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Impartial Journalism's Enduring Value

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IMPARTIAL JOURNALISM
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For years now, advocates of new forms of journalism have been blasting away at impartiality as a hopeless goal. They're still blasting.

At the International Journalism Festival this spring in Italy, laughter and applause greeted a speaker who declared, "Objectivity is bullshit."

Yet impartial journalism is remarkably resilient, despite the mocking and stereotyping it has endured. There's plenty of room for other models, but it's worth recognizing the value impartiality delivers.

Critics of impartiality often start by saying everyone has an opinion. Trying to write without one, they say, yields mushy he-said, she-said reporting with no clear conclusions.

Critics propose this alternative: journalists should flaunt their biases -- posting their beliefs and acknowledging they may be reflected in their stories.

Both assertions reflect stereotypes of how impartial journalism works.

First, impartial journalism is a profession. That means exercising a skill that's separate from personal beliefs.

Doctors may not like their patients' politics, but they don't kill them in the operating room. Lawyers eloquently defend even the sleaziest clients. Journalists who seek to be impartial should be able to cover people and events irrespective of personal feelings.

Critics also confuse impartial reporting with impartial conclusions. Just because a reporter canvasses all points of view doesn't mean her completed story will be a mishmash of he-said, she-said.

When the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., exposed police officers as among the worst speeders on south Florida roads, the paper's data-driven conclusions were unambiguous. When AP discovered negligence and cheating in America's nuclear forces, its stories were hardly wishy-washy.

At the same time, not every story needs to be written like an indictment. Sometimes, fairly presenting diverse points of view isn't shrinking from the truth, but the only honest way to report:

  • A story may still be developing, or we may not have the resources available to reach a bottom line. In such cases, it's absolutely better to present what we know on all sides than to be either silent, or pressured into picking a villain by the next newscast.
  • "What is true" may be just unknowable. How often have we seen common wisdom turned on its head: peak oil found not to be peak oil, healthy eating redefined, powerful-looking regimes suddenly collapsing? Reporters can't judge and predict everything. We shouldn't pretend we can.

How much bias do journalists have to begin with? It's true that any culture has beliefs that permeate everyone's soul. In many places, for instance, people share a belief that governments should not oppress citizens and the powerful should not undermine the common good. It's because of these beliefs that reporters consider it newsworthy when governments and the powerful overreach.

The more cultural diversity our newsrooms have, the more stories we'll perceive as worthy of coverage.

But while cultural perspectives help identify stories to cover, they don't make it impossible to present them fairly. And not every story risks biased reporting to begin with. Sometimes spot news -- a wildfire, a tsunami -- simply is what it is.

Clearly, journalists with personal beliefs that are truly going to affect their stories or photos should disclose them.

Jay Rosen advocates experimenting with systems where clicking on a byline takes you to "a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here's where I'm coming from ..." (My disclosure: I'm involved in an Online News Association project to help journalists be transparent about factors that may influence their coverage.)

But we need to accept that not every journalist is the prisoner of beliefs that skew his reporting. By one measure, half of U.S. journalists are political independents, up about 18 percentage points in 11 years. Little will come from trying to beat political confessions out of them.

And nothing guarantees that a mission statement will be honest, or that a reporter's biography will tell you whether he is trustworthy. If a reporter used to work for the chemical industry, does that mean he's a propagandist for his former employers? Or that with his inside information, he's the best source around?

Ultimately a journalist's credibility rests not on what he says about his beliefs or his past, but on the correctness over time of what he reports.

That's why millions of busy people who have limited time for news expect it quickly and compactly from a journalist or news brand they've previously found reliable and impartial. Try following links to a reporter's mission statement when you're listening to the news in the car.

There's room out there both for defenders of impartial journalism and those who continue to insist it should be replaced by opinion-with-transparency. In a world that already has enough intolerance and polarization, we should keep testing and improving all approaches to journalism instead of slamming the door on techniques that retain significant value.