Jay Rosen on Objectivity in Journalism

I want to review two articles by Jay Rosen, one from a decade ago, one from a few days ago.

Some background: In 2010, NPR fired Juan Williams (terminated his contract) for saying the following on Bill O’Reilly’s show: “When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” David Folkenflik adds this context: “Williams also warned O’Reilly against blaming all Muslims for ‘extremists,’ saying Christians shouldn’t be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.”

Rosen quotes Brian Stelter: “After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view—rather than the view-from-nowhere—polemics.” For those of us who think NPR is absurdly biased in a leftward direction, this remark seems a little humorous. The essential here is that this sets up as the key contrast “point of view” journalism versus “view from nowhere” journalism. I think that is basically the wrong way to look at things.

Here is how Rosen describes the “view from nowhere” approach: “In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’ Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.”

Rosen thinks having a “view from nowhere” is pointless. What matters? “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard.”

Rosen argues that we cannot totally escape our personal perspective: “We can’t transcend all our starting points. . . . We can’t actually take the ‘view from nowhere,’ but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it– both are real.”

Rosen is explicitly in favor of a sort of objectivity: “If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a ‘hard’ reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense.”

Shifting to the new article: Rosen points out that traditional news operations have lost audience share to social media sites and independent outlets. Then he shifts to the resignation of James Bennet over a New York Times op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton.

Then Rosen argues that the presidency of Donald Trump has challenged the traditional “neutrality” of news media. He quotes Michelle Goldberg: “Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there’s generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest.”

Here is Rosen’s key addition: “Debate club democracy—where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done—is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power.”

Rosen sharply criticizes efforts to hire more-diverse reporters while hamstringing those reporters’ efforts to bring their experiences to bear on their work: “Minority journalists . . . are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity.”

Rosen quotes the New York Times‘s Nikole Hannah-Jones: “This adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in.”

Now let us shift to Jonathan Chait’s critique of Rosen: “But why can’t more representative newsrooms instead refine their conception of neutrality, rather than abandon it? Indeed, wouldn’t staffs that more closely reflect the population have an easier time incorporating the perspectives of all sides and coming closer to the elusive goal of objectivity? To take a concrete example, if it took a critical mass of black reporters to force the media to report accurately on police brutality, an obvious conclusion is that diversity can enhance objective reporting, not that the goal of objective reporting has failed.”

Chait warns against dogmatism: “Politics is a matter of life and death. If you start with the premise that one side has a monopoly on truth, you inevitably land on the conclusion that questioning its ideas is dangerous.”

This conversation illustrates the complexities at hand. This is not an easy topic. I’m still thinking through this, and I’ll have more to say later.


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