I'm often frustrated by one of American journalism's most cherished, but abused, conceits.
I'm referring, broadly, to "he-said she-said" journalism (HSSS, from here on), the standard news format of contrasting statements meant to convey a sense of fair-mindedness no matter how much stronger, by which I mean believable, one statement is compared to another. It's just so easy to cheat and hide bias and a lack of fairness, even while appearing to do the opposite.
I'm sure you've read an HSSS story with some quote that had you mumbling to yourself, "That's utter crap." Or perhaps you've worded it more strongly? I sure have.
We're taught HSSS in college Journalism 101. It's the mark of "objectivity" (yes, those are scare quotes meant to convey skepticism), the promised redemption of American journalism that never really was and never will be.
Of course, we are talking about a mythical objectivity that represents a kind of blank-slate mental state, as opposed to "objectivity" defined (classic work here, "The Elements of Journalism") in terms of professional standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for the many voices involved in public debates. Those kinds of professional standards are exactly what GetReligion keeps trying to defend.
I struggle with poorly executed HSSS journalism just as "omniscient anonymous voice" journalism bugs GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly. Click here if you need a refresher on his views. He is primarily opposed to hard news newspaper and wire-service journalists -- as opposed to the authors of magazine essays and opinion pieces -- using massive amounts of information and opinion without giving readers any clear indication of where all that material is coming from.
i do not disagree with Terry on that. The raw material leading to journalistic conclusions should be spelled out. Think of it as connecting the dots. Think of it as simple honesty.
But when done well, I sometimes prefer a kind of omniscient anonymous voice (hereafter known as OAV) journalism over bad HSSS journalism.
I understand this may get me tagged as a journalistic heretic. So be it. That's your prerogative. Call me out in the comments section below. Perhaps you feel Terry and I are really talking about apples and oranges? If so, tell me. I want your opinion.
Much of the best of the OAV form resides today in long-form magazine journalism, or what's left of it.
This piece I recently came across is representative of my thinking. It isn't standard religion journalism; its on the pressure today for a comic to be safely politically correct when playing the college circuit. But it does possess a small religion ghost (are any comments about religion acceptable, and if so are a school's particulars or a comic's clear personal faith in any way determinative?).
First, the best OAV isn't really anonymous. I think that's clear to just about every news media consumer.
Even those with the slimmest veneer of media literacy know that every bit of news we consume has been filtered through at least one human mind -- which means someone has gotten to shape the information through their beliefs about what constitutes news, what qualifies something as fact, what's socially and professionally acceptable, whether the story is one of life's positives or negatives, and more.
Journalistic truth is some approximate summation of that set of variables.
Far fewer media consumers today regard the news as they did just a few short decades ago, when more Americans were willing to assume that if it was in a high-quality newspaper or Walter Cronkite said it on TV, well, it's probably true.
The atomization of the news media -- mostly but not exclusively because of how technologically easy it's become to create Web news and opinion sites -- allows each of us to pick the version of journalistic reality that most appeals to our comfit zone. Which is to say, that which best affirms our worldview.
In textbooks, this is called the "European," as opposed to the "American," model of the press. One European model I appreciate is The Economist, whether I agree with its conclusions or not.
Additionally, partisans both liberal and conservative, from the far left to the far right, have bombarded us for years now with warnings about how hopelessly biased and untrustworthy the other side's media has become. Who doesn't run for higher office these days without bashing the "lame-stream media" or the "right wing echo chamber"?
And then there's social media. It has totally upended the old media conceit; every bit of information available -- words, sound bites, video -- is parsed instantly and endlessly on Twitter, Facebook, Web comment sections, etc., etc., etc. Each parsing does its best to spin an alternative explanation so as to be noticed.
Who is the average person going to believe when there's always another few dozen bloggers and at least that many trolls (and let's not forget the myriad cable TV and radio talking heads) to undermine everybody else's version of truth? The original source of the information? Maybe. But chances are just as good that the consumer will just become fed up with the entire journalistic process.
Is there anybody left who still believes in the fairytale known as objectivity, in that old blank-slate meaning of the word? (Don't confuse objectivity with fairness. The former is not a prerequisite for the latter. A broad context and knowledge of the subject matter are more important, in my mind.)
Journalism's past is behind us. For better or worse, journalism will only continue to evolve. Why pretend that a longing for an idealized past will turn back the clock? Even if it could, what would it bring back? Closeted subjectivity?
I was prompted to write this post by -- and this is my bias showing -- HSSS stories about the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence. I found many of the Palestinian leadership's comments in defense of the mostly young men and teenagers who attacked Jewish Israelis to be absurd.
Yet they were passed along in news reports in a HSSS deadpan manner that, I believe, gave them a false equivalency with, for me, the more believable explanations given by Israeli authorities. This is particularly the case with breaking wire reports and brief TV and radio stories.
Sure, context can be added later. Click on this New York Times story for an example of this.
But who knows how many who read or heard the first HSSS story will pickup on the later explanatory story? First impressions rule.
As I said, this is my hobby horse. I'm sure you have your own. How many GetReligion readers feel an equal sense of falseness when reading about, say, same-sex marriage issues? Or presidential candidate stories? The choices are endless.
I understand that newly minted journalists, no matter how much promise they show, are largely incapable of properly executing a quality OAV, advocacy piece. I sure wasn't. Professional seasoning is much required.
I also understand -- and this is important -- that I may prefer OAV because I'm more media literate and on top of the news than your average media civilian. Plus, I'm also into presentation -- meaning writing's artfulness -- at least as much as getting information bullet-point style.
Moreover, I've seen much OAV writing that's more polemic than journalism. OAV is not inherently better journalism. Again, context and fairness, not HSSS objectivity, is what's called for.
And I also understand that more space and time -- not to mention consumer attention and savvy --must be devoted to OAV journalism than to HSSS, and that they're not always available. Or that in the case of breaking stories -- crime or natural disasters, for example -- HSSS is preferable.
I am in no way celebrating the passage of traditional American Model journalism. Much that has replaced it is, well, drek -- superficial opinion hastily cobbled together by someone with little or no street reporting cred.
But given the clear trends in journalism I've stated above, perhaps it's time to start working harder to improve advocacy journalism. I'd start in our journalism schools, where I've noticed as a teacher that tomorrow's journalists raised on the latest media trends seem to prefer advocacy anyway.
Not to be overlooked: If we want most new J-school grads to get jobs in the field as it presently is, they better be prepared for what employers seem to want. Again, I hasten to add, for better or worse.
Just make it clear to all that good OAV journalism makes no claim to being objective, that it's opinion marbled reporting has a logic to it, and that all parties to an argument have been treated fairly by allowing them their say.
The comments section is now open.