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Old 07-10-2003, 09:19 PM   #1
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Rethinking objectivity in a world of spin

When I first got back to the States after being in Europe for eight months I remember being very taken aback at the state of the news media. I couldn't understand why they seemed so passive, why questions about the stickier elements of the war were not being posed (at that time, cluster bombs were the ones I didn't see any reporting on) and how apathetic in general the whole business seemed. Since I've been here, I've made it a point to try to keep tabs on world and local events using a variety of sources and viewpoints. And I've become very interested in the idea of "objectivity". So I was quite fascinated to come across this article from the Columbia Journalism Review.


The article is rather lengthy, but I hope you will take the time to read it because I think it's intelligent and well written. There's a lot of food for thought as well as discussion and I'm hoping that perhaps we can have a productive dialogue about the ideas the author puts forth. I'm posting some portions from it to start with.

entire article here

Quote:
In his March 6 press conference, in which he laid out his reasons for the coming war, President Bush mentioned al Qaeda or the attacks of September 11 fourteen times in fifty-two minutes. No one challenged him on it, despite the fact that the CIA had questioned the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and that there has never been solid evidence marshaled to support the idea that Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11.

When Bush proposed his $726 billion tax cut in January, his sales pitch on the plan's centerpiece - undoing the "double-taxation" on dividend earnings - was that "It's unfair to tax money twice." In the next two months, the tax plan was picked over in hundreds of articles and broadcasts, yet a Nexis database search turned up few news stories - notably, one by Donald Barlett and James Steele in Time on January 27, and another by Daniel Altman in the business section of The New York Times on January 21 - that explained in detail what was misleading about the president's pitch: that in fact there is plenty of income that is doubly, triply, or even quadruply taxed, and that those other taxes affect many more people than the sliver who would benefit from the dividend tax cut.

Before the fighting started in Iraq, in the dozens of articles and broadcasts that addressed the potential aftermath of a war, much was written and said about the maneuverings of the Iraqi exile community and the shape of a postwar government, about cost and duration and troop numbers. Important subjects all. But few of those stories, dating from late last summer, delved deeply into the numerous and plausible complications of the aftermath. That all changed on February 26, when President Bush spoke grandly of making Iraq a model for retooling the entire Middle East. After Bush's speech "aftermath" articles began to flow like the waters of the Tigris - including cover stories in Time and The New York Times Magazine - culminating in The Wall Street Journal's page-one story on March 17, just days before the first cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, that revealed how the administration planned to hand the multibillion-dollar job of rebuilding Iraq to U.S. corporations. It was as if the subject of the war's aftermath was more or less off the table until the president put it there himself.

There is no single explanation for these holes in the coverage, but I would argue that our devotion to what we call "objectivity" played a role. It's true that the Bush administration is like a clenched fist with information, one that won't hesitate to hit back when pressed. And that reporting on the possible aftermath of a war before the war occurs, in particular, was a difficult and speculative story.

Yet these three examples - which happen to involve the current White House, although every White House spins stories - provide a window into a particular failure of the press: allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. We all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries "fairness" and "balance," it defined journalistic standards.

Or did it? Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you'll get ten different answers. Some, like the Washington Post's editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: "Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were." In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code. It also changed "the truth" to simply "truth."
I'd like to interject that perhaps this shift has to do with the philosophical move away from modernity with its assumptions of scientific truth and towards post-modernity with its realizations of human interpretation.


Quote:
....

But our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to "truth." Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you're on deadline and all you have is "both sides of the story," that's often good enough. It's not that such stories laying out the parameters of a debate have no value for readers, but too often, in our obsession with, as The Washington Post's Bob Woodward puts it, "the latest," we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false. Steven R. Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and a believer in the goal of objectivity ("even though we fall short of the ideal every day"), concedes that he felt obliged to dig more when he was an editorial writer, and did not have to be objective. "If you have to decide who is right, then you must do more reporting," he says. "I pressed the reporting further because I didn't have the luxury of saying X says this and Y says this and you, dear reader, can decide who is right."

It exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the "he said" and the "she said," and, thus, "balance." According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth.

More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president - or the governor, or the ceo - and risk losing our access. Jonathan Weisman, an economics reporter for The Washington Post, says this about the fear of losing access: "If you are perceived as having a political bias, or a slant, you're screwed."

Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren't already out there. "News is driven by the zeitgeist," says Jonathan Weisman, "and if an issue isn't part of the current zeitgeist then it will be a tough sell to editors." But who drives the zeitgeist, in Washington at least? The administration. In short, the press's awkward embrace of an impossible ideal limits its ability to help set the agenda.
There's a lot of things wrapped up in this part. What interests me most I think is the idea of who sets the agenda.

Quote:
...

Last fall, when America and the world were debating whether to go to war in Iraq, no one in the Washington establishment wanted to talk much about the aftermath of such a war. For the Bush administration, attempting to rally support for a preemptive war, messy discussions about all that could go wrong in the aftermath were unhelpful.

Anything is better than Saddam, the argument went. The Democrats, already wary of being labeled unpatriotic, spoke their piece in October when they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, essentially putting the country on a war footing. Without the force of a "she said" on the aftermath story, it was largely driven by the administration, which is to say stories were typically framed by what the administration said it planned to do: work with other nations to build democracy. Strike a blow to terrorists. Stay as long as we need to and not a minute longer. Pay for it all with Iraqi oil revenue.

There were some notable exceptions - a piece by Anthony Shadid in the October 20 Boston Globe, for instance, and another on September 22 by James Dao in The New York Times, pushed beyond the administration's broad assumptions about what would happen when Saddam was gone - but most of the coverage included only boilerplate reminders that Iraq is a fractious country and bloody reprisals are likely, that tension between the Kurds and Turks might be a problem, and that Iran has designs on the Shiite region of southern Iraq.

David House, the reader advocate for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a piece on March 23 that got at the press's limitations in setting the agenda. "Curiously, for all the technology the news media have, for all the gifted minds that make it all work . . . it's a simple thing to stop the media cold. Say nothing, hide documents."

In November, James Fallows wrote a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Fifty-First State? The Inevitable Aftermath of Victory in Iraq." In it, with the help of regional experts, historians, and retired military officers, he gamed out just how difficult the aftermath could be. Among the scenarios he explored: the financial and logistical complications caused by the destruction of Baghdad's infrastructure; the possibility that Saddam Hussein would escape and join Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted list; how the dearth of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government would hinder peacekeeping and other aftermath operations; how the need for the U.S., as the occupying power, to secure Iraq's borders would bring it face to face with Iran, another spoke in the "axis of evil"; the complications of working with the United Nations after it refused to support the war; what to do about the Iraqi debt from, among other things, UN-imposed reparations after the first gulf war, which some estimates put as high as $400 billion.

Much of this speculation has since come to pass and is bedeviling the U.S.'s attempt to stabilize - let alone democratize - Iraq. So are some other post-war realities that were either too speculative or too hypothetical to be given much air in the prewar debate. Looting, for instance, and general lawlessness. The fruitless (thus far) search for weapons of mass destruction. The inability to quickly restore power and clean water. A decimated health-care system. The difficulty of establishing an interim Iraqi government, and the confusion over who exactly should run things in the meantime. The understandably shallow reservoir of patience among the long-suffering Iraqis. The hidden clause in Halliburton's contract to repair Iraq's oil wells that also, by the way, granted it control of production and distribution, despite the administration's assurances that the Iraqis would run their own oil industry.

In the rush to war, how many Americans even heard about some of these possibilities? Of the 574 stories about Iraq that aired on NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news broadcasts between September 12 (when Bush addressed the UN) and March 7 (a week and a half before the war began), only twelve dealt primarily with the potential aftermath, according to Andrew Tyndall's numbers.
This is something that really bothers me. In regard to the current situation, it seems that too little attention was paid to ALL the possible outcomes of the war and instead the hopes of the administration became assumptions. In depth and detailed reporting that went beneath the surface of press releases and news briefings, really posing the hard questions would have been beneficial to say the least in actually informing the American people of what they were about to embark upon.

Quote:
...

Reporters are biased, but not in the oversimplified, left-right way that Ann Coulter and the rest of the bias cops would have everyone believe. As Nicholas Confessore argued in The American Prospect, most of the loudest bias-spotters were not reared in a newsroom. They come from politics, where everything is driven by ideology. Voting Democratic and not going to church - two bits of demography often trotted out to show how liberal the press is - certainly have some bearing on one's interpretation of events. But to leap to the conclusion that reporters use their precious column inches to push a left-wing agenda is specious reasoning at its worst. We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious.

Arguably the most damaging bias is rarely discussed - the bias born of class. A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism's biggest blind spots. Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia's journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, "It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It's a little harder to do that now, and you don't get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike." That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.

...

In his 1979 book Deciding What's News, the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans defined what he called the journalist's "paraideology," which, he says, unconsciously forms and strengthens much of what we think of as news judgment. This consists largely of a number of "enduring values" - such as "altruistic democracy" and "responsible capitalism" - that are reformist, not partisan. "In reality," Gans writes, "the news is not so much conservative or liberal as it is reformist; indeed, the enduring values are very much like the values of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century." My abortion story, then, came from my sense that what was happening violated my understanding of "altruistic democracy." John Laurence distills Gans's paraideology into simpler terms: "We are for honesty, fairness, courage, humility. We are against corruption, exploitation, cruelty, criminal behavior, violence, discrimination, torture, abuse of power, and many other things." Clifford Levy, a reporter for The New York Times whose series on abuse in New York's homes for the mentally ill won a Pulitzer this year, says, "Of all the praise I got for the series, the most meaningful was from other reporters at the paper who said it made them proud to work there because it was a classic case of looking out for those who can't look out for themselves."

This "paraideology," James Carey explains, can lead to charges of liberal bias. "There is a bit of the reformer in anyone who enters journalism," he says. "And reformers are always going to make conservatives uncomfortable to an extent because conservatives, by and large, want to preserve the status quo."

Gans, though, notes a key flaw in the journalist's paraideology. "Journalists cannot exercise news judgment," he writes, "without a composite of nation, society, and national and social institutions in their collective heads, and this picture is an aggregate of reality judgments . . . In doing so, they cannot leave room for the reality judgments that, for example, poor people have about America; nor do they ask, or even think of asking, the kinds of questions about the country that radicals, ultraconservatives, the religiously orthodox, or social scientists ask as a result of their reality judgments."
I know that there is definitely something in here that could make for a good discussion about our society, who makes it up, whose voices are being heard, etc.

Quote:
This understanding of "the other" has always been - and will always be - a central challenge of journalism. No individual embodies all the perspectives of a society. But we are not served in this effort by a paralyzing fear of being accused of bias. In their recent book The Press Effect, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman make a strong case that this fear was a major factor in the coverage of the Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election, and its influence on journalists was borne out in my reporting for this piece. "Our paper is under constant criticism by people alleging various forms of bias," says the Star-Tribune's Eric Black. "And there is a daily effort to perform in ways that will make it harder to criticize. Some are reasonable, but there is a line you can cross after which you are avoiding your duties to truth-telling." In a March 10 piece critical of the press's performance at Bush's prewar press conference, USA Today's Peter Johnson quoted Sam Donaldson as saying that it is difficult for the media - especially during war - "to press very hard when they know that a large segment of the population doesn't want to see a president whom they have anointed having to squirm." If we're about to go to war - especially one that is controversial - shouldn't the president squirm?

It is important, always, for reporters to understand their biases, to understand what the accepted narratives are, and to work against them as much as possible. This might be less of a problem if our newsrooms were more diverse - intellectually and socioeconomically as well as in gender, race, and ethnicity - but it would still be a struggle. There is too much easy opinion passing for journalism these days, and this is in no way an attempt to justify that. Quite the opposite. We need deep reporting and real understanding, but we also need reporters to acknowledge all that they don't know, and not try to mask that shortcoming behind a gloss of attitude, or drown it in a roar of oversimplified assertions.

...

There are those who will argue that if you start fooling around with the standard of objectivity you open the door to partisanship. But mainstream reporters by and large are not ideological warriors. They are imperfect people performing a difficult job that is crucial to society. Letting them write what they know and encouraging them to dig toward some deeper understanding of things is not biased, it is essential. Reporters should feel free, as Daniel Bice says, to "call it as we see it, but not be committed to one side or the other."
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Old 07-10-2003, 09:22 PM   #2
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Re: Rethinking objectivity in a world of spin

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Originally posted by sulawesigirl4
I'd like to interject that perhaps this shift has to do with the philosophical move away from modernity with its assumptions of scientific truth and towards post-modernity with its realizations of human interpretation.
Yes. Postmodernism believes that there is no such thing as "objectivity." Even the most well-intentioned individual paints the "Truth" through their own subjective lenses. It certainly doesn't mean that we should stop trying to be objective; it just means that we, as readers, should always be critical of what we are taught.

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Old 07-11-2003, 11:45 AM   #3
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aim fair

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by Brent Cunningham
A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism's biggest blind spots. Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia's journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, "It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It's a little harder to do that now, and you don't get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike." That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.
the professionalization of journalism was recognized by jurgen habermas as one of the wrong turns which the craft took in its ascendancy to the elite sociological position it now holds (i cant remember in which work habermas does this but if anyone is curious i know i have the reference at home). where journalists were once indivduals informing their peers of events, goings ons and wrong doings journalists of the present occupy an elevated position from which they educate their readership public. the high regard and self worship which many j schools practice of not only themselves but their contemporaries does not help the matter.

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by Sula

What interests me most I think is the idea of who sets the agenda.
this is veering away from the discussion of objectivity, though the ideal does play a role, but the agenda created for discussion within the public sphere is largely, if not entirely, predicated on the isses dealt with by the mass media. this is the media's primary contribution to society, and the workings of democracy, at large.

as controversial and provocative as much of noam chomsky's recent work is one of his greatest contributions to the field came with the propaganda model he penned with edward herman. though i consider it inappropriately named, the pm identifies 5 filters through which all of the 'news' we recieve must pass. these can be found in much greater detail elsewhere but briefly the filters include the following: [list=1][*]the influence corporate ownership has on their media assets[*]advertisings role as subsidizers of the industry[*]the sources from which media outlets rely on for their news[*]the employment of flak to reprimand outlets (this can come from officialdom for unfavorable sources or grassroots efforts for, say, ignoring a movement)[*]the continual employment of an ideology (chomsky & herman called this simply ‘anti-communism’ but it can be anything...’anti-terrorism’ for example)[/list=1]
acting together these 5 filters shave much of what would otherwise enter the public sphere and which therefore forms the agenda we discuss. once that agenda is so pared down, as we see from the cunningham article, objectivity is unattainable. the bias is systematic and largely unavoidable.

following september 11th the media of the world, and especially the united states of america, had a rare chance to employ objectivity as best as they could in looking at the fundamentals of all that has happened since that day. sadly status quo power structures have been reinforced and strengthened rather than challenged to any great degree.

having said this the boosters of the iraq war are now recieving quite a bit of controversy. only that which is the most scandalous and scintillating (read: makes for the sexiest story) will emerge from the annals of the elite newspapers and journals into the popular press which dominates the public sphere. where most recieve thier information there will be little discussion of the underlying issues.

as far as partisanship in pursuit of objectivity is concerned one only needs to realize that two of the most factual outlets in existence are AIM and FAIR. we are moving towards an explicitly distinct left and right elite media in my opinion, especially with word in that article of wealthy democrats establishing a radio network.

edited because i didnt make sense...i still might not
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Old 07-11-2003, 02:09 PM   #4
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this is straying from the pursuit of objectivity but it is somewhat involved at least

this FAIR report was just brought to my attention. it nicely summarizes american media coverage of the iraq conflict.

Quote:
Starting the day after the bombing of Iraq began on March 19, the three-week study (3/20/03-4/9/03) looked at 1,617 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on the evening newscasts of six television networks and news channels. The news programs studied were ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume, and PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.*
...
Official voices, including current and former government employees, whether civilian or military, dominated network newscasts, accounting for 63 percent of overall sources. Current and former U.S. officials alone provided more than half (52 percent) of all sources; adding officials from Britain, chief ally in the invasion of Iraq, brought the total to 57 percent.
...
Of a total of 840 U.S. sources who are current or former government or military officials, only four were identified as holding anti-war opinions--Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.), Rep. Pete Stark (D.-Calif.) and two appearances by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio). Byrd was featured on PBS, with Stark and Kucinich appearing on Fox News.
i could find evidence of no comparable study at FAIR's conservative counterpart, AIM.
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Old 07-11-2003, 04:31 PM   #5
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I thought this was going to be about Ayn Rands Objectivism.


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Old 07-12-2003, 04:48 AM   #6
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I was just going to say something about Chomsky and Herman, but kobayashi got there first. I wrote an essay for a sociology class last year on how relevant their propaganda model is to the media today, particularly since September 11th. I thought it was especially interesting that the "anti-communism" filter seems to have been adapted to "anti-terrorism" (or some people would say "anti-fundamentalism" or even "anti-Islam" but I wouldn't necessarily agree with all of that).

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It exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the "he said" and the "she said," and, thus, "balance." According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth.
This reminds me of the way so many reporters in Iraq were "embedded" with the military. Could this mean that they were reporting the "official" truth as to an extent they saw what the military wanted them to see? Also, the majority of newspapers/television reporters seemed to rely very heavily on the information given to them in press briefings at the US central command in Qatar, another example of relying heavily on "official" sources.
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Old 07-12-2003, 08:14 AM   #7
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Originally posted by FizzingWhizzbees
This reminds me of the way so many reporters in Iraq were "embedded" with the military. Could this mean that they were reporting the "official" truth as to an extent they saw what the military wanted them to see? Also, the majority of newspapers/television reporters seemed to rely very heavily on the information given to them in press briefings at the US central command in Qatar, another example of relying heavily on "official" sources.
embedded reporters were a very exciting development in war coverage. they brought us images, sounds and emotions that non military types had only previously wondered about.

but their selection and placement was carefully executed. it was a brilliant scheme of internalizing the interrogators by tori clarke, rumsfeld and powell. they gave us the appearance of transparent military operations when in reality the selectivity was done long before the battlefield existed. in total there were just over 600 embeds, 100 of them foreign (mostly british) with 1 reporter from al jazeera.

in sum it was a brilliant propagandistic move on the part of the pentagon.

chomsky and herman's 3rd filter certainly seemed to be in full effect in the second iraq war. after having gone through transcripts of the evening coverage on the major networks and cable news channels it is startling just how many times official sources are cited, often going unnamed. as chomsky and others explain, the cause of this can be economic, ease of use, simplicity or all of them and more. the larger picture of reliance on officialdom is evident in the FAIR report cited earlier.

immediate and apparent results are the embarrassing jessica lynch 'rescue' video fiasco and the BBCs declaration that Basra (i believe it was Basra) had been captured by british forces several times before it actually happened.
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Old 07-12-2003, 08:36 PM   #8
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kobayashi:

exciting and frightening, big new chances for influensing the public opinion with propagandamovies like "the rescue of jessica lynch"

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