Rethinking Media Objectivity

Ritual performance

“There really is no objectivity in journalism in any ‘pure’ sense, but reporters can convey to readers or to viewers a sense that they are looking at facts and at developments in a fair way. If they try to suppress their own points of view.” – Thomas Edsall, New York Times.

Columbia is often called a “liberal campus,” yet, even on such a campus, there exists a large population of politically apathetic students. Despite their apathy, these students have been conditioned to value bipartisanship over policy and give credit to both sides in a debate.

For instance, the GOP establishment’s consistent support for Roy Moore for Senate in Alabama despite allegations of child molestation should result in a cut-and-dry judgement, yet students have difficulty condemning their actions. This reflex–to believe in the validity of both sides–has been ingrained in their thought processes over time, and is a reflex I have encountered time and time again on campus. Rather than writing off this reflex as distinctively liberal drivel, it is worth tracing it back to its source: objectivity, or rather the performance of objectivity in traditional, established media.

Todd Gitlin, chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia, defines objectivity as “the performance of a ritual,” adding that “these are the clichés of journalism, they’re the certificates of objectivity: you get the other side of the story, you quote from multiple sources, you go down the middle of the road: he-said, she-said, you seek balance.” Gitlin acknowledged the futility of the pursuit of perfect objectivity, though he clarified that it’s still worth seeking.

“Performance” perfectly captures the mass-hiring of conservative pundits by the New York Times and MSNBC in 2016, or the Times recently giving over their Op-Ed page to letters from Trump supporters.

The media’s performative approach to objectivity is flawed for three reasons. First, it limits the use of the Internet to a mere tool for content syndication, rather than an instrument for social engagement, either with their base or their detractors.  Second, right-wing ideology-based media organizations, most notably Fox News and Breitbart, have gamed the system of objectivity, taking advantage of the “he-said, she-said” practice in order to discredit the very institutions they use to disseminate their message. And finally, the bias towards believing in the persistence and efficacy of institutions, most notably the federal government, makes the media inflexible in dealing with major crises affecting those institutions.

The traditional media’s approach to objectivity follows concrete policies using the aforementioned “cliches” as a guiding principle. For example, it is seen as precarious for media figures to voice political opinions on social media. Some reporters avoid sites like Twitter altogether, while others choose mostly to retweet others’ works with the occasional comment. Choosing to engage online can often lead journalists into choppy waters. Lewis Wallace, a reporter for Marketplace, was fired after publishing an article on his employer-endorsed Medium blog rejecting objectivity. In the article, he had discussed how his transgender identity interacts with his political views and explained that he could not “be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.” Many organizations also forbid their employees from marching in protest. Some journalists even take neutrality to the extreme and choose not to vote, like Leonard Downie Jr., who sat out Election Day for the twenty-five years he spent as the Executive Editor of the Post. As Gitlin mentioned, getting both sides of the story, or the “he-said, she-said,” is of paramount importance, yet the practice of setting aside personal views limits the full scope of the political article in question. 

Despite these practices, the United States is facing a crisis of trust between the media and the populace. In this new age of mass information, it is worth considering the notion that transparency should replace the traditional performance of objectivity. Americans, once confined to a few media outlets, are now assaulted with information from journalists and peers alike. In order to mediate this precarious new climate,  journalists should be more open to discussing their personal biases. They should be able to tweet freely, march in protest, and write about their identity on personal blogs. This approach provides big-picture solutions to the media problem–and this is an urgent problem. If  trust in the media slides further, the political and societal implications could be drastic.

Social Media : An Ecosystem

 Much of the discussion of American media habits following the 2016 election of Donald Trump centers around the idea of “bubbles.” These online spaces reinforce certain favorable viewpoints, by filtering out those challenging the user’s worldview. Many critics and pundits cite the heavy use of algorithms by Facebook and Twitter as responsible for the creation of this phenomenon. No longer do these networks show content chronologically, but rather they constantly mix up the order based on what the algorithm thinks will generate the most engagement from the user. This creates a myriad of problems, but after significant and prolonged backlash, the largest social media companies appear  ready to tackle them. However, some of their recent attempts have been misguided to the point of causing harm.

In response to this phenomenon, social media sites have responded with reforms to their methods of newsgathering and distribution. Facebook, for example, recently unveiled a major change to their News Feed algorithm, which now shows more posts from friends and family rather than those from news outlets. They also began a pilot program to mark certain false or misleading articles as ‘Disputed’ after a thorough fact check. Similarly, Twitter recently suspended its Verification program after debates over which figures were deserving of the badge, largely sparked after the program Verified white supremacists such as Richard Spencer.

These efforts have largely failed or had significant detrimental effects. Facebook’s algorithm shift caused a crippling loss in revenue for some small newspapers, while the ‘Disputed’ process ended up making some articles seem legitimate, even if they were not.

However, these failures have not deterred social media organizations. New research from Yale shows that Facebook’s newest approach–crowdsourcing its users to determine which sites are trustworthy–may be more useful than expected. Facebook’s willingness to learn from its many failures sets an example that other, mainstream media outlets should follow; instead of being afraid to try a solution for  fear of failure, they should be willing to accept failures in the search for future success. However, issues routed through technological platforms only account for some of the problems with media organizations.

The New York Times, among the other traditional news organizations, has an official, strong stance on neutrality. Following that stance, Times reporters are allowed to operate Twitter accounts, but rarely, if ever, discuss personal beliefs or opinions. Those who tweet, mostly retweet significant scoops, quotes, or articles from their publication or others. Others largely avoid the service, which may be wise, as social media mistakes can often lead to punishment or termination, as in the aforementioned story of Lewis Wallace.

It’s clear that the attitude of younger generations toward social media is often misunderstood by the older generations who currently run traditional media organizations. Younger generations are inclined to favor personality over institution. Several figures of the ‘new media’ have leveraged a personality-forward approach to great success.The hosts of the podcast Pod Save America, for example, have gained significant success by presenting a liberal viewpoint and emphasizing their personal experience in the Obama administration.

The complexities of using social media accounts as simple ‘content faucets’ thus reduces engagement with both subscribers and non-readers, and secludes journalists behind a semi-transparent curtain. This curtain is translucent enough to give the illusion of personality, but is not transparent enough for engagement.  Although becoming more transparent may leave journalists exposed to personal attacks, it is nonetheless an issue tech platforms must resolve to protect their most vulnerable users. Only from this vulnerability can the media rebuild trust with disaffected readers, and subsequently surmount the crisis of fake news.

He Said, She Said; He Lied, So What?

“The right-wing charge against the media from the 60’s to recently was that “the liberal media were biased.” We still hear that, but the charge of “fake news” takes us to a different plane… there is no debate about fake news, fake news is a conversation stopper.” – Todd Gitlin

As Gitlin said, getting both sides of the story is widely seen as an essential part of objective reporting. However, right-wing pundits, politicians, and media figures have gamed this practice, legitimizing their false or misleading stories under the pretense of ‘just asking questions.’ By taking advantage of the tendencies of the mainstream media to report news in a “he-said, she-said” format, the right-wing forces the mainstream media to cover their  narratives. Worst of all, the mainstream media continues to dance to their tune, and returns to cover the narratives conjured up by these figures again and again.

There are certain practices of right-wing news that allow it to behave in this manner, the most important being the lack of expectations of impartiality. Fox News, which until recently described itself with the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” is hardly expected to be fair and balanced by any viewer. Conservatives watch Fox News because they enjoy seeing their views represented, and liberals watch Fox News to slowly drive themselves insane in pursuit of understanding the ‘other side.’  It’s a model that works, and has led  Fox News to being the most-watched news channel for years now, despite their recent troubles with the departure of popular hosts Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly.

Pew Research has found that liberal voters get their news from a wide variety of sources, while conservatives overwhelmingly turn to Fox News and other, smaller conservative outlets for information. With the power of this loyal fanbase conservative media has increasingly been playing a long game by sowing distrust toward mainstream outlets.

The blame for this tactic can be attributed primarily toward Steve Bannon, the former White House Chief Strategist who has stated his hatred of the mainstream media on multiple occasions. Even the defensive crouch that conservatives find themselves in because of their historically unpopular president has contributed to this tendency to turn toward conservative media. No matter the cause, the effect has been destabilizing for the past few years and is potentially destructive for the future.

One example is the recent story of Representative Devin Nunes and his memo which, according to right-wing media, clearly articulated the liberal bias of the FBI and proved the existence of a widespread conspiracy against the President. This conclusion is demonstrably and unequivocally false. The memo in question, which conservatives on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release, lends support to the conventional narrative: the investigation into Donald Trump was not started by the release of Christopher Steele’s ‘dossier,’ but rather had existed previously, and the fact that FISA warrants were renewed for the wiretap of Carter Page shows a legitimate interest in his dealings. This example, which led to no legitimate consequences for any party involved, serves only to show how the right-wing media, which supported Nunes’s false conclusions, had no qualms about lying to its consumers in order to reinforce their beliefs. Furthermore, their loyalty is rewarded with the allegiance of elected Republicans, among them the President himself.It is worth considering how right-wing media sources take advantage of the crisis among liberal and non-partisan outlets in order to spread and validate their views. One theoretical component of media coverage is called the ‘Overton Window,’ the range of views that are deemed suitable for public discourse. The recent significant shift in the Overton Window toward more conservative ideas is telling; for example, MSNBC and CNN recently hiring conservative hosts and commentators, both supportive and critical toward the Trump administration. Certainly, it can be argued that the media should be more tolerant and accepting of conservative ideas, but mainstream journalists are walking a fine line, given that much of the rhetoric coming out of outlets like Fox News would cheer on the destruction of media norms as we know them.

CNN recently unveiled an ad with an apple occupying the center of the screen. A smooth-voiced narrator describes how, although some people may claim to see a banana, it’s clearly an apple. The ad ends with the phrase “Facts first,” and then shows a CNN logo. For an outlet that has done a great deal of work legitimizing both Trump and his supporters, either by broadcasting his early speeches in full or consistently inviting back his spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway or Stephen Miller, who consistently repeat demonstrated falsehoods, the ad constituted a surface-level attempt at avoiding cries of ‘fake news,’ cheering on its liberal loyalists while denigrating its critics

The manipulation of print media and cable news on the whole has been wildly successful. Perhaps the election of Donald Trump was an early symptom, or perhaps it was simply the result of shifting political winds. But everything since that moment, such as the continued assault on the validity of Robert Mueller’s investigation or the shifting of the Overton Window,  can be traced back to right-wing manipulation.  The media must rethink its approach to “he-said, she-said” reporting when ‘he’ is a serial liar.

Institutional Bias

“Yes, there are institutions, but at some level those are built on individual human beings who have their own lives, families, children to worry about. If they see the profession they come to love, care about, and profess being trashed by the White House or by the Secretary of State and if they can find something else they’ll find something else... I do place a lot of faith in institutions but they don’t survive everything.” – Michael Schudson

Like the students on the Columbia campus, it’s undeniable that most journalists come from a more liberal persuasion, or at least donate to Democrats more than to Republicans. While most would agree that a recognition of this bias by the journalists themselves is beneficial, they should also agree that recognition of the problem alone isn’t enough. Journalists and organizations have approached this from different angles. For example, the previously-mentioned Leonard Downie, Jr., who sat at the head of the Washington Post for twenty-five years,  never voted or read any of the Post’s editorials , lest he be forced to take a side. Most journalists do not take the matter of liberal bias to levels this extreme, but many certainly refrain from donating to political campaigns or registering with either party.

There are legitimate issues with avoiding one’s own biases in this manner. The previously quoted Thomas Edsall spoke of the issues with bending over backwards to appear to combat this liberal bias in a 2009 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, which argues that “Journalism Should Own Its Liberalism” in order to “manage it, challenge it, and account for it.” 

While confronting the issue of liberal bias head-on is important to strengthen reporting and analysis, a less-often discussed bias may be the real existential threat to the media: institutional bias or the belief that the institutions in which we place our trust will undoubtedly prevail through times of turmoil. Journalists most often apply this belief to the media itself, along with the American government, especially in times of existential threat.

“The Times wants an orderly world”– that was Todd Gitlin’s response when I asked him for his thoughts about this institutional bias. Thomas Edsall and Michael Schudson also presented grave concern for the possibility of a crisis brought on by the current period of polarization. Perhaps the crisis has already manifested itself in the election of a President more vociferously opposed to critical coverage than any in recent memory. The media’s implicit role in normalizing a candidate who by any metric did not fit in to the assumed boundaries of reasonable behavior raises larger questions about a duty to warn the American people when a novel and dangerous threat emerges. However, the Times does not just desire an orderly world, it assumes that the world is orderly and will always remain orderly. The Times will never ask itself those larger questions because of its enduring belief that  institutions will prevail as they always have.

In their interviews, Gitlin, Schudson and Edsall all disagreed with the opinion that increased transparency is an adequate substitution for the performance of objectivity. Their most common argument was that objectivity is indeed impossible to master, yet that does not invalidate the effort. One disproved of the idea of “confessionals” where reporters would have to air their every predisposed thought on a subject. Michael Schudson acknowledged that the “he-said, she-said” approach was flawed, but explained that reporters have worked hard to include context. My main complaint about these arguments, as I’ve articulated above, is that sticking with more or less the same approach did nothing to stop the current crisis of truth. In this way, current journalistic practices ignore the threat in deference to an unattainable ideal.

Each academic nonetheless agreed, to some extent, that the current crisis regarding trust in the media requires urgent attention. It could be institutional bias that is preventing the media from realizing the precariousness of its own situation, or perhaps they are blinded by the unprecedented growth in subscribers at papers like the  New York Times.  In spite of this, a post-truth reality is not necessarily imminent .

It’s possible that this period of rising distrust and nearly unmanageable polarization will pass, perhaps with the rise of a unifying figure or event or the emergence of a new ideology.  However, with the media choosing to either look the other way or propose only surface-level solutions under an unprecedentedly coordinated attack, it is time for them to truly reckon with the effects of their current policies and their role in creating the situation America finds itself  in today.