Nov 3, 2011

Journalism and bias

This is a bit of inside baseball, but I highly recommend this article by Conor Friedersdorf on a journalist named Caitlin Curran who lost her job for attending Occupy Wall Street and being photographed holding a sign. I think it's a bit of a tricky question, but ultimately Friedrsdorf threads the needle:
To borrow a phrase, every editor who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that propagating the myth of "objective journalism" is indefensible. A newspaper or radio program may try to hide or obscure the fact that the people responsible for its content have opinions, convictions, and biases. But it is impossible to function as a journalist without making subjective judgment calls about newsworthiness, relevance and emphasis, or covering issues about which you have an opinion. Pretending otherwise requires willfully misleading the public.

An ethical journalist ought to be accurate. She ought to be fair. Her aim ought to be reporting the truth or earnestly advancing a logically sound argument, rather than enriching herself or bolstering her reputation or shilling for her partisan or ideological allies. It is perfectly legitimate for a journalistic organization to decide that it is going to publish or broadcast work that presents verifiable facts as neutrally as possible, and avoid permitting its employees to inject statements of opinion into their professional output. If that's what you mean by "journalistic objectivity," you've not run afoul of my views.

What is objectionable is the View from Nowhere, a term popularized in this context by Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU journalism school, my alma mater. "In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer," he writes. "Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial.' Second, it's a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
Again, I do think it takes a bit of thought to determine on the strict ethical grounds whether or not Curran should have held that sign (meaning perhaps her boss might have considered a slap on the wrist, not a spit-flecked tirade as apparently happened). But what clinches it for me is that in other circumstances, journalists can get away with outrageous distortion, and so long as their bias is cloaked in the right way.

Here's an example: James Pitkin, a man who used to write for the Willamette Week and is now apparently a private investigator, wrote this miserable piece of shit on Reed College back in 2008:
ON A RECENT SATURDAY AFTERNOON in Southeast Portland, a mass of two dozen nudists, painted blue, were gathered at Reed College.

Reed's Eliot Hall
They call themselves “Picters,” after an ancient Scottish tribe, and they carried turkeys and other assorted meats for the feast that was about to ensue as hundreds of hungry students lined up.

The breasts and genitals on display attracted no stares. Neither did the student nearby who took a hit off a footlong glass bong as gray-bearded alums walked by with their toddlers and teenagers in tow.

For that matter, students took little notice later that evening when a student, under the influence of psychedelics, was escorted through campus by two emergency workers, his screams echoing off the brick walls of the library:

“I’m white! You’re black! Oh, for the love of God, you fools! Death! Oh, for the love of God! Sex! Death!”

Workers took him to a large white tent on campus specially designed with plush beds, soft lighting and deep-blue tapestries to comfort people having bad trips.
This ought to be a textbook example of the very worst kind of journalism. Though there are numerous factual errors in the piece (the guy yelling about black and white was not a student, for example), there are no outright fabrications. No joining a protest or advocating political parties or positions. It does, however perfectly encapsulate about half of Jay Rosen's list of how journalists are dishonestly ideological, particularly this one:
The sphere of deviance. The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do.
In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible…Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.
Exactly. Pitkin opportunistically used the tragic case of a Reed student dying of a heroin overdose to caricature the college and smear everyone in it as dirty hippies (breasts! genitals!) who care more about doing drugs than saving their friends and classmates:
While no one this reporter interviewed would say so on the record, it was hard not to get the sense that many felt it’s simply the price to be paid for that freedom—not a reason to make changes. Not a single student we interviewed believes Reed has any problem with drugs.
I hear he's since lost his job. Good. I imagine it had more to do with declining newspaper revenues, and he should have been driven out of the profession by a pack of hounds, but it's still a step in the right direction.

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