Jay Rosen’s Pressthink: journalism’s real bias

Jay Rosen of New York University is one of the most original thnkers alive about the printed press. This doesn’t mean that all he writes makes sense, merely that he is incapable of being dull about it. In this post from Rosen’s PressThink blog, he has been worrying at a theme which recurs in his writing: do political correspondents have an “ideology” and, if so, what is it? In a nutshell, Rosen turns the conventional search for left or right bias upside down and says that the collective biases are not political but ones arising from the wish to appear independent and/or neutral. (Warning on the packet: it’s long and the comments are well worth reading as well).

British readers will have to do some clicking on the links to adjust to the fact that this is entirely about the US. Such a discussion doesn’t translate automatically to the UK, where reporters have more latitude to express opinion than is generally reckoned proper in America. But his analysis isn’t totally irrelevant or unrecognisable either. Substitute “BBC” for the American publications cited here and the argument works well.

I’m fascinated  by this discussion because it forms part of the wider one about objectivity and fairness in news media which has been driven by the web. If the control and production of news is no longer in the hands of an oligarchy of owners and a thousand flowers of individual expression will bloom, does objectivity, fairness and the separation of fact and comment matter any more?

This debate is given extra thrust by the increasing weakness of the resources mobilised by mainstream media which is leading some commentators to conclude that much of the work done by NGOs should be recognised and encouraged as journalism. Or rather that the boundary previously marked between journalism and advocacy should be abolished. As examples, see this from Paris-based writer and teacher Mark Lee Hunter who is enthusiastically supported by Gazeta’s Wyborca’s energetic Greg Piechota.

I’m uneasy at this trend. I’m the first person to say that journalism shouldn’t be defined or judged by strict rules of objectivity and balance which can make truth harder to tell. The artificial separation of fact and opinion can have the same result (discussion of this here). Yet I’m not at all confident that if requirements of accuracy, fairness and balance are lifted that trust won’t also be harmed. And if trust is lost, I can’t see that society as a whole wins.

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1 comment

  1. It’s interesting that this comment begins with a reference to Jay Rosen, who is indeed a very smart and brave thinker about where news is headed. He was trashed in the 1990s for proposing that news media should take a stand about the policies they covered, including getting involved in their execution. I was one of the people who thought he was perhaps mad. I apologise. He was just ahead of the curve.

    One of the most significant shifts in public expectations of media at present is that people are not asking what they should think about, they want to know what to do about it. This is where NGOs come into the picture, and this is one reason why they are among those eating the news industry’s lunch. I’m not sure I like this either. I AM sure that we do need media whose fairness is accepted, and whose mission is to define the facts that everyone needs to take into account. But the perimeter of those media is shrinking, not only because they have new competition, but because leading figures in the field (Murdoch, Moore) are abandoning objectivity in favor of advocacy.

    The question then becomes: What ethical and professional standards are appropriate to news media that pursue agendas aimed at changing the world in a desired direction?

    I think transparency is replacing objectivity, and should (not least because the great majority of the public doesn’t believe in the existence of objective media anymore). I think proving facts will be more important than ever (Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch among others work very hard at this). But this discussion is just beginning, and it is going to contain a lot of surprises for everyone concerned. I mean, 15 years ago, who would have expected that Rosen would be proven right not by the news industry, but by NGOs?