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« The Business Model for Tomorrow's Journalism | Main | Credibility on the Table »

January 20, 2005


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"thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency"

You might want to include Andrew Cline's (Rhetorica) distinction between objectivity as process and objectivity as stance.
The first is worth developing, the second is outmoded.

A stray thought - if what journalists are doing is research on reality (i.e. they are acting as scientists, as Phil Meyer observed) - what does it mean that "fairness" is a tenet of journalism, but not of science?


"the second is outmoded"

perhaps outmoded.


Right on on ditching "objectivity." While I'm sure it has, for many journalists, always stood for the four things you would replace it with, for too many others and for the public's view of the industry as a whole, it has become just a weasel-word to excuse a panoply of laziness, incompetence, and false equivalency. Whatever it once meant, it now stands for "Thou Shalt Not Question Us, For We Are Objective."

About fairness: I agree with your concept, but I don't like that word to describe it. We already have "fairness," and too much of the time it means "make sure you have a quote from the right and a quote from the left" (for whatever "right" and "left" are for a particular story). Fairness is used as an ass-covering tool, not a journalistic tool.

I would replace that one with "truth." Ok, it's more loaded. But in being loaded, it also gets to the heart of the difficulty with that pillar. Fairness is easy to claim, where truth is not. Truth means that if one side of your story is lying to you, you say so. Fairness would lead most to just print the lies and hope readers can see through them.

Of all the things you list, this one is by far the most important. So much so that I'd leave out the other three entirely and just replace them with truth. After all, accuracy is an inherent function of truth; you can't write a true story with false facts. Throughness is an inherent function of truth; there is no such thing as a half-truth. And lack of transparency can also be called "concealment." If you're hiding something, you're not telling the truth.

What we desperately need in journalism is more truth. Journalists need to be 100% committed to the idea that their job is to tell the truth, the best they can, all the time. What we have right now is "objectivity," "fairness," "balance" and a host of other weasel-words that crowd together and mill around in an effort to disguise the fact that truth is not among them.

And before someone tries it: I don't think that anyone can posess The Truth or communicate it. I'm not talking about acheiving total knowlege and enlightenment here. I'm talking about the bedrock values of human journalists doing their best under difficult conditions to tell complicated stories to a lazy and easily-distracted public. There will be a lot more misses than hits. But if you want to lay out an overall principle for the job of journalism, it damn well ought to be "tell the truth."

The One True b!X

I'd like to add one other contextual suggestion, that's especially relevant in weblogs-as-journalism because of their form, but carries lessons for any journalism outlet, I would think: Journalism as process, not product.

Meaning, to me anyway, that it's important to note that any single article/post on a given story may not in and of itself manage to fully encompess "thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency" -- but a fuller arc of articles/posts following that story over time will come clsoer to fully encompassing these things.

It's a mindset shift away from "news article as The Story" to "news article as This Part Of The Story".

Freedom Fries

I would add: freedom from nationalistic bias, which is related to fairness and accuracy.

As the post-9/11 atmosphere has shown, almost all main media factored in a patriotic bent, and were unable to produce elementary criticism about the US administration. This phenomenon has national pride/patriotism at its root, and during crisis time, it seems to engulf all. Journalism should be aware of that and resist it.

Other media in other country suffer from the same bias.



::"Competitive pressures tend to make this a rare request" -
From whom ?? As I reader I am not asking the journalist to produce crappy reports. We want all the details- so where is the competitive pressure coming from ?? other journalist- the MSM ?? Thats the root issue.
::I'm an American, brought up in with certain beliefs that many folks in other lands (and some in this one) flatly reject. I need to be aware of the things I take for granted, and to periodically challenge some of them, as I do my work.

What does an American have to do with being a Journalist ?? YOu are already compartmentalizing the issue. IMHo, I wish that the discourse, is large about grassroot level stuff-for the global audience. Is this a wrong request ? or have I misunderstand and the intentions and the articulation of this essay ?

.. and another thought provacative ,good read is here via Dave Winer.


Dan, objectivity has always jostled with passion and personal viewpoint of the news, and with good reason in many can one be "objective" about Auschwitz?

On the other hand, your model presents the reporter as primarily a data researcher, not a true observer of events. It omits any reference to analysis, to understanding what the data means, or implies, or how it all fits into the world. That's why many of the best reporters are effective teachers who can inform and educate. They tend to be people who've been around, and can combine intelligence with experience and facts to get that perspective.

Rusty's idea that "truth" is better that "fact" is seductive, but "truth" isn't an absolute when you get into human's a clumsy amalgam of opinion, observation, feelings and expression. Even facts are only factual from certain perspectives.

The bottom line is that we need wisdom (to collect, think about and come to conclusions); courage (to place the story above political or commercial pressures) and communications skills (to paint for the audience a clear picture of events, with context appropriate to the setting).

Give me reporters with those skills as well...the heritage of people like Murrow, Cronkite, Pyle, and their generation of reporters. Most of the new breed lack the true sophistication needed, or like Rather and Brokaw, forgot their roots.

Terry Heaton

Good stuff, Dan. I've long called objectivity "journalism's artifical hegemony." We have Walter Lippmann and his crowd to thank for it. Chris Lasch once wrote that all it did was create a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. Bye-bye.

Matthew Sheffield

Since we don't have trackback, here's a repost of what I posted over at

Over at his blog, ex-San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor proposes that journalists end the farce of objectivity and replace it with goals that are actually possible to attain: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency. Had CBS paid attention to this Dan, Memogate never would have happened.

Gillmor's list is important and useful, but we'd add one more goal: diversity of thought. Many times people's experiences preclude them from being skeptical of things that others of a different background instinctively regard with suspicion. Any news organization trying to achieve practical objectivity (which is what we may term Gillmor's goals) needs a staff that is not intellectually uniform. Intellectual diversity isn't as important in most spheres of human action, but it is vital for those trying to ascertain the truth about current affairs.

Just a Reader

In reaction to:

"Should journalists of all kinds be expected to make their lives open books? How open?

Personal biases, even unconscious ones, affect the journalism as well."

This weblog looks like a commercial for your book. I'd try to mention it a little less often; consciously or unconsciously.

Ken Wada

We have replaced "objectiveness" with the notion of "even-handedness". Being objective brings with it the idea of properly vetting the information with tangibles...numbers, facts, data etc. Being even-handed means mentioning alternate viewpoints no matter how incorrect, slanted or skewed in nature


Owen: I wasn't trying to say that truth is better than fact. Facts are the bedrock. And I also tried to address the criticism that truth in a social context is necessarily provisional and partial, at best. It's not, as I said, that there even is a The Truth (capitalized to imply ultimate immutability) -- it's that a person doing their best to tell the truth will have a very good yardstick against which to measure their story. If your story is the truth of a matter as best you can understand it, then you will have sought out all the information you could about it, you will have presented all the information necessary for the reader to understand it, you will have addressed all the sides you can find of an issue, and also done your best to measure them against each other and sift reality from spin, or admit when you cannot.

You and I are saying the same thing. I think a reporter with wisdom, courage, and communication skills will ultimately try to tell the truth, to the extent they can understand it, and will probably be pretty good at it. I think that's what made the greats great, and the lack of that drive to tell the truth above all else is what is missing in much of the journalism of today.

*Knowing* the truth isn't the key thing. None of us ever will, except about the most trivial things. It's making your goal be to determine and communicate the truth as best you can that's important.


I'm with Owen: add honesty to that list (or is it implicit in wisdom?) and I'm sold.

Honesty, courage, and wisdom. Wow. If I was starting a newspaper (online, of course) I'd put that on the masthead. It would seem a little puffed-up at first, but oh well. What a lodestone.


Pd, what I believe he was trying to convey is that we all are harboring various prejudices, unconcious assumptions and other baggage simply from being real people, with a particular hirstory, rather than some ideal, disembodied observers.

I am Swedish, atheist, and involved in the sciences; this will naturally give me a very different point of view on various events than Dan, for example. And it's not just about being objective; basic questions like what news is _news_ , and thus worth reporting, will get different answers based on your background.

As for "fairness", I think it suffers from the same kind of fuzziness as "objectivity". It fails the "not" test; very few people would argue for having news that is not fai, whatever it is. Perhaps "fidelity" (as opposed to distorted) would capture it better? Don't misrepresent peoples views, statements or facts, even when you could argue that it is technically accurate.

Bob McKeand



Hmmm, excuse me, "The End of Objectivity"? It was over years ago. I guess the lefty's are just figuring this out!

Jon Garfunkel

"Objectivity is a construct of recent times. One reason for its rise in the journalism sphere has been the consolidation of newspapers and television into monopolies and oligopolies in the past half-century."

This is wrong. The urge for objectivity can be traced back to Lippman and Pulitzer at the beginning of the century-- "recent times" relatively-- but this was before consolidation. This was much before the consolidation of the last twenty years, when each city had several papers. New York's papers at the time the Times was sold, in 1896: The World (600,000), the Journal (430,000), the Sun (130,000), the Herald (140,000), the Evening Post (19,000), the Tribune (16,000), and the Times (9,000!). The raising of standards, of objectivity and everything else, was a reaction to competition. It always is.

See Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (1978). I'll bring it to the conference.


Ian Betteridge

Perhaps I'm missing something, or perhaps it's because I come from a somewhat different school of journalism, but your four notions look to me like a text book definition of what objectivity in journalism is - or perhaps, what it should be when not exercised by lazy journalists!

Bill Mitchell

Dan, I’ll second your motion to demote objectivity from our hierarchy, but I but offer in nomination a principle not currently among the ones you propose: independence.

As a consumer of journalism, I recognize that the people producing it bring their own histories, biases and points of view to their work. But I want them to pursue the news with as much independence as possible – independence from their employer, from their government, even from their own point of view.

No question that journalists need to be a lot more transparent about what that struggle for independence involves. But the ongoing push for independence is worth the effort – and I think conveys an important addition to thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency.

Nick Arnett

I recommend "Just the Facts: How 'Objectivity' Came to Define American Journalism," by David T. Z. Mindich. Mindich is also the host of a journalism history mailing list:

The first amendment was inspired in good part by Milton's Areopagitica, which argued that in a fair playing field, truth emerges. To me, objectivity replaces that idea with the illusion that individual reporters (I was one for many years, I'll note for those who don't know me) can approximate such a system in each and every article or report. Although this avoids the problem of point-of-view overload, it also serves the interests of the big media oligopoly nicely, since it presents the illusion of completeness.

I think we live in the time in which we are inventing means of thinking about and analyzing information that will restore (at least for a while) a broad marketplace of ideas. But this also feels to many people like a time in which there are just too many opinions and viewpoints, which can be discouraging or even frightening. I suspect that Europe experienced similar feelings 500 years ago when the printing press suddenly made new viewpoints available. The big example is that printing allowed Luther's challenge to the Pope's authority to raise quite a buzz, faster and wider than anything before it.



First, thanks to Anna for mentioning Andrew Cline's "objectivity as process" essay; I think it's essential to this discussion.

Owen's point gets at a subset of accuracy. There's factual accuracy, and then there's contextual accuracy. To use a real-life number, if you say the administration's 2005 budget includes $50M for port security to prevent terrorism, you might think, in the absence of additional information, that that's a lot of money. But if you also report that that figure is down from $200M in 2004, the combination of those two facts raises a whole 'nother set of questions ... which the report must strive to answer so as to be contextually accurate.

I also agree with Matthew Sheffield's point regarding the need for diversity of thought in newsrooms; however, I think it's less important than some of the other tenets raised here in that sufficient attention to the correct process of journalism will reduce (but not eliminate) the importance of the mindset of the individual practitioner of journalism.

Daniel Conover

This argument is breaking out all over these days, but let me say, again: Yes, objectivity is difficult to attain in a meaningful way, but this just makes it more valuable. We should be turning the new-media tools at our disposal to re-invent and strengthen objectivity, not to bury it.

The new networked media environment is a Tower of Babble, not an information age but a data age. Citizens need sources of information on which they can rely and agree, or they'll just retreat to their own biases and meaningful discourse will simply end.

In the old days this meant "trust us when we say we're objective." Today we have tools that can say "Here is the process by which we seek objectivity, and you are free to verify it, comment on it, participate in it."

The goal of objectivity is not fairness or balance: it is reliability and credibility. Objective information actually upsets rote "fairness" when one side of an argument is based on an obvious distortion. Objectivity should serve as our counterweight to distortion. It should be a primary goal of journalism and never surrendered easily. It doesn't replace fairness or balance, but objectivity should inform both.

It works for science (though it works slowly). Do we deserve less?

Karen M.

Oh, no-- please don't dismiss Objectivity, just because it has been abused by people with political agendas who pose as journalists without disclosing their biases (not to mention their benefactors!).

The point that Jon Stewart was making when he appeared on "Crossfire," is relevant here. At some point, one has to say exactly what something or someone is. Period. That does not undermine Objectivity.

Granted, the current climate has demanded an opposite POV-- in the interest of fairness or objectivity-- but has not been forthcoming with the analyses and conclusions that are needed. That is not the fault of Objectivity.

Normand Corbeil

i think that we are now well beyond this as a possible reform of journalism and media. the meida is now just patchwork quilt of press releases and neo-conservative rhetoric. there is no news or journalism, we are now simply the consumers of public relations. there is no objectivity in a system that is entirely owned by private interests. there is no freespeach and we are all losing the other rights to corporations. politics is now buiness and we are just part of the product.

Dan Wood

Objectivity is impossible because the source of the news can frame the common-sense concepts in the terminology they use. When the president's tax package is called the "tax relief" package, the media is merely passing along the name, but frame of the name evokes the notion that taxes are something that we need relief from, like an affliction -- not as an investment in our country's infrastructure. For more information, see George Lakoff's political books _Don't Think of an Elephant_ and _Moral Politics_ or his non-political books _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_ and _Metaphors We Live By_.

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