourse, but given the increasing inadequacy of the journalistic status quo, and the nature of the challenges facing the country, such a mission shift could offer a crucial way forward for both the press and the public.

“For the press to lead that discussion will require that it make a form of dissent more central to its mission. Not the tedious dissent of partisan rhetoric, but rather dissent in the sense of refusing to accept that the range of possible solutions to the nation’s problems must necessarily come from the centers of power and influence — the White House, Congress, the think tanks, corporate America. As we have seen time and again — on issues like campaign finance, health care, agricultural policy, and social welfare — these institutions are too wedded to the status quo to lead a discussion that is broad and fearless enough to challenge the systems and assumptions that shape America’s politics, its economics, and its civic and social life.

“Such a mission would mean radically realigning a newsroom’s resources and priorities toward the goal of broadening the discourse on important issues — even if it required narrowing the scope of what it covers. The press would have to pay less attention, for instance, to breaking, event-driven news and more to sustained coverage of ideas and — crucially — solutions. It would have to stop reflexively marginalizing ideas and voices that come from the fringes simply because no one ‘official’ is embracing them. It would have to rekindle the notion that journalism is not just a check on power, but, when necessary, its adversary. It would have to crusade for some things, and denounce others. News outlets would have to explain themselves and their decisions, and be clear about what they stand for and what they stand against.”

Here’s the section where Cunningham suggests a possibility that I’m not so confident is possible, especially at the level of audience perception:

“There is a way to lead the conversation without being politically partisan — to initiate the debate, shepherd it, report out the various positions, ideas, and arguments; to reach conclusions based on the understanding and expertise that are developed in this process, about what ideas and policies make the most sense for the collective good. Then make those ideas and policies, and the assumptions that support them, dominant narratives in the day-to-day coverage. Through it all, let the public see how those conclusions were reached.”

Here’s where Cunningham seems to be smoking whatever I’m smoking on the objectivity norms:

“The pursuit of objectivity has become a trap that sets the best-intentioned reporters and editors up for the failures of false balance and he said-she said story frames. Furthermore, it allows demagogues on the right and the left to dismiss the press as hopelessly biased when it fails to achieve ‘objectivity.’ The homogeneity of the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class decision-makers in our newsrooms, meanwhile, coupled with the offend-no-one ethos of their corporate managers, have smothered (publicly, at least) the kind of outrage that one should expect in the face of betrayals of public trust — such as the one on display in our current financial crisis.”

Here’s where Cunningham dares journalism to stop being mau-maued by its critics:

“In other words, journalism would need to begin to change the narrative about itself. It is a narrative that has been created by the press’s own failures, its arrogance and shortsightedness, but also by a forty-year campaign by segments of the political right to vilify the press as a ‘liberal’ cabal, and a more recent and less coordinated effort by elements on the left to portray it as a corporate stooge.”


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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 09/24/2009 - 09:29 am.

    This does seem the generational issue for journalists.

    I am more in your camp. I think credibility suffers more when you try to sublimate an agenda/bias, rather than acknowledging it and laying out your view and the critical facts that support it.

    Like the U.S. justice system–advocacy based. That said, you’re not supposed to hide facts from the judge, so you can lay them out for the reader even if you spin them.

    Just have left news and right news, like the UK. Let the reader decide.

    And I really question this idea that you’re supposed to be writing for the supposed “independent.” Anyone over the age of 40 that hasn’t developed a firm sense of their politics just isn’t thinking clearly and probably never will.

    The idea that these people control our destiny is frightening. As a conservative, I’d rather negotiate a compromise with a thoughtful liberal than have to wrangle a fuzzy-headed independent into something.

  2. Submitted by Tommy Johnson on 09/24/2009 - 09:51 am.

    I’ll boil this piece down to something I’ve been saying for years:

    “The reason politicians lie to reporters is because they CAN.”

    As far as being “corporate stooges”?

    Hmmm…let’s look at the ownership of the Strib, and what they own:

    Company / Industry / Location
    ACP II Marcellus / Energy / Houston, Texas
    Basic Energy Services, Inc. (NYSE/BAS) / Energy / Midland, Texas
    BioReliance Corporation / Health / Rockville, MD
    Celtique / Energy / London, England
    ConvaTec / Health / Skillman, N.J.
    Frontier Drilling / Energy / Houston, TX
    GeoKinetics / Energy / Houston, TX
    Hansa Hydrocarbons / Energy / London, England
    InvestorPlace Media / Media / Rockville, MD
    IWCO Direct / Media / Chanhassen, MN
    Lantheus Medical Imaging / Health / N. Billerica, MA
    Laramie Energy II / Energy / Denver, CO
    Laredo Energy IV / Energy / Houston, TX
    Manti Exploration / Energy / Corpus Christi, TX
    Medserve / Health / Houston, TX
    Navilyst Medical / Health / Marlborough, MA
    Nycomed / Health / Roskilde, Denmark
    Peregrine Oil & Gas II / Energy / Houston, TX
    Royal Offshore / Energy / Corpus Christi, TX
    Spartan Offshore Drilling / Energy / New Orleans, LA
    The Star Tribune Company / Media / Minneapolis, MN
    Thompson Publishing / Media / Washington, D.C.
    VWR International / Health / West Chester, PA
    WideOpenWest / Media / Denver, CO

    The PiPress is part of a very large conglomerate:

    And why did the Duluth paper – DULUTH – endorse ol’ Smokescreen, Norm Coleman?

    These days, there’s two – TWO – trials going on involving Jack Abramoff; not much in the news. takes a look:

    And the “The Washington Times”? “journalism”?!??

    Yeah, “right”….

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 09/24/2009 - 10:25 am.

    I agree with you Eric. I run into situations all the time in health and science reporting where I find a compelling vein of research that departs from the orthodoxy in some way, and I just go ahead and write up the argument and data that seems more persuasive. I feel like this is what I am paid to do, not transcribe.

    Invariably, I run into people, OK, my father in law, who say “why don’t you get ‘the other side’. Whereupon I think, because the other side didn’t have as persuasive an argument. Meaning, if I place their opinion in the piece simply to cover the bases, then I am granting the argument a false equivalency. This is probably much easier to do in health writing than in politics, but you would be surprised at how political health writing can become.

    It’s also much easier to do in magazines than in newspapers. I would go crazy if I had to pretend I was incapable of assessing the more persuasive argument, as newspapers have committed themselves, day after day.

    A good book on this topic is called Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies. He invented a term called “churnalism” for the rushed effort to slap two sides to a story and be done with it. By this standard, if “the other side” says the earth is flat, then the position has merit.

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/24/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    I trace the problems for journalists today to several historical changes.

    >At one time, nearly every significant population center had not one, nor often two, but three or four widely circulated news organs. Everyone knew that each took a different general view of the questions of the day, and the resulting conflicting stories gave opportunity to those who read them to compare and make his/her own judgments, much like in a courtroom one hears advocates for both sides give it their best shot and, in the role of jury, makes up his/her mind about who is MORE correct. With the entry of large conglomerates into the arena, this multiplicity of voices has disappeared, leaving the one surviving voice to attempt the impossible: to “present both sides of an argument, objectively.” The high cost of printing and distributing traditional media publications has accelerated this trend.

    >Polarization of the population in matters political, ethical, and economic is nothing new, but the idea that one media outlet should represent the views of all stretches credulity. And as the various polarizing influences increase and deepen over very divisive issue, this idea becomes ludicrous. To paraphrase a Lincoln quote: “You can represent some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t represent all of the people all of the time.” Can’t be done. The problem comes from the false proposition that you can, and the result is cries of non-objectivity from all sides — which does not prove the journalist right, but only proves him/her a failure in an impossible task.

    >There was a time when access to print media was by simply having one’s views printed, either by a sympathetic journal or by self publication. But increasingly access to print media has become restricted to those with educational credentials. And the issuers of those credentials, in their ivory towers, have become overwhelmingly liberal in their views, their votes, their demands upon students, and their publications. Just as it has become very difficult to become a teacher without adopting the views of the educational “establishment” it has become very difficult to become a journalist without accepting the world-views of the journalistic educational establishment.

    What is the cure?

    The population will not soon, or ever, adopt a singular world view on most issues. And while the daily interest in the latest scandal or disaster is fed by the television vendors, the need for disparate views on issues of more lasting concern remains. The day of the national news organization and the evening news reports with editorial content is on the wane. (My children never watch them as being too shallow and too biased.)

    The control over the access to journalism careers will not easily be surrendered by the ivory towers, which restricts the access to earning a living to those with views similar to theirs. This could change, however, if new schools rose up to train a new crop of journalists for a new journalistic environment.

    It seems to me that the essential first step is the total elimination of print media, and access by subscription fees to electronic media. The print model has become economically unsustainable without monopoly control of a market, which militates against any hope of the debate that is needed if the public is to play jury on issues of the day.

    We already have a new model in place, in the form of web journalism, which can allow not only for inexpensive distribution of ideas, but for reader feedback not limited to the editorial page section. Web browsers could be sold at a discount with a subscription, as cell phones are today, to enable multitudes to access this medium.

    Deprived of print media access, advertisers would be more likely to support web media.

    The much reduced cost of entry into the marketplace would foster the multiple voices we need, and encourage those with interest and writing skills to participate regardless of their formal journalistic training. Let them “have at it” and give us all the cacophony we need.

    Those with developed investigative skills would have multiple forums in which to publish their work. While salaried positions might shrink, payment by the word with copyright protection, as used by monthly publications, could fill the void.

    And we MIGHT return to the wild journalistic environment our founders encountered, to the benefit of our thinking publics.

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/24/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    From the article:
    “There is a way to lead the conversation without being politically partisan — to initiate the debate, shepherd it, report out the various positions, ideas, and arguments; to reach conclusions based on the understanding and expertise that are developed in this process, about what ideas and policies make the most sense for the collective good. Then make those ideas and policies, and the assumptions that support them, dominant narratives in the day-to-day coverage. Through it all, let the public see how those conclusions were reached.”

    How can this but inevitably lead to groupthink and stagnation? And what happens to the people who disagree with this arbitration club? Most of the policy debates boil down to real differences in how people weigh various values. Cunningham wants to suggest that journalists as a class can somehow always find the right answer. The sheer arrogance here is amazing.
    It seems that cheap communication is creating Right and Left media and that has some obvious dangers of it’s own. But I’d much rather have that division than pretend that some anointed group should have control over the loudspeaker. And if Cunningham is curious why public opinion of journalists is so low, a good look at the mirror. What would he think if a group of religious leaders or a group of scientists decided that they’d become arbiters and shepherds of policy debate?

  6. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 09/24/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    I’m going to try to take a long view of this.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that just about everything worth in-depth reporting has at least two sides to it. Let’s also say that these two sides, generally, have decent access to the tools of publishing in this world in the form of websites with blogs or other new media.

    The role of a professional, in many cases, is going to be sifting through the noise that makes this information hard to find. There is room for some analysis, especially if it asks both sides some tough questions that they weren’t willing to present or tackle on their own.

    But presenting the point of controversy and where to find more information, especially each side in its own voice, is going to be a lot of the battle.

    The problem remains giving credence to “Flat Earth” reasoning that is clearly out to lunch. There are certainly any number of cranks on the ‘net with their own sites that are not worth highlighting. That’s where the professional judgment has to come in and be active. But once we can establish some basic level of credibility, there’s little reason that we can’t let caveat lector be the guide.

    What’s the difference between this model and the problems noted in “objective” journalism? Depth. We don’t have the constraints for space in the “news hole” we used to, so there is room for a lot more depth for those that seek it. That can be provided by the participants in the debate at the level they want.

    Journalists would be more editors of the world at large, providing one paragraph summaries of the dispute that lead to 800 word analysis that includes longer links. Readers could absorb what they want, as they want it.

    The model is thus based on both reader interest, providing readers the ability to decide what they want to read, and the ability of each side to advocate their position in their own words for those who are “into it”.

    Think of yourselves as Editors of the World – people who make connections. See where this goes. That’s my advice.

  7. Submitted by Ron Salzberger on 09/24/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    As one wag with whom I agree wrote, “The future of journalism is talk about the future of journalism.”

    More of objectivity later, or, Why does this dead horse need beating again?

  8. Submitted by Jim O'Donnell on 09/24/2009 - 06:20 pm.

    I enjoyed Cunningham’s article. Thanks for providing the link. I consider myself an independent (and I’m over 40, Mr. Wolff) and have never been able to adopt a straight left or right political ideology. I’d rather focus on the issues which may not agree with the parties’ position.

    As a result, I agree with Cunningham that “the middle is worth going for.” I want information that enables me to form my own opinion. If I believe a journalist has a bias in his or her story, it diminishes what they have to say and, quite frankly, over time I quit reading them.

    That doesn’t mean that journalists can’t call out a politician for a lie or for being a sleaze bag but when their political beliefs are clearly evident in the stories they report, it cheapens their product. I have a hard time understanding how striving to be fair and objective is “…timid, formulaic and borderline dishonest.”

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/24/2009 - 06:44 pm.

    The fact that there are two sides to an issue doesn’t mean that both sides are equally valid.
    Good journalism should often mean pointing that out (which I think that Eric has implied above).

    I think that the real problem is that the ‘net has made easy answers easy to find, and most people want to be told what to think, rather than being presented with the facts and left to sort it out.

    I think that MinnPost is ahead of most blogs in trying to be analytic, rather than just flogging a particular idiology (spelling intentional).
    Being human, Eric and his peers are usually not completely neutral, but I think there is an attempt to give a balanced presentation of the issues.
    For instance, while Michele Bachmann is usually presented in an unfavorable light, it is typically by quoting what she has said rather than simply calling her names.

  10. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/25/2009 - 07:07 am.

    “Objectivity” is a useful myth: There is no such thing. One thing that would make the news better would be to go cold turkey on PR generated “news,” which infects like 70 percent of all reports.

  11. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 09/25/2009 - 11:58 am.

    I wonder if it really is all that complicated – this “objectivity” debate in journalism.

    I’m going off Eric’s writing, and will read the full Cunningham piece.

    I think of journalistic “objectivity” as both a process and a goal, not an absolute. Just as “doing science” is a process and goal.

    The “scientific truths” of today get tipped over or challenged on a frequent basis. We call that “progress.” We don’t throw science out the window.

    In science and journalism, there’s no need to throw up your hands and say, “Can’t ever be perfect.”

    I spent 27 years at the Strib, and I know what Eric is talking about in doing daily stories. You have people blowing smoke, equilocating, evading, shading. Often, you do not have time to thoroughly check out what they say in a few hours.

    So what. You do the best you can for that day’s story. But you can always come back. You can print or post again. That’s what journalists do – or should do.

    But you have people on the record in that first story. And that’s important.

    You trust readers in that first story to see the holes in what the person quoted says. And then you come back in a second or third story and go after those holes.

    Sometimes I think journalists are too narcissistic in their belief that readers don’t “get it” unless it’s spelled out for them chapter and verse.

    If a news operation, in the course of its pursuit of the truth, sees a greater truth that demands a connecting of the dots that results in a bigger conclusion or an opinion – well, that’s what depth-reporting or editorial and opinion pieces are there to do.

    We all have biases – or come from a certain set of experiences that shape our thinking. Do we throw up our hands and say therefore “I can’t try to be objective?” Nonsense.

    The real challenge for the serious-minded media is to find a business model that pays for good, truth-seeking journalism. Which requires a critical core of reporters and editors. Solve that problem (and I’m not saying that will be easy)and this wringing of hands about objectivity becomes a secondary thing, in my opinion.

  12. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/27/2009 - 09:37 pm.

    #2 Tommy: Excellent comment. I had no idea the energy business had such large stake in then news business.

    #8 Jim: “…never been able to adopt a straight left or right political ideology.”

    Like your disregarding Journalists you deem biased, whenever I read someone who proclaims that they are in the middle, I soon start to tune them out, because invariably that make a comment like this:

    “I have a hard time understanding how striving to be fair and objective is “…timid, formulaic and borderline dishonest.”

    You cut out the core of the sentence: “Used as an excuse for journalism that was timid, formulaic and borderline dishonest.”

    He didn’t say they WERE striving for objectivity, he says they were USING objectivity as an excuse to play it safe. Either you misunderstood or knowingly misrepresented the meaning of the sentence.

    Let me guess, while you profess your “middleness” more often then not you come down on the Republican side of things.

    Personally I am a partisan Liberal. I am proud of that. My biased is to the Truth, the search for truth has led me to the Left side of the political spectrum. A very wise man once said: “Truth has a liberal Bias.”

    The right knows this to be true. Truth does not serve their purposes, so after Barry Goldwater’s lose in 1964 they began a long hard fight to dominate and discredit the major sources of news (truth) in this country. Rick Pealstein documents the process in his book “Before the Storm.”

    The fact that we even talk about objectivity in journalism is a testament to their success.

    It is not a coincidence that this discussion of objectivity and right wing complaints of “liberal biased” has coincided with the decline in print media. It was meant to be this way.

  13. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/28/2009 - 10:00 am.


    Congratulations on presenting a fine example of the kind of one sided pleading to which I refer in my post. Objectivity, of course, is out the window, as it should be in a multi-voiced debate.

    Now if we had the same kind of biased (I don’t say prejudiced) posting from the opposite end of the spectrum, we readers could hear both of you and make up our minds about what is hidden between the lines, what is blarney, what is outright deceit, what is plain myopia, and what is MORE correct.

    Thank you for this exellent illustration of the possibilities presented by an online press.

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/28/2009 - 05:13 pm.

    “Now if we had the same kind of biased (I don’t say prejudiced) posting from the opposite end of the spectrum, we readers could hear both of you and make up our minds….”

    It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve had several comments head for binary heaven for reasons I cannot for the life of me assign to a breach of the “rules”.

    Most conservative websites do not moderate their comment threads, but almost all liberal sites do…it’s just the way it is.

    This is a liberal website owned and operated by liberals. You’re just not going to see anything that upsets the lefty apple cart.

    Many conservatives that are active on the internet have decided it’s not worth the effort to spend several minutes writing a response that will never see the light of day.

    Heck, there’s a better than even chance *this* one will end up in space as well, LOL!

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