24

Journalistic ethics is only sort of an oxymoron


 

As a general rule, media ethics debates work best in journalism schools (where they can safely and entirely be discussed in theory). But here we go.

Dave Sommer, a former TV producer, today’s Post. “I sincerely believe that when your job is to spend every day learning about other people, places and cultures, you’re automatically bound to develop a more liberal worldview, and to me that’s a good thing. But professionalism matters even more, especially when the political cultures of the United States and Canada are so divided. What are my Obama-loving journalist friends really saying on Facebook anyway? That they couldn’t care less about their responsibility to report the news to people who don’t share their politics? It’s shameful, and I’m astonished at how brazenly so many former colleagues of mine would abandon their duty to the public when it comes to their online selves … if I ever go back to news, I wouldn’t be caught dead acting like a star-struck fool when I’m paid to conduct myself in exactly the opposite way — in public, in private and in cyberspace.”

Fair enough.

Aside from the Facebook-specific stuff, this isn’t far removed from the idea that journalists shouldn’t vote. And though that opinion assumes that a person’s duty as a journalist overrules a person’s duty as a citizen, both positions are based on the same idea: that journalists can’t have, or at least express, opinions (unless they’re columnists, of course).

In 2000, Slate decided this was a bit simple-minded and asked, instead, its writers to disclose who they voted for. The magazine repeated this in 2004 and again this year.

The wisdom of that particular measure aside, here is what Michael Kinsley wrote in explaining it.

“Like many lunatic ideas, Leonard Downie’s has a certain inner logic: If opinions are corrupting, just don’t have opinions. Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, is well known for believing that—in the service of objectivity—a journalist in his position should not vote. Writing on the Post op-ed page a couple weeks ago, Downie went even further. He said he does not even allow himself the luxury of deciding whom he would vote for if he was into that sort of thing.

“Many journalists (including me) find this excessive. Journalists are still citizens, with the rights and duties of citizenship. Journalists are also people, for the most part, and people naturally develop opinions about the world around them. This is not a capacity you can turn on and off like a switch. The critical faculties that make for a good journalist probably make purging yourself of all relevant opinion even less plausible. Downie is certainly right that there is no point in not voting officially if you’re voting mentally. But in concluding that he therefore shouldn’t even vote mentally, he is buying into the fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias.

“What’s the difference? Bias is a failure to suppress your opinions or (if opinion is in your job description) to state and defend your opinions openly. Like avoiding opinions, avoiding all bias is probably impossible. Among other difficulties, objectivity is not a huge safety zone. It is a narrow path between bias on one side and bottomless relativism on the other. Journalists are not supposed to be neutral between fact and falsehood or about certain basic shared values. We may state baldly that two plus two is four and may assume without supporting evidence that democracy is a good thing. But beyond that, the fog of disagreement sets in.”

And here’s what Jacob Weisberg wrote four years later.

“Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be fair.

Fairness, in the kind of journalism Slate practices, does not mean equal time for both sides. It does not mean withholding judgment past a reasonable point. It means having basic intellectual honesty. When you advance a hypothesis, you must test it against reality. When you make a political argument, you must take seriously the significant arguments on the other side. And indeed, Slate writers tend to be the sort of people who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to their opponents. Or so we’d like to think. By disclosing our opinions about who should be president, we’re giving readers a chance to judge how well we are living up to these ideals.”

And here is Jack Shafer’s explanation.

“There are those who believe it is possible for a journalist to purge herself of all opinion about the world before showing up for work every day. I am not one of them. The test of a good journalist, like a good scientist, is not whether she has a predisposition but whether she is willing to abandon or modify it on the basis of evidence and argument.”

If I may state an opinion, for whatever it’s worth, I tend to find the argument of Kinsley et al. to be more persuasive.

(“But of course you do Wherry! You’re a total shill for the Liberals! You go to bed each night dreaming of Prime Minister Stephane Dion!” There. I’ve covered all your obvious retorts.)


 

Journalistic ethics is only sort of an oxymoron

  1. “Journalists, like people, have opinions that influence their behavior”

    That is 100% correct. I think how the media in North America is performing right now is neither fish nor fowl and needs to change. My preference would be for a UK style reporting: broadsheets have known political leanings and they don’t pretend otherwise. Or you can force reporters to remove any of their personal views and just stick to reporting the facts, which is what we use to have.

    But that’s not what’s happening now. Currently, we have mainly lib reporters who can’t remove their personal bias from their job but are pretending they do. So we are stuck with reporters who believe they are non-biased and focus on issues that matter to them but exclude other topics they don’t believe should be raised in polite company or somesuch. And unfortunately for us in Canada, lib reporters don’t believe in free exchange of ideas and are trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, which makes for a rather dismal national dialogue.

  2. jwl- “lib reporters don’t believe in free exchange of ideas and are trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, which makes for a rather dismal national dialogue.”

    Hmmm…..an interesting and yet totally baseless generalization. How exactly can mushy middle centrists (the most common traditional criticism of Libs) be bent on imposing their beliefs on the rest of us? The main problem with Liberals is that their beliefs are at the least very diverse (internally) and are quite difficult to nail down. I think it is time to move past the conspiracies about evil Liberals plotting to destroy us all, they were cute when the Tories were in perpetual opposition but now they are just bizarre and they really hurt your credebility. Blanket statements like the one above are what creates a “dismal notaional dialogue.”

  3. RyanD

    TorStar, Globe, CTV and CBC dominate here in Canada. Other than Salutin, when do you ever read an article or watch a news clip that doesn’t fit in with the lib worldview from those sources. Never, that’s when. No one ever agitates for nationalization of oil or auto industry or 80% tax rates on the rich or eliminate corporate taxes or against infanticide or allow private enterprise to be involved in health care or reduce the size of the State or … the list is endless.

    From what I can tell, many in the msm believe that to be a good Canadian means you have to hold lib values or you are somehow suspect and your ideas don’t deserve a hearing. All the msm presents is lib shibboleths and people who support dippers or cons never read/watch anything that represents their beliefs.

  4. But in proportion to the United States, how many *Canadians* want any of those things? Those are generally considered the ‘extreme’ views in Canada, whereas the people advocating the murder of Barack Obama or George W. Bush are the American extremists – we’re more moderate as a people, so of course our media’s going to reflect that.

    Which isn’t to say that our media doesn’t have internal biases of its own. When Harper gave his “if I were any vegetable, I would be a fruit” line, CTV showed the punchline, whereas CBC showed Harper’s hemming and hawing before coming up with the joke. Likewise, when the environmental impact of the candidates’ airplanes became an issue, CTV mentioned that the Libs had an older plane than the Cons or NDP, but were buying carbon offsets. CBC took it further, mentioning that the NDP were also buying offsets, so technically the Conservatives were doing the most damage.

    Whether that’s indicative of a Liberal bias at the CBC or a Conservative bias at CTV, I’m not sure – you’ll think it’s whichever one offends you more – but either way, I’m positive it wasn’t intentional on their part (same with the Dion interview in Halifax).

  5. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other morning and saw the women on The View briefly crapping on Keith Olbermann because he stated that he doesn’t vote. It was the first time I had considered the concept, and it does seem to have a certain logic to it. Interesting to see that it’s not just an Olbermann-related phenomenon, but a seriously discussed issue.

  6. Why do these discussion always have to be so esoteric? I know journalists have opinions…they’re human beings after all. What I’m concerned about is the imperative of evidence for sound argument and the concept of public interest, principles which have become hopelessly confused and devalued.

    By the way, I wish to go on record to state that I believe Andrew Coyne might just save this rag….as long as he recants about the Iraq invasion being a “just war.”

  7. …further evidence that Iggy has a lock on the Liberal nomination, with Iggy’s Iraq apology, the way is now clear for the full support and backing of Ti-Guy.

  8. I’m curious what kind of corporate limits are imposed on Journalists in Canada. I speak of the lack of investigative enthusiasm surrounding the ‘tar and feathering’ of Income Trusts in Canada by Jim Flaherty and the free pass given him by Canada’s media.

    The evidence made public by Jim Flaherty is no evidence at all. It consists of 18 pages of blacked out documents released under FOI then retracted later. I would hope this wouldn’t pass as a credible explanation and yet not a peep from Journalists in this country within weeks of the event.

    The Harper government created a grave error which Canadians are paying for to this day. The revenues ordinary Canadians paid in the form of personal Income Taxes from Income Trust distributions probably would be welcome right now, considering tax revenues overall are falling.

    We get a constant stream of pseudo-journalism, basically mimicking of the Harper government line.

    But I’ve yet to see a shred of evidence to back up anything the Harper Government has said about Income Trusts and plenty to indicate what the Government has done is a great mistake.

    Who is placing limits on Journalists? Or are Journalist attention spans too short to do the real research needed to uncover what Harper has done to Canada and small Canadian Investors?

  9. further evidence that Iggy has a lock on the Liberal nomination, with Iggy’s Iraq apology, the way is now clear for the full support and backing of Ti-Guy.

    You’re projecting you “stoopid,” again Jarrid.

    Seek help.

  10. Two Things:

    In many cases, it seems like the effort to appear “balanced” has overridden the journalists’ imperative to tell fact from falsehood. If one side is telling tall tales, it isn’t a bias in favour of the other side to say so.

    I’ve often wondered if journalism should be considered a profession, and governed accordingly. I’m picturing an accreditation process for journalism schools, licensing exams, a self-government body, and so on, as is in place for doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but I think it would require journalists to think about, and come to some consensus on, what exactly their job is.

  11. CJ makes a good point about accreditation.

    And where’s Kody? He has extensive views on this topic. I’d be interested in knowing his prescriptions for correcting media bias.

  12. This would probably never work in practice, but I’d like to see some kind of a review system put in place where a writer who is known to write from a liberal perspective is “paired” with one of conservative perspective. Each must proofread the other’s work and work together to reduce (I don’t think it’s reasonable to eliminate) their respective biases in each other’s work.

  13. If there were any true journalists in this Country they would be asking, why, the Harper admittance of “Financial Considerations” offered to Cadman does not result in an arrest for bribery. Wake up Canada, the sweater can’t hide the deceit of our Prime Minister.

  14. But I don’t know how to solve the problem of newspapers not running or otherwise burying stories that are embarrassing to their preferred political party.

  15. And where’s Kody? He has extensive views on this topic. I’d be interested in knowing his prescriptions for correcting media bias.

    *snort*

    You sock-puppets are so brazen.

  16. Are you happy, Aaron ?

    Are you enjoying this ?

  17. This would probably never work in practice, but I’d like to see some kind of a review system put in place where a writer who is known to write from a liberal perspective is “paired” with one of conservative perspective.

    John G.: Aren’t you concerned about public interest and reporting based on evidence. I get the feeling you think every issue has two sides…one conservative and one liberal.

    Reality doesn’t work that way. Some issues have only one side, some have thousands.

  18. Aren’t you concerned about public interest and reporting based on evidence.

    Ti-Guy,

    Sure I am. But I’m certainly not getting that today. Witness the “reporting” of the whole “is Sarah Palin actually not Trig’s mother” tabloid trash that the main stream media actually ran with for several days without doing even the slightest bit of fact checking; in some cases, 2 days after the story had been completely debunked elsewhere. Where was the “evidence” or the “public interest” in those stories?

    I get the feeling you think every issue has two sides…one conservative and one liberal. Reality doesn’t work that way. Some issues have only one side, some have thousands.

    I admit that what I’m talking about takes an overly simplistic view of the world, but most our reporters (our gracious hosts excepted) tend to dumb political stories down to that level for us already anyways.

  19. Witness the “reporting” of the whole “is Sarah Palin actually not Trig’s mother” tabloid trash that the main stream media actually ran with for several days without doing even the slightest bit of fact checking;

    Are you a Canadian? Our tabloids (such as they are) didn’t run *that trash*. That was online.

    I think you’re confused.

    I admit that what I’m talking about takes an overly simplistic view of the world, but most our reporters (our gracious hosts excepted) tend to dumb political stories down to that level for us already anyways

    Conservatives: *hmpf.*

  20. Ti-Guy, the CBC covered it, on the National no less, days after it had been debunked. See here.

  21. I find Kinsley’s outlook more appealing in theory, but not much congruent to the Obama love evinced on the website. “Slate writers tend to be the sort of people who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to their opponents.” Yeah, not so much. In point of fact, the Obama love was not much scrutinized on that site, aside from Kaus and Shafer (though Slate must be given credit for having them around).

    And yeah, Aaron, we know why you defend journalists’ right to unabashed cheering.

  22. Well….Jim Lehrer doesn’t vote, and hasn’t since the sixties. He’s very open about it. Basically he considers it one of the costs of being a journalist; if he voted he would have a stake in the outcome, which isn’t in the journalists handbook.

  23. Steve Paikin: good reporter don’t know which way he leans or even thinks. He displays a crazy abstract innocence and curiosity no matter what the other person is saying, but it’s backed up with an intelligent self-confidence. I think a journalist should ultimately be unbiased but if you are, it’s good that you let it be known. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/11/disagreement-de.html

Sign in to comment.