WHAT IS JOURNALISM? Who is a Journalist?

17 Oct

What is Journalism? Who is a Journalist?

This is a summary of the first in a nationwide series of forums convened by journalists to examine the core values and responsibilities of their profession. This one, held November 6 in Chicago, Illinois, examined what is the purpose of journalism. It was co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. None of the forums is intended to be definitive but rather form a kind of coordinated reporting effort by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The substance of the forums will be the basis of a monograph that attempts to distill what journalists can agree on as their core values and responsibilities.

The day brought together journalists from different backgrounds, from traditional community journalism at the Chicago Tribune, to the editor of Better Homes and Garden, from local TV to the internet, from opinion columnists to alternative advocacy weekly journalism and asked them all to answer the same question: what is journalism. We learned that whatever quarter they came from, including the advocacy ranks, they had certain core values in common: a commitment to accuracy, to fairness and balance, to reflecting the diversity of their readership (or community), to always approaching reporting with an open mind, to having their primary commitment to the reader–not the advertiser or shareholder. The journalist should be a provider of reliable, verified, true information–even a seeker of truth. As Patty Calhoun, editor of the alternative Denver weekly Westword, put it, “You can’t have a point of view until you’ve explored all points of view.”

We also heard a consensus that journalists are struggling because they have become isolated culturally from their readers, that their tastes and definitions of news need to broaden and become more populist. But, this balancing must occur without abdicating principles of journalism or standards of reporting, without pandering, assuming audiences are dumb or at the expense of providing people with information they need to self govern. Journalism is suffering because it is failing to find this balance. Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists that inspired these forums, began the session by explaining their purpose: “It is crucial to the survival of a journalism that truly serves the needs of a self-governing people that journalists themselves engage in a period of national conversation and reflection to clarify the common values and the common responsibilities that journalism holds.”We believe that if we cannot better articulate what those values and responsibilities mean, they will cease to mean anything.” “Each of the forums will confront and examine key questions of journalistic practices and principles. Our task here in Chicago today is to examine two fundamental questions: First, what is journalism anyway? What is the common ground between the Chicago Tribune, the local television station, service magazines and the Internet? And, second, who is a journalist today? What responsibilities, values, principles make one person a journalist, as opposed to a propagandist, or a simple communicator?” Clarence Page, the Tribune columnist who moderated the morning session, illustrated how illusory definitions of journalism have proven in the past: “Ted Koppel says our business is largely a profession of map making–trying to draw places for people to venture, to journey, to learn from. Rupert Murdoch was once questioned about practicing tabloid journalism, and he responded, ‘I prefer to call it excitement.’ Ellen Goodman, describing what we commentators do, says our business is to make sense of all that is happening in the world. Others have said journalism is a first draft or a rough draft of history, or that it is literature in a hurry. I think our most important function is that of agenda setting.”

Mark Deuze

Indiana University

The history of journalism in elective democracies around the world has been described as the emergence of a professional identity of journalists with claims to an exclusive role and status in society, based on and at times fiercely defended by their occupational ideology. Although the conceptualization of journalism as a professional ideology can be traced throughout the literature on journalism studies, scholars tend to take the building blocks of such an ideology more or less for granted. In this article the ideal-typical values of journalism’s ideology are operationalized and investigated in terms of how these values are challenged or changed in the context of current cultural and technological developments. It is argued that multiculturalism and multimedia are similar and poignant examples of such developments. If the professional identity of journalists can be seen as kept together by the social cement of an occupational ideology of journalism, the analysis in this article shows how journalism in the self-perceptions of journalists has come to mean much more than its modernist bias of telling people what they need to know.

Weblogs and Journalism in the Age of Participatory Media

for Nieman Reports; published September 2003 under the title ‘Weblogs and Journalism: Is there a connection?’

We are entering a new age of information access and dissemination. Tools that make it easy to publish to the Internet have given millions of people the equivalent of a printing press on their desks, and increasingly, in their pockets. Unless we understand the difference between amateur reporting and personal publishing and recognize weblogs as just one form these activities might take we will not be able to fully understand the implications they have for culture, journalism, and society.

Let’s start with the weblog frequently updated website, with posts arranged in reverse chronological order, so new entries are always on top. Early webloggers linked to selected news articles and webpages, usually with a concise description or comment. The creation of software that allowed users to quickly post entries into pre-designed templates led to an explosion of short-form diaries, but the reverse-chronological format has remained constant. It is this format that determines whether a webpage is a weblog.

Note that the form preceded the software. Easy-to-use software has fueled the fast adoption of the form, but weblogs may be created without it. The weblog is arguably the first form native to the Web. Its basic unit is the post, not the article or the page. Bloggers write as much or as little as they choose on a topic, and although entries are presented together on the page, each post is given a permalink, so that individual entries can be referenced separately.

Hypertext is fundamental to the practice of weblogging. When bloggers refer to material that exists online, they invariably link to it. Hypertext allows writers to summarize and contextualize complex stories with links out to numerous primary sources. Most importantly, the link provides a transparency that is impossible with paper. The link allows writers to directly reference any online resource, enabling readers to determine for themselves whether the writer has accurately represented or even understood the referenced piece. Bloggers who reference but do not link material that might, in its entirety, undermine their conclusions, are intellectually dishonest.

Are Weblogs a Form of Journalism?

The early claim ‘weblogs are a new form of journalism’ has been gradually revised to ‘some weblogs are doing journalism, at least part of the time.’ As even the enthusiasts now concede, weblogs used to record memories, plan weddings, or coordinate workgroups can’t be classified as journalism by any definition. So in any discussion about weblogs and journalism, the first question to ask is: Which weblogs?

The four weblog types most frequently cited are:

· Those written by journalists.

· Those written by professionals about their industry.

· Those written by individuals at the scene of a major event.

· Those that link primarily to news about current events.

Weblogs maintained for respected news organizations will certainly qualify as journalism if they uphold the same standards as the entire organization. But some argue that independent sites maintained by journalists automatically constitute journalism, simply because their authors are journalists. A weblog written by a journalist does not necessarily qualify as journalism for the same reason a novel written by a journalist does not: it is the practice that defines the practitioner, not the other way around. The case of Jayson Blair, recently fired from ‘The New York Times’ for fabricating stories, illustrates that whatever the journalist’s reputation or affiliation, journalism is characterized by strict adherence to accepted principles and standards, not by title or professional standing.

Some advocates of weblogs as journalism point to the weblogs produced by industry insiders as the future of trade journalism. They argue that, while reporters tend to rely on only a few sources even when reporting very complex stories, weblogs written by the people working in a field will naturally convey a more complete version of the news about their profession. But those with a stake in the public perception of an issue as working professionals invariably have \are those we can rely upon least for an unbiased perspective. Their commentary, done with integrity, can be a great source of accurate information and nuanced, informed analysis, but it will never replace the journalist’s mandate to assemble a fair, accurate, and complete story that can be understood by a general audience.

Personal accounts are more problematic: Is an eyewitness account journalism, and if so, when? Depending on the event? Depending on the inability of another individual to compile a more complete version of the story? Depending on the skill or training of the person writing the account? The standards used to determine when a personal recollection becomes a journalistic report are likely to vary from case to case.

This leaves link-driven sites about current events. There are certainly similarities between the practices behind these weblogs and some of the activities required to produce a newspaper or news broadcast. Just as a newspaper editor chooses which wire stories to run, the weblog editor chooses which stories to link. But bloggers are never in a position to determine which events will be reported. And just as opinion columnists use news accounts as a springboard to present their interpretation of events, bloggers are usually very happy to tell you what they think of what they link.

But is this a new form of journalism?

Frankly, no. I’m not practicing journalism when I link to a news article reported by someone else and state what I think \I’ve been doing something similar around the water cooler for years. I’m engaged in research, not journalism, when I search the Web for supplementary information in order to make a point. Reporters might do identical research while writing, but research alone does not qualify an activity as journalism. Bloggers may point to reader comments as sources of information about the items they post, but these are equivalent to letters to the editor, not reporting. Publishing unsubstantiated (and sometimes anonymous) emails from readers is not journalism, even when it’s done by someone with journalistic credentials. Credible journalists make a point of speaking directly to witnesses and experts, an activity so rare among bloggers as to be, for all practical purposes, non-existent.

Instead of inflating the term ‘journalism’ to include everyone who writes anything about current events, I prefer the term ‘participatory media’ for the blogger’s practice of actively highlighting and framing the news that is reported by journalists, a practice potentially as important as but different from journalism.

Weblogs as Participatory Media

So, when I say weblogs and journalism are fundamentally different, one thing I mean is that the vast majority of weblogs do not provide original reporting for me, the heart of all journalism. But Joan Connell, former executive producer for opinion and communities at MSNBC, has said that she believes weblogs are journalism only when they are edited. This will be poorly received by those journalists who have embraced the form for its freedom from professional standards and processes. Of course, bloggers unaffiliated with news organizations may state their opinions quite frankly, unworried about placating editors, offending advertisers, or poisoning relationships with sources, since they have none of these.

When bloggers do report the news, the form is usually incidental to the practice. When policy analyst David Steven decided to document the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, he set up a weblog [The Daily Summit] so that he could easily post reports on each day’s events. He attended news conferences. He interviewed conference speakers. He summarized the proceedings. But this was not a triumph of the weblog form. It was made possible by the free availability of easy-to-use publishing software. That the end-product was a weblog was irrelevant to Mr. Steven’s purposes and to those of his readers. For two weeks, Mr. Steven was on the front line, reporting, editing, and publishing news from the Summit. Journalism? I believe so, though Ms. Connell might disagree.

Perhaps the biggest reason millions of amateur writers produce weblogs is that the easiest-to-use Web publishing tools produce only that format. Blogs have become the default choice for personal Web publishing to such a degree that the two ideas have become conjoined. When commentators talk about weblogs as the future of journalism, they sometimes seem to mean ‘personal publishing is the future of journalism’, or ‘amateur reporting is the future of journalism’ but neither of these need manifest in the weblog form.

Whether personal publishing and amateur reporting begin to appear in different forms will depend on the availability of tools that allow non-professionals to create and contribute to other kinds of publications. A Korean website called ‘OhMyNews’ employs more than 26,000 ‘citizen reporters’ who submit articles on everything from birthday celebrations to political events. The publication is credited with helping to elect South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who granted his first postelection interview to the site. This is amateur reporting, but it is not blogging.

I see the wide adoption of weblogs as just the first wave of an age of online personal publishing. As weblog software evolves into content management software, look for a surge of other kinds of online publications, many of which will be updated periodically instead of continually. If these publications employ a weblog, it will be as an annotated table of contents rather than as the focus of the site. Amateur reporting will become more widespread, particularly with the proliferation of mobile devices that can upload photos and text. These devices will be pervasive, but little of this content will be widely seen, partly because there will be so much to pick through. Such content will be widely distributed only when it has the import of the Rodney King video.

Weblogs will be used in mainstream journalism, without question. But the vast majority of bloggers will continue to have a very different mandate from journalists. It is unrealistic to apply the standards of journalism to bloggers who rarely have the time or resources to actually report the news. In my book, The Weblog Handbook, I deliberately reject the journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy in favor of transparency as the touchstone for ethical blogging. As media participants, we are stronger and more valuable working outside mainstream media, rather than attempting to mirror the purposes of the institution we should seek to analyze and supplement.

Is Journalism For You?

What is journalism?

Journalism is the timely reporting of events at the local, provincial, national and international levels. Reporting involves the gathering of information through interviewing and research, the results of which are turned into a fair and balanced story for publication or for television or radio broadcast.

Journalism is not just

· fact-finding

· media analysis

· opinion writing, or

· commentary

although all of those aspects can play a part at times.

What do beginning journalists do?

Journalists who are starting their careers normally do not do commentary or opinion pieces. Rather, they cover hard news stories such as community news, courts, crime and speeches by notable people. In broadcast, beginning journalists also may do pre-interviews and research for senior journalists.

An entry-level reporter often does “general assignment” stories rather than stories for a specific beat. General assignment stories are given out to reporters by the city desk or assignment editor.

academic and practical courses and offers a solid grounding in the basic tools and practices of print, broadcast and online journalism. The curriculum of the Master of Arts in Journalism program is not focused on producing graduates to work in public relations or communications positions.

Expectation of writing ability in the journalism program

It is expected that students in the MA in Journalism program have mastered basic writing skills, including grammar, syntax, and the ability to conceptualize and articulate ideas in writing. A writing competency assignment will be given at the beginning of the summer term and students with writing difficulties will be identified. Students who do not meet the expectation of writing ability will be required to seek remedial help external to the program at their own expense, if necessary. A follow-up writing competency assignment will be given towards the end of the summer term.

The Journalism Problematic

Firstly I need to stress how impossible it is to talk of journalism as a single entity. As I say at the start of my Newspapers Handbook: there are many journalisms. [1] Too often the focus within the dominant discourse (in the academy as elsewhere) is on the mainstream media sectors – with the alternative media (ethnic, religious, leftist, environmental, peace movement, feminist, community, blogging) ignored. But while I may promote the alternative media I appreciate the mainstream/alternative duality can over-simplify matters — for instance, in which camp do such hybrid publications such as Private Eye and the Big Issue fall?

The Mysteries of Media Consumption

I’m now going to do what comes natural. I’ll talk about myself as a consumer of journalisms. The growing research into audience reception of media – on the impacts, influences, effects on or uses made of mass media outputs – is fascinating. Here the focus has shifted from debates about consumption within the context of media imperialism and the erosion of natural or indigenous culture and from an emphasis on the media as part of a system of domination to an emphasis on the individual, drawing heavily on the theoretical perspectives of social psychology. But despite the vast literature on audience studies, much of it of course influenced by McQuail’s uses and gratifications model, how I or we actually consume the media remains a mystery to me.

Indeed, student consumption of media never ceases to amaze. I’m teaching a unit at the University of Lincoln titled “International Human Rights for Journalists” and once showed in a seminar a video of a Panorama programme “Deep down and dirty” which looked at the CIA’s alleged human rights abuses in central America. The programme, according to my analysis, basically spun the official CIA line: the agency had been severely compromised by a scandal in Guatemala in the mid 1990s. As a result it had been forced by what was called the “Scrub order” to clean up its act. Loads of ex-CIA blokes were on hand to say how this had destroyed the agency’s abilities to act against its enemies: hence the intelligence failure that led to 9/11. But most of my students just didn’t see it like that. For them it was a critique of the CIA totally unacceptable in the post 9/11 period of terrorist threat.

Breaking the Taboo: My Journalistic Obsessions

What is journalism? Well, for me it’s an obsession. And has been since I was around 13. It was then, in the early 60s, when I began religiously copying out reports from the Nottingham Evening Post’s Pink-Un – the football paper you could pick up in the Market Square as you walked home from the match – the production process was so rapid in those days. One team fanaticism has never afflicted me. My father had a season ticket for Nottingham Forest and I would occasionally attend their reserve games. On alternate weeks Notts County were at home so my father would take me there. I supported both Forest and Notts and always have.

I studied history at university and through that got interested in politics. At that time politics was of a very conventional kind – involving political parties and parliament and so on (politics to me now is something very different: it’s difficult to separate politics from life, in fact). I attended Nottingham Playhouse (at its peak with folk such as Judi Dench, Jonathan Pryce, John Shrapnel, Harold Innocent, Jonathan Eyre, John Neville, Barbara Jefford, Jonathan Miller passing over its stage) and became addicted to films like all youths, so came to consume the culture pages avidly. The newspaper was so symbolically powerful to me: it represented the big wide world out there beyond the narrow confines of my lower middle class life in Nottingham. I remember admiring my history teacher Mr Friar simply because he carried around a copy of a newspaper. It was proof that he was a real man of the world concerned about the important issues of the day.

At Oxford I spent time on Cherwell newspaper: I wrote features and was the resident reporter of Student Union debates for a year. And my first job in newspapers was on the Nottingham Guardian Journal, a morning paper owned by the local royalist big wig T Bailey Forman. I remain addicted to newspapers. Whenever I go anywhere, in England or abroad I always have to buy a rag. I’m fascinated by the ephemeral nature of newspaper copy. There is all that blood sweat and tears invested in the production of the beast and in the end there is this strangely static object. It should be jumping out at me I feel. It all happens so quickly. Benedict Anderson in his seminal text Imagined Communities describes the newspaper as the “one-day best-seller” [2] And Fred Inglis comments: “Nobody reads last week’s newspaper unless it is wrapped round potatoes in the kitchen. But every day it sells out in millions because it tells an intelligible story with a plot, heroes, villains, actions and direction about the way of the world. It settles us in a sufficiently ‘knowable community’ while placing those who are known in a believable nearness to those who are not.” [3]

So many important decisions (is it £2,000 pounds or £20,000?) are made in split seconds at such strange times – I used to edit The Teacher (the newspaper of the National Union of Teachers) up to 3 in the morning, for instance. And then all that work is forgotten as the concerns over the next issue take over. It is ephemeral and yet that text on the page also has an extraordinary permanence. Those words, written at such speed, can inspire, hurt, libel, move, irritate, amuse.

There is enormous pleasure in language, the sound of words, their rhythms – and in reading (I like gossip and the news media are rooted in the primitive need for gossip) But there is also anxiety. Another day comes and there is yet more reading to be done. How many hours of my life have I devoted to reading the media – and how much have I digested/retained? I might spend an hour reading everyday and then up to six hours at the weekend reading, catching up. But then I don’t just read, I cut up sections and put them on piles and eventually file them. I love my files (though they are too chaotic): on journalism ethics, of course, on the intelligence services (my thickest paradoxically!), on American military policy, on UK military policy, on Africa, on human rights, on Libya and on Chad, on George Orwell. I’ve an “Odds and Sods” file. I make notes from newspapers – preparing for the new editions of my books, for the courses I teach. But I also cut up and store, just as I keep a regular diary: to protect myself against the anxieties around the passing of time. It’s all too transient.

And is this reading all work or pleasure? Perhaps it’s best to call it “plork” But while I do so much reading I’m aware that I’m missing so much. And there is some considerable guilt attached to that. Should I be reading the finance pages? This story about AIDS in Africa? I should read it but I’ve just not the time. I’d like to spend more time in the sports pages but alas (in any case, Forest have lost again – and so too Notts, damn it). And as the old newspapers and magazines pile up at home (ready for the recyling bin) I think of all those forests destroyed.

But I consume not just the dailies (with a smattering of tabloids) and Sundays: I’ve become a big fan of Private Eye; Press Gazette is unmissable; Q News, the Muslim monthly is fascinating as is Lobster, which focuses on the intelligence services; the London Review of Books is one of the best publications around; I like the Socialist Worker; Peace News with its revolutionary pacifism, is a favourite; and I, like Orwell, find all the publications of the many left wing sects (I devour when on any demo) great reading fodder. And my reading habits change. When I’m preparing for a new edition of my handbook, for instance, I will read far more tabloids and local papers than at other times.

I explore the web sites of a range of organisations: the NUJ, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Liberty, Privacy International, Human Rights Watch. I both read and contribute to the media monitoring websites and Too much media research focuses on the mainstream. In writing on the coverage of the Middle East/Iraq I constantly refer to alternative publications such as Dissent, Lobster, Covert Action Quarterly, Middle East Report, (the investigative website run by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair), (excellent site of an independent journalist in Iraq), (website of American historian Tom Engelhardt),, (a regularly updated compilation of radical writing). I don’t read the educational press, the travel sections, the personal finance sections.

There is pleasure but there is also distaste. So much of the mainstream media (even the heavies) I find slightly ridiculous, too obsessed with the trivia of consumerist society, too keen to promote the myths surrounding democracy, the free press, the public interest. Much of the red top tabloids I find insulting with their rabid sexism, jingoism, racism and militarism. Too often the mainstream media are quick to back military adventures. I contend that until the time comes when the government proposes military action and the vast bulk of Fleet Street denounces the strategy as a crime and an appalling waste of crucial human and material resources (at a time of mass global poverty and environmental degradation) then we have no right to call ourselves civilised. Within this context whenever I read something which I really admire – a piece by Arundhati Roy, a humorous piece by Mark Steel in the Independent – the pleasure is very special.

So I’ve broken the big taboo – I’ve revealed some of the intimate details about my newspaper reading habits. I wonder what yours are…

The Objective Straitjacket and the ‘Crisis of Journalism’

Moreover, the range of genres in newspapers has always intrigued me: such as hard news, soft news, features of many kinds – profiles, news features, reviews, eye-witness reportage, participatory features, investigative reports, columns, editorials, diaries, human interest and so on. I’m fascinated by the different tones, writing styles, sourcing conventions applicable to each. But the more I consider these genres the more it occurs to me that they are broadly static. Journalism as a specific literary form appears to be at some dead end. There is no sense of experimentation with the form. The New Journalism of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe was incredibly innovative in the way it transformed journalists’ relations to their sources and resorted to fictional strategies to give a heightened rendering of reality. But it never really caught on in this country.

Why is this? Could it be that journalists’ stubborn reliance on professional notions of objectivity in our postmodern era is acting as a conservative, regressive influence on the development of the genre? In all the other arts and disciplines (painting, sculpture, architecture, novels, theatre and so on) there is enormous experimentation in both form and content – and along with it the ready acceptance of a range of radical epistemologies and ideologies. And yet journalists so often remain immune to the post modernist onslaught – too obsessed with the who what where when why and the how.

Philip Schlesinger and Graham Murdoch’s Televising ‘Terrorism’: Popular Violence in Popular Culture is still relevant today in that it argues that the discourse in mainstream news and documentaries is closed around stereotypical definitions of terrorisms. [4] Yet alongside those representations they are able to show how far more open discourse on terrorism appears in drama productions which are able to explore more deeply the complexities of the issue and which can be built around even subversive frames. In other words, the dominant discourse viewed overall is complex and contradictory – yet given its proximity to political and economic power and its crucial propaganda role for the state, the news sector serves to articulate the most regressive ideological elements.

Postmodernism reflects a decline of absolutes – no longer does following the correct method guarantee true results. Instead of only one truth and one certainty, postmodernism encourages us to accept that there are many truths and that the only certainty is uncertainty. The questioning of what scientific, rigorous research is and what its effects are, is part of a contemporary condition which Habermas refers to as a “crisis of legitimation” and others have called “postmodernity”. The formerly secure foundations of knowledge and understanding are no more. We are no longer certain about our ways of knowing and what is known. What we are left with is not an alternative and more secure foundation but an awareness of the complexity, historical contingency and fragility of the practices through which knowledge is constructed about ourselves and the world.

Yet still journalists so often remain unproblematically committed to conventional notions about truth. For instance, The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (Guardian Books, 2001), has been promoted by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, as a model primer for journalists – rather as Observer editor David Astor promoted Orwell’s Politics and the English Language as a sort of style book for his journalists. “In this life we want nothing but facts, sir, nothing but facts”, Thomas Gradgrind, described by Dickens as “a man of realities. A man of fact and calculations” storms at the start of Hard Times. And this same devotion to facts dominates The Elements. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, they say. 100 per cent of journalists interviewed for a survey by the Pew research centre for the People and the Press and the Committee of Concerned Journalists said “getting the facts right” was journalists’ major responsibility. They speak alarmingly of “an epistemological scepticism which has pervaded every aspect of our intellectual life from art, literature, law, physics to even history.” And of a “new journalism of assertion which is overwhelming the old journalism of verification”.

Time and time again, as I invite practising journalists to give talks to my students I’m amazed at how this belief in objective fact/information is proclaimed – as a sort of professional mantra. I remember John Simpson speaking of the “pure objectivity” of the BBC. David Loyn, foreign correspondent, said he “worshipped at the altar of objectivity” in the same speech in which he denounced peace journalism as the most serious threat to media standards. Mark Nicholls, embedded with the military during the Iraq invasion, told students at Lincoln University: “Our duty as journalists is to let the facts speak for themselves.” Similarly Ian Hargreaves, formerly Independent and New Statesman editor now of Ofcom, in his somewhat disappointing Journalism: Truth or Dare? argues along with Reith lecturer Onora O’Neill that the ethic of truthfulness lies at the heart of journalism. [5] But there is a certain hesitation as he adds “even if one accepts that neither quality is capable of incontestable definition”.

Again, the US media guru Everette E Dennis, in Of Media and People expresses concern over what he describes as the traditional “just the facts ma’am” school of journalism. He wants a new emphasis on objectivity but an interpretative objectivity “in which central facts can be verified but in which matters of interpretation and analysis are identified as such and left to reader and viewer direction. There are descriptive details and facts that can be sorted out and identified in virtually every news situation ranging from a simple police matter to a complex international controversy. Events arise, people are involved and situations can be observed. This is and ought to be descriptive, verified journalism at its best.” [6]

The history of mainstream journalists’ commitment to the ideology of objectivity, a philosophical concept running through Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Bentham, John Stuart Mill that found perhaps its greatest expression in the Enlightenment project of rationality and the pursuit of scientific knowledge, has been well charted by Schudson, Stuart Allan and others. Indeed, the development of the notion of objectivity, the separation of fact from opinion, has been so central to the manufacture of mainstream journalists’ sense of professionalism.

But Can Subjectivity Offer a Solution?

Mainstream journalists’ stubborn commitment to objectivity and the belief that “fact” can be separated from “comment” not only flies in the face of the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment dualities – which prioritised the intellect over emotion, mind over body, head over heart, the objective over the subjective. By suggesting the pursuit of information can be value-free, the ideology of objectivity also serves to marginalize the ethical and political dimensions within the dominant journalistic culture.

Significantly, some mainstream journalists become outspoken advocates of subjectivity as a way of challenging the myths of objectivity. For instance, James Cameron, the anti-nuclear peace campaigner who during the Vietnam war dared to portray the North Vietnamese as humans rather than communist monsters, commented: “It never occurred to me, in such a situation, to be other than subjective. I have always tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than the truth.” But the notion of ‘subjective truth’ needs to be radically challenged too. As Myra Macdonald argues there can be both positives – such as Cameron’s reporting — and negatives in subjectivity: “Subjectivity can take very different forms, however, and some of these may aid knowledge formation. Self-reflexivity on the part of reporters and presenters enables better understanding of the discursive constitution of their account and dispels the myth of objectivity whereas a more egotistical presentation of the investigating self encourages an absorption in personality that is more akin to celebrity adulation.” [7]

She usefully suggests a discourse on tabloidisation or infotainment built around constructed oppositions between information and entertainment confuses the issues. “Because of its association with categories and forms of classification that are themselves ideologically weighted in favour of Enlightenment principles, it can blind us to problems with conventional methods of communicating information and to opportunities in some of the movements away from these. Personalisation, in particular, is worthy of closer inspection as a multi-dimensional rather than a singular process.” [8]

Thus journalists’ engagement with the issues they are confronting and their participation in the events they are recording can end up appearing self-indulgent. For instance, Donal MacIntyre’s televised investigations tended to over-glamorize his role as the “heroic, brave” celebrity sleuth and, in the process, marginalize the social issues under review. But handled sensitively and creatively (and with an awareness of the profound political and economic factors impacting on the formation of personality) journalistic reflexivity can give new meaning and authenticity to their reporting.

But while I may wince at the extravagant claims of the objectifiers, I’m not in response going to assert similar claims for subjectivity. A common theme running through the current liberal, moral panic over allegedly dumbed down mainstream media standards is a concern over the rise and rise of the New Punditry/the New Subjectifiers with their often under-researched columns mixing emotionalism, confession, extremist views, speculation, innuendo and abuse. The dumbing down argument is dubious – not least because it subtly eliminates the alternative media from the dominant discourse, fails to distinguish between spectacular emotion and authentic emotion — and at the same time prioritises moral outrage above the political problematic.

I would like to suggest we need to break away from the old Cartesian dualities: emotion and reason, objectivity and subjectivity, head and heart, thought and action, man and beast, culture and nature – and seek a new paradigm. Just as objectivity needs to be radically problematised – so too do our subjectivities.

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Posted by on October 17, 2008 in Just Talk Active


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