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The Kind of Journalism I’d Like To See

Ignoring that it’s from Huffington Post, and despite the fact that the author initially engages in the very behavior he bemoans, I still think this piece on the the lazy left-right dichotomy of American journalism is worth reading.  Peter Goodman identifies the problematic action:

Journalists so frequently deal in the false liberal-conservative dichotomy because it generates the sort of tension that feeds narrative, and narrative makes for more accessible stories. Simply dividing up he interests into two neatly-differentiated competing camps enables lazy beat reporters to claim to have painted all of reality with but two phone calls. Why venture outside and talk to ordinary people — whose experiences and views almost always challenge the traditional labels — when we can simply sit at our desks and dial up a D and then an R and gather a pair of quotes that supposedly cover the whole spectrum of the American take on anything?

He identifies *why* this action is a problem:

Left versus right: These are overly-simplified labels that perpetuate division, and we ought not cater to them, because that amounts to lazy journalism. That is about who won the week, and who controls the conversation, as opposed to the much more difficult, nuanced and crucial questions that remain operative irrespective of phony ideological labels: How will we make the economy function again for the vast majority of Americans, for whom the last quarter-century has delivered downward mobility? How will we get our fiscal house in order while adding quality paychecks and making health care affordable? These are concerns that are common to nearly every household, regardless of ideology, and these are questions that must be pursued at face value, with good information, critical scrutiny and the pursuit of pragmatic policy.

And then he proposes a solution:

In the sort of journalism I am interested in practicing here, I want my reporters to reject the false idea that you simply poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality. We have to reject the tired notion that objectivity means the reader can get all the way to the bottom of the story and not know what to think. We do have to be objective in our journalism, but this does not mean we are empty vessels with no ideas of our own, and with no prior experiences that influence what we ultimately deliver: That is a fantasy, and an unhelpful one at that, because every time the reader discovers that personal values have indeed “intruded” into the copy, they experience another “gotcha” moment that undermines the credibility of serious journalism.

Rather, objectivity means that we conduct a fully open-minded inquiry. We do not begin our reporting with a fully-formed position. We do not adhere to the contentions of one think tank or political party or government organ as truth. We don’t write to please our friends or sources or interest groups. Rather, we do our own reporting, our own independent thinking, our own scrutinizing. But at the end of that process, we offer a conclusion, and transparently so, with whatever caveats are in order. We do not concern ourselves with how others may describe our place on the ideological spectrum, and we do not hold back when we know something, or lard up our journalism with disingenuous counter-quotes to cover ourselves against the charge that we staked out a position. As long as our process is pure, so is the work.

Now, I don’t think, for a second, that his solution is going to be swiftly adopted by many (any?) of the major news orgs out there.  But it’s something we need to support and demand.  Without it, we’re at great risk of losing what makes a democracy worthwhile – an informed populace.  I don’t think I’m overstating the case, here.  The muddleheaded middle approach that forms the core of modern American journalism is the sort of the journalism that leads to popular support for the war in Iraq, the idea that Obama somehow brought in an era of Big Government, or the perception anyone in DC actually gives a damn about the deficit.  That kind of ignorance simply isn’t sustainable, and real journalism is one of the few things that can cure it.


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1 Comment

  1. I think it is a mistake to think of journalism as anything other than another market. Now it is a market with a supposed set of ethics and protections; but nonetheless in the end news sources will print what sells.

    So what *do* people want? And how much are they willing to pay for it? How will people know that they are getting the objective evidence-based reporting called for here? A lot of topics really are quite complicated and — speculating here — the modern press has neither the time nor expertise to flesh out the issues.

    Regardless, I think that the type of journalism you want Mark, is out there in the blogosphere a few quality publications; at the moment, I think the Financial Times is the king of the Mountain. But one needs to work hard at it because of the third element. That is, so I read something by so-and-so smart guy/girl. But is it really on the mark? That takes reflection regarding one’s own model of the world which I think is poorly developed — in a conscious manner — among most people. Without that feedback I think that the mainstream press is going to be weak since there is little incentive for an agency to spend the resources needed to produce the high quality news when the public can’t distinguish high from low quality.

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