Actually, there is such a thing as journalistic objectivity…

Nancy linked today to a Salon article by Gary Kamiya on The Death of the News, which contains this wonderful quote on a future without the evil Mainstream Media as we know it: “It will be feast and famine: There will be far less primary reporting done by professionals and far more information available to ordinary citizens.”

Lots of video from the eye of the hurricane, for example, but no one in a position to tell us a week later why FEMA fell down on the job. That’s because the only person who can tell us that is someone who has made a career of building the contacts and trust to talk to the right twenty people in the federal government and get the story.

A lot of people who are happy or indifferent over the death of the daily newspaper seem jaded over journalism’s perceived moral bankruptcy. One of Nancy’s commenters, for instance, says that journalistic objectivity and fairness are “a wonderful ideal” but “do not exist.”

I agree with him that *personal* objectivity is a figment, but I don’t think that journalistic objectivity is really about personal opinions. The objectivity that matters in journalism lies in the separation of business interests from editorial interests. Newspapers, and many magazines, have a firewall that separates the two: the editor and the sales director, and the reporters and the ad salespeople, are treated as church and state. As an editor, I once had a junior ad salesman approach me about assigning a review of a restaurant he was hoping to land as a client.  Although I handled it quietly, that could have been a firing offense on the level of plagiarism at most newspapers. And that was on the “soft” side of the paper, not in the newsroom proper.

What we lose when the institution of professional journalism goes away is a social construct that gives us a class of people whose job it is to focus solely on reporting the news without having to worry about what they say impacting their livelihood. They can offend advertisers and politicians with aplomb, and live to publish another day. They are also freed to build the kind of trust I mentioned before: getting to know people in sensitive positions with the backing of this structure that respects the integrity and privacy of the journalistic process, so that when the hurricane strikes, they can get the inside story.

This is hard to do without newspapers. I know of very few freelance journalists who have built a career covering hard news. Breaking news happens too fast to go through the process of selling an article.  And most of the day-to-day news of government is impossible to cover as a freelancer simply because no one but a newspaper is going to pay you to cover the city council day in and day out so that when something does happen you have the expertise and contacts to report it.

Now, I am not saying that newspapers as we know them shouldn’t die. Maybe the reporters of the future will be more like hackers than reporters, mapping streams of meaning through the rivers of data as they flow. Maybe they’ll be like Chloe on 24, able to do just about anything from data mining to hacking into the president’s blackberry from a computer terminal. And maybe the personal relationships won’t matter as much. But I still wonder who will pay for this activity, and what their relationship will be to the people doing it.

One Trackback

  1. […] the stakes are too high.” I left a comment on Rosen’s post that was lifted from my earlier post, talking about how objectivity in reporting isn’t, as most people in the blogosphere believe, […]

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