Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Objective" News Stories

Even the most casual observers of the media realize the entire concept of an "objective" news story is bunk. Reporters don't practice objectivity; they practice neutrality. Side A says X, Side B says Y, and we leave it to you to decide. This creates the illusion of arguments with equal merit when any "objective" person could conclude one is clearly stronger than the other.

An equally pernicious distortion of the news lurks behind the scenes--reporters and editors have tremendous power to shift the public narrative in the subtle ways they can frame a story. Although reporters will often cling to their Journalism 101 ethics manuals and disclaim all responsibility for their stories when they're writing "just the facts", one shouldn't overlook how they can easily express a particular view without taking any explicit views in a story at all.

Here's an example. City council passes an ordinance banning residents from wearing green pants on Mondays. Local newspaper has the resources to write only one story about it. Among the potential angles are:

Story 1: Just-the-facts story on tickets given to people wearing green pants.

Story 2: Just-the-facts story on people the reporter personally found violating the law by wearing green pants.

Story 3: Just-the-facts story about police giving tickets to some people wearing green pants but not others (essentially a combination of stories 1 and 2).

Story 4: Story about the merits of the green pants law, quoting the mayor saying the green pants are a blight on society, and a concerned citizen worried about his free speech rights being abridged, even though not one person other than the mayor supports the law.

Story 5: Story about the merits of the green pants law, quoting the mayor saying blue pants are blight on society, and nine concerned citizens worried about free speech rights being abridge, because not one person other than the mayor supports the law.

Story 6: Story about how the mayor's third cousin runs the biggest blue pants factory in town.

Story 7: Story about how the mayor was emotionally wounded as a child because of the Monday in elementary school when he was harassed because his parents sent him in green pants.

Most people would agree that (with the exception of perhaps Story 5) all of these would meet the classic definition of "objective" reporting. But isn't it also quite clear that decision to publish a story on this law (or none, or 12) makes a pretty big statement, and how the newspaper frames it makes an even bigger one? The idea that just writing an descriptive story somehow divorces the newspaper from taking a view is absurd.

Do I think most journalists are knowingly skew stories toward their own policy preferences? In most cases, no*. But even if they're making story choices based solely on what they believe is "newsworthy" it will endorse a particular worldview (even if the reporter doesn't realize he's doing it). Implicit stories in stories like 1 and 2 is the reporter's disapproval of the conduct the law punishes; implicit in stories like 3 is the reporter's belief that the police are acting improperly (even though journalists could write this about almost any law, because 100% enforcement is rare). Even within the stories themselves tone could matter--A reporter could portray the mayor in Story 7 as megalomaniac bent on destroying people's rights, or as a sympathetic character still recovering from a traumatic incident.

This isn't to say the descriptive stories are all bad. Certainly there is a role for reporters that expose the facts in any given situation so that other people can form opinions on them. But it also suggests reporters need to take more care in how they frame their stories. And also be more honest with readers about how they do it.

* Trust me, most reporters aren't thinking hard enough to do that.

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