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

January 20, 2005


Daniel Conover

Re: Norman's statement: "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"

That's powerful stuff, and in my darker hours I have agreed with him.

But I also think he's wrong, that as bad as it is (and it's pretty bad), there are still reasons to be optimistic. Journalism still occurs, and there are a few people out there who continue to operate under the corporate radar.

Here's my best reason for why we shouldn't declare the death of journalism: once the possibility of objective journalism is gone, with it goes all hope of meaningful dialog in this country. We'll just retreat to our ideological corners and come out swinging.

I'm not ready to give up just yet.

Rich Miller

Bravo, Dan. Objectivity has long been an artificial construct to insulate the media from allegations of favoritism. Readers realized long ago that reporters aren't really objective; they're just invoking objectivity when they write news stories. Objectivity became a joke when reporters began appearing on TV news shows to spout opinions (gasp!) about topics and personalities they cover. You can't turn objectivity "on" for news stories, and turn it back off again when a clever comment is needed for MSNBC. This is especially true in this age of specialized reporting. Beat reporters develop opinions about the issues and sources they cover every day. Let's stop pretending that they don't, and concentrate on standards that are reality-based and can rebuild confidence in journalism (whether appearing in "big media" or blogs). Your four pillars are an excellent start.


I don't think those four things add up to objectivity. The reason objectivity is less important in the blogosphere is because the sheer numbers and reader feedback will result in all sides of an issue being explored. Kinda similar to the "open-source" programming model which touts throwing tons of eyeballs at a bug, figuring that the odds are that the solution will be immediately obvious to somebody (who's either seen it before or happens to take the right approach).

This essay ought to mention that, and then go on to talk about how those four things help accelerate this process.

Martin Conaghan

Hi Dan, ou should have a look at the .

Many of the things you are talking about in this post are elaborated on at length. Grassroots journalists could do worse than pick up on some of the BBC's principles on impartiality, fairness, accuracy, integrity, independence etc.

Martin Conaghan

Apologies, that last comment went awry.

I was saying, you should have a look at the BBC's Producer's Guidelines here:

It covers many of the items you mention in this post, including fairness, accuracy, impartiality, independence, privacy etc.

Grassroots journalists could do worse than follow the lead of the BBC....

Jozef Imrich

If a journalist, blogger, citizen covers the items you list in your first draft s/he is in fact striving for a large degree of objectivity. However, ever since the apple on the tree was eaten objectivity is in the apple of the reader's eye ...
Sydney Morning Herald like all papers faces dilemmas created by the interactive forums


"Objectivity" and "Fairness" brought us the Swift Boat liars. No major media outlet was willing to rip their lies apart for weeks, because now, all people have a right to be heard, even if what the say is a complete lie and outright slander.


"Sydney Morning Herald like all papers faces dilemmas created by the interactive forums"

Jozef, could you summarize what the article said? Registration is required.

Ajax Bucky

One thing that's different in my own journalistic diet these days is I have what amounts to a pixeled screen of journalistic product, ten or forty different subjective views in addition to ten or twenty mainline old-school "objective" journalistic reports.
Pointilism - instinct and an averaging-out that when it works gives a much wider and clearer picture, and is much less susceptible to spin and disinformation, because of its a-central nature.
A large volume of subjective viewpoints, taken from a wide enough swath of the spectrum, creates an objectivity that's not available in more traditional media formats.


Objectivity became journalism's watchword back in the 20s as a reaction to the freeform journalism (i.e. yellow) that preceeded it. But it went too far. It allowed Sen. McCarthy to pull a bunch of papers (from his trash can) out of his briefcase and claim "This is a list of communists in the State Department." Journalists were, literally, objective so they just reported what he said without analysis or criticism.

Since then, the profession's reaction to that form of objectivity as a nice "ultimate" to strive for, but in the end one that's impossible to put into practice, became a reality. So they came up with a list of principles similar to Dan's in the decades that follow.

At least that's what I learned in J-School (Mizzou) in the mid-80s. We knew objectivity was nonsense in an ontological sense. Although a lot of our colleagues didn't seem to realize it, and kept using the word.

Being a photojournalism student at Mizzou I was immersed in a tradition we inherited from Cliff Edom who said, "Show truth with a camera." Of course, literally objective photography is impossible, but we got what he meant. I know, I know: "What is truth?" If you can't answer that question, you shouldn't even try asking it. Okay? It's like objectivity. We all know what we mean by it. And weasle words trying to obscure, or deny, it's everyday meaning are just that. Weasel words.

So I think Dan is right on with this line of thought. It is part of a long line of reasoning that has been moving through the journalism community for the past 40 years. And it is about time it be discussed often and vigorously in the profession. Newsies need to incorporate a similar set of principles into their daily practice of the profession many of us spend so much of our lives practicing.


My archives are filled with comments on this. I won't belabor you.

"Objectivity" in journalism is a meta-tag that labels a variety of practices. It's a better a group label than a yardstick. Why? Because no two people will ever agree about its length. Put it on the shelf along with the equally ambiguous word "bias" (and, gosh, kept them away from academics at all cost).

Reporting that is bad is often mislabeled as "biased" or lacking "objectivity" when, on closer examination, it is bad for specific reasons, some of which Dan mentions.

When deciding what charateristics serve a journalist, remember that the journalist serves as the reader's surrogate -- to summarize and synthesize for those who can't be there. For the journalist to exercise no judgment is as misguided as presuming to make the reader's decisions for him.


BTW sorry for interjecting, but to rusty: are you the rusty that created Kuro5hin? Love the site :)

And a second interjection: this blog (article) will surely cause a good many Journalism and Communication Sciences textbooks to be rewritten. And to think that this article is at the very least pseudo-'open'...

Though I'd think it'd be not-too-wise to turn this declaration into a Wiki; we need Communication Sciences profesors working on this (there's already one working on it ;) ) I would imagine, Mr Gilmor, that in order to avoid Wikipedia's Intellectualophobia problems that it would be better for you to actively obtain the cooperation of communication sciences experts in developing this article... from UIUC or Chicago perhaps? Or across the Atlantic?

Purely a suggestion, of course :)

And the third (this time almost purely off topic): shouldn't you put a link to the 'We the Media' blog on your sidebar, Sir? Or perhaps to the online copy of your book? And perhaps to Rebecca Blood (or her articles) and JOHO (or to the Cluetrain Manifesto)? And other blog activists? You know, to motivate trackback?

Jozef Imrich


Extracts of note are provided below:

Webdiary is part of the Sydney Morning Herald and like the New York Times the registration is free...

Webdiary ethics (By editor Margo Kingston - two other documents support these guidelines)

I want you to trust Webdiary. Trust is the ideal at the core of all professional ethics codes, which are guidelines for conduct which aim to achieve that ideal. I'm a journalist bound by two codes of ethics drafted to apply to traditional journalism. I've adapted the code to meet the responsibilities of running Webdiary, and set out guidelines for your contributions. These guidelines are always open for discussion and debate on Webdiary and can be clarified and added to as issues arise.

My obligations

1. I will strive to comply with the Media Alliance and Sydney Morning Herald codes of ethics, which will be in a prominent position on this site at all times.

2. In particular, I will correct errors of fact on Webdiary as soon as possible after they are brought to my attention and will disclose and explain any inadvertent breach of my ethical duties on Webdiary at the first available opportunity.

3. I will respond on Webdiary to all non-frivolous queries or complaints about my compliance with the codes and give a copy of queries or complaints to the online editor.

4. I will not belittle or show disrespect for any reader's contributions I publish, or to any person who emails me.

5. I will do my utmost to ensure that Webdiary is a space to which all readers, whatever their views or style, feel safe to contribute. If you are offended by something in Webdiary, feel free to respond. I won't publish any material which incites hatred.

6. I will let you know when archives have been changed except when changes do not alter their substance, for example corrections to spelling or grammar. I will amend archived Webdiary entries to include corrections of fact and advise you accordingly.

7. I won't publish all publishable emails, but I will read every one unless there's too many to reasonably do so in the time available. If I haven't been able to read all emails, I'll let you know on Webdiary.

8. My decisions on publication will be made in good faith, without bias towards those I agree with or am sympathetic towards.

9. I reserve the right to edit contributions.

10. I will publish most contributions made in good faith which are critical of Webdiary's content or direction, or of me.

My expectations of you

As a journalist I'm bound by ethical codes; as a contributor you're not. Still, there's a few guidelines I'd like you to follow. David Davis, who's read and contributed to Webdiary from its beginning and helped draft these guidelines, explains why. "Webdiary encourages free and open debate. The guidelines for contributors are not designed to curtail this, but to remind you that just as you live in a community in the real world, the same is true in the online world. Being part of a community carries many rights, but there are responsibilities. Rather than eroding the rights, these responsibilities actually protect them."

1. If you don't want to use your real name, use a nom de plume and briefly explain, for publication, why you don't want to use your real name. Please send me your real name on a confidential basis if you choose to use a nom de plume. I will not publish attacks on other contributors unless your real name is used.  

2. Disclose affiliations which you think could reasonably be perceived to affect what you write. For example, if you are writing about politics, disclose your membership of a political party.

3. Don't plagiarise, that is don't use the ideas of others without telling us where they came from, and don't copy the writings of others and pass them off as your own. There's no need. Put quotes around the words of other people, and tell us who they are and where you got them from. If you've used online sources for your contributions, include the links so others can follow them up.

4. Be truthful. Don't invent 'facts'. If you're caught out, expect to be corrected in Webdiary.

5. Robust debate is great, but don't indulge in personal attacks on other contributors.

6. Write in the first person. Remember, we're having a conversation here...


Respect for truth and the public's right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. MEAA members engaged in journalism commit themselves to

* Honesty; * Fairness; * Independence; * Respect for the rights of others

For a comprehensive discussion of Webdiary ethics, see Webdiary's ethics

Daniel Conover

"'Objectivity' and 'Fairness' brought us the Swift Boat liars. No major media outlet was willing to rip their lies apart for weeks, because now, all people have a right to be heard, even if what they say is a complete lie and outright slander." -- jeff

This is a great comment on how the media has failed to understand objectivity. Fairness does compell us to consider competing interpretation of facts, but objectivity should require us to render a judgment on the truthfulness of those interpretations and claims. Journalistic objectivity has been neutered, but objective judgement in science can be pretty harsh. Again, we're talking process here, but its a process that produces results if it's done properly. the good news is, if done honestly and openly, the process cuts in all directions.

"A large volume of subjective viewpoints, taken from a wide enough swath of the spectrum, creates an objectivity that's not available in more traditional media formats." -- Ajax Bucky

Another great comment Pointilistic objectivity?), and right on the mark. But what isn't mentioned is equally important: If everyone had the time, inclination and expertise to read everything, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Most people do not, will not and cannot. We're at overload already.

The value of agreed-upon standards of objectivity in media is that they would give us some degree of confidence in certain types of information.

Example: Social Security is about to become a hot topic, and it's extremely complex. How many of us plan to go back and read the source materials to verify the claims of the partisans? If not, then you are depending upon various levels of intermediaries. When push comes to shove, how do you KNOW that the interpretation you select is more accurate than your opponent's? And if there is no chance of practical, objective arbitration of public claims, what is the future of the debate?

Fred Schecker


I'm still struggling with the notion - it seems as if something important is being lost - but mainstream, dead tree journalists have been pondering the inadaquacy of objectivity as a fundamental value for some time.

Even a traditionalist such as Jack Fuller of the Chicago Tribune has suggested that "intellectual honesty" is a better goal than objectivity. And his description of intellectual honesty is remarkably similar to yours. (If you haven't already, check out Fuller's book: News Values: Ideas for an Information Age, 1997).

I bring this up not because I take issue with anything you have said, but we shouldn't consider this a "new media" idea. Print and online journalists alike are struggling with this notion. I'm not sure 90 percent of bloggers are, however. They seem content with attracting attention.

(And won't it be nice when we don't have to make the distinction between print and online journalists?)



Great points. And it reminds me a documentary I saw recently, the Control room.

Not sure if you've seen it. It talks about how news is "made" by the US military and Al Jazeera. Very insightful and thought-provoking. Highly, highly, highly recommended!!!


Excellent post. Makes me think fondly of the time I spent editing a local monthly, and how often these issues came into play in our editorial meetings.

I don't consciously think of this stuff when I blog, maybe because almost no one claims to be objective about theology. But fairness, accuracy, transparency and thoroughness are still valuable qualities to strive for, even in totally non-news-oriented posts.


ferdi: I used to be that rusty, but I haven't checked in a while. I might not be anymore.

Jozef Imrich

It appears that the entire blogosphere and the journalistic world is sharing this thought provoking piece.

This is a kind of train of ideas that George Orwell would be proud of...

PS: article of note - American ABC on ethics and objectivity ...


Dan, I think it's time that journalists borrowed something from academics (lord I shudder a litle at the thought). They need to be tranparent about their methods.

It's not enough to write a story and leave me guessing where it came from, who said what, how many people actually said it, what axes they were grinding in the process. The work of obtaining and building a story is they mystery of journalism, and I think it's time to show the public what's behind the curtain.

If it's good, then journalism is stronger for it. It the methods are poor, then journalism suffers. But isn't what the whole enterprise is about, shining a bright light in dark places in a search for some truth.

sylvain Attal

High Dan. I have recomended your blog o the french public. on my URL , I am myself a journalist and try to have a reflexion alike.

Rob Hyndman

I've been wondering about this for a while now, and I am beginning to wonder whether ostensible objectivity is a quaint relic of a different time. This is not an original idea (indeed Jon Garfunkel alludes to this in a comment above), but perhaps the point is that now, with so many more voices, competition truly makes objectivity (and the proxies you mention) moot.

I am beginning to believe that as long as there are (audible) voices that allow me to inform myself with the range of ideas I need to function in society, I can decide for myself just how 'objective' I need those voices to be. And that is the true power of the network.

I know Fox is not objective, and I know the Village Voice isn't either. That's OK. I'm a grownup now, and I can consume their information and take what I need from it. In fact, their lack of objectivity may help me to view the world rationally - if Fox is beating a particular drum, knowing their bias I can draw conclusions about that particular drum.

There will always be a market for what the NYT brings to the table, ditto Fox, (hopefully) ditto the Village Voice. There will always be a market for accuracy and for a point of view. The internet has exploded the monolithic power of a few voices and will ensure that where there were few, there will now be many. And through the bump and grind and din of that marketplace, I will be informed. That to my mind is the power of grassroots journalism ....

Bruce Winter

Objectivity as encased in the four pillars Thoroughness Accuracy Fairness and Transparency are the cornerstones to fundamental change in the enterprise of blogging. When the norms become standard practice, a new enterprise era has begun!

Meng Weng Wong

So there is an argument that the long tail means society will descend into a chaos of cultural relativism, of subjectivity and solipsism. We will see a proliferation of sects, each of which subscribes to a worldview different from every other. For example, creationism versus evolution, writ large: we'll have black creationist lesbians against abortion versus Asian Darwinist transsexuals for gun control. And it won't be "against" in the sense of dialectical debate --- it'll just be "against" in the sense of "denying the validity of", which is insidious.

That argument assumes subjectivity arises from choice: given two worldviews, people will somehow glom on to one and remain wilfully ignorant of the other. Repeat ten times and we have a thousand different worlds. We humanist technocrats worry for these people because the long tail makes this possible.

Then I thought, maybe we've got it wrong. Maybe this sort of dangerous subjectivity is actually founded on the belief that everybody else thinks as you do: it is a lack of exposure to different ideas. What we're afraid of is really just a mass provincialism, where everyone wears blinkers.

But nobody wants to wear blinkers. It goes against human nature. The university students at Tiananmen showed that. The Muslim women's movement shows that. The very fact that we find creationists and neoconservative mullahs weird in the related ways shows that they're the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is the nonzero trend towards better education in the service of liberty. (Nonzero, Jared Diamond.)

The long tail is the exact antithesis of blinkeredness. With the long tail it becomes impossible for you to ignore alternative worldviews: it is plain as day that other people don't think as you do. It is evident that other people on Amazon don't buy the same books that I do: that fact hits me in the face every time I choose not to buy what Amazon recommends. It reminds me that there are people who think very near me, but still think differently. And that knowledge invites an exploration of other ideas. Sampling becomes natural. If you buy your magazines at a newsstand you can't help touching, even if you're only physically moving aside, other magazines that contain different ideas than the ones you're after. The larger the newsstand, the more magazines you have to browse past. Of course if this were Soviet-era Russia the newsstand would only have two magazines and they both say the same thing. But anywhere else, more choice means more diversity, diversity that's in your face. And, of course, the Long Tail is the largest newsstand in the world.

So I don't think we need to worry. The wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki) will emerge. On balance, the Long Tail promotes education and diversity more than narrowmindedness.

Paul Bass

Re: End of Objectivity

As a reporter for "straight"/mainstream papers as well as for altweeklies, I've found both the myth of objectivity--and the reaction by alternative journalists--troubling.

I agree with the critique of objectivity. It doesn't exist. In practice, it enshrines a set of assumptions as non-opinionated: capitalism is good; America's enemies are bad countries; free markets in America are indeed free; people who don't challenge the basic assumptions of American liberal democracy are legitimate sources of information... etc.

But there's a danger of ditching the rules of "objectivity," much like the dangers of ditching scales to play free music without at least understanding some of the reasoning first, without first mastering the narrow rules. Fairness and credibility too often go out the window.

I've found that the most important of Dan's four principles is fairness. YOu have to know in your heart as a reporter that you're bending over backwards to understand and honestly represent the arguments that disagree with your point of view, and the facts that are inconvenient to your conclusions.

In the alternative press, at a local level, I found that by being open about my point of view--but always going the extra mile to engage people who disagree with me--I could earn the trust of readers. The majority of my readers and sources for stories disagreed with me, but enjoyed the exchange of ideas, the chance to continue the conversation....

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