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Summary:

In the wake of the sanctioning of a public-radio host for being involved in an Occupy Wall Street protest, former Slate media critic Jack Shafer says that media outlets should stop trying to force their journalists to pretend that they are soul-less robots without opinions.

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The recent furor over NPR host Lisa Simeone’s involvement in a Washington-based offshoot of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests has drawn attention again to the issue of whether journalists should be allowed to have — and express — their opinions about social issues. Some believe that “transparency is the new objectivity,” in the words of author David Weinberger, and that this is appropriate in an age when the web allows for a multiplicity of voices. Former Slate media critic Jack Shafer also falls into this camp, and says the days of asking journalists to pretend that they are automatons without opinions should be coming to an end.

One of the most alarming aspects of Simeone’s case is that she isn’t a political reporter for NPR or even involved in anything political at the public-radio station in Washington she was freelancing for: she hosted a musical documentary program called Soundprint for WAMU, from which she has apparently been dismissed, and was also a host of another show called World of Opera for NPR. Why would NPR or any other public-radio affiliate care whether someone hosting a music program was involved in a social protest? Because the issue of journalists — of any kind, but especially the government-funded kind — having political opinions is still fraught with controversy.

Why shouldn’t journalists be able to express opinions?

There have been plenty of other cases that make this point as well: Last year, for example, CNN Senior Editor and Middle East expert Octavia Nasr was fired after more than two decades at the news channel because she posted a sympathetic comment about the death of an alleged terrorist leader to her Twitter account. As I wrote at the time, these kinds of events force media outlets to confront the myth that journalists are objective — and that reporters can’t have or express opinions about the topics they cover. If anything, I think news consumers would be better off if they expressed themselves more rather than less, so that everyone would know where they stand.

Former Slate media critic Jack Shafer, now a columnist for Reuters, said something similar during a live discussion about objectivity and journalism hosted by the Poynter Institute on Wednesday. As Shafer put it:

We’re kidding ourselves and kidding our readers when we pretend that journalists have no opinions and no biases. My view is that journalists can’t be objective, because as human beings we are all subjective. What we can do is employ an objective method in the reporting and writing of the news: To be fair, to be accurate, to be comprehensive. If a reporter pledges to do that, I have no problem with them having opinions.

Unfortunately, Shafer says, many editors remain “deeply invested in the idea that their reporters should walk through life like un-biased zombies,” which leads them to question everything from whether reporters should be fans of specific Facebook web pages to whether they should be allowed to express opinions on their Twitter accounts. These kinds of fears are what lead to the kind of soul-less — and also ultimately unenforceable — social-media policies that many media outlets come up with, which prevent their reporters and editors from engaging with readers in any way, including in the comments on their stories or in Twitter discussions about the topics they cover.

Readers can make their own judgments about bias

Shafer said that he was sure his new employer, like most established media entities, likely restricts the ability of its journalists to belong to political parties or express political opinions, but that he thinks this is wrong. But won’t readers be misled by the biases of the journalists they listen to or read? Shafer doesn’t think so:

I have great faith in the average person because I am one. I’m of normal height, normal IQ, I went to a school that once called itself Western Normal College. So, yes, I think average readers can calibrate for bias.

In some ways, Shafer seems to be advocating a position similar to one described by The Economist earlier this year, as part of a package about the evolution of journalism in an age where anyone can be a publisher and a reporter — thanks to what Om has called the “democracy of distribution” provided by blogs, social networks and tools like Twitter. As The Economist noted, the disruption of media has created an environment much like the early days of journalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of mass media forms like the newspaper or the radio program.

As Shafer said in the Poynter discussion, having reporters and other journalists disclose their views and opinions actually makes it easier for readers and listeners to determine whether they want to trust their reporting — and as David Weinberger noted in his post about transparency, the web allows for the inclusion of links and other features that make it easier for users to check facts and come to their own conclusions. Objectivity, he said, is “a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.” It’s time we allowed journalists to be human beings, both online and off.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Rosauro Ochoa and Yodel Anecdotal

  1. But readers can’t identify bias. Television news regularly pits a person with a point against a numb-scull who can’t make a point, thereby convincing the watcher that the position of the person who is not a numb-skull is right – when in actuality all that was proven was that the one person was a numb-skull. That and the questions are leading and one of the ‘guests’ is badgered to look like an idiot.

    This is a big problem with the United States. News has become info-tainment and is having a severe polarizing affect on the public to the point when different sides are spewing hatred instead of logic.

    While human, journalists have a responsibility to try like hell to report objectively. Large swaths of the public, American at least, are moved by their news sources and to give them an opinionated slant under the guise of being neutral is a disservice to the world and will, and actually is, sending us to a dark place as a society.

    1. I don’t think anyone is advocating slanting or distorting news stories, Brian — in fact, you’ll notice that Jack Shafer specifically mentions being fair when reporting. We’re talking about allowing journalists to express opinions and take part in society outside of their journalism.

  2. Brian Ward, Amen, you have it right.

  3. Expressing opinions and reporting the news objectively are two separate things. It is the reason newspapers have editorial pages. Although, it is very obvious when a reporter’s opinion is affecting and skewing the truth of the story.

  4. Most people feel that mainstream media outlets push liberal viewpoints, so most cable viewers watch Fox News to get the full story. Most people aren’t fooled by the pretense of objectivity. So, firing a journalist because you think they might have drawn back the curtain you’re hiding behind is a futile exercise.

    1. Well said, David. Thanks for the comment.

      1. That’s it? You just reply to a blatantly false comment (most cable viewers watch Fox News to get the full story???) with “well said.” Thank you for exposing YOUR bias, Mr. Tea Party. Is your radical conservatism shared by GigaOm’s editorial staff as well? If so, I will need to let my thousands of Facebook and LinkedIn contacts know about this and they can decide whether or not to unsubscribe – as I am about to – from a radical right wing rag posing as an objective tech blog.

    2. I don’t think most cable viewers watch FOX news. FOX News might have the highest share of those cable viewers who watch news but to say that the huge demographic of cable viewers mostly watch FOX is a gross exaggeration and quite clearly points to where YOUR biases lie. Nice try though.

      1. WOW, Henry B, I had no idea the influence you must have, I’m sure Mathew is shaking in his shoes.

      2. Henry, I wasn’t agreeing with the political statements in David’s comment, I was agreeing with his comment about how people can see through the pretense of objectivity.

    3. Jimr: perhaps one reason you didn’t know the influence I have is because this is the first time I have posted here, using a guest pseudonym I have never used before. Odd that while posting on a web message board you wouldn’t think that one minor individual such as myself DOES have a modicum of influence (as you do too) due to the rise of various social media platforms and tools. It ain’t much influence but it’s something. Surely a reader of GigaOm would know that, right? Right?

      Matthew: yeah, I guess I don’t really think GigaOM is a radical right wing masquerade but the poster’s comment truly deserved to be challenged but you soft balled it.

  5. I agree! Re: souless

    our industry, supermodeling, could be more soulful too. Right now, we are made to walk the runways emotionless, but turn on the personality in print. what gives??

  6. Like a lot of bloggers, you know nothing about journalism.

    1. Jim, I was a journalist for more than 15 years at a major metropolitan newspaper and have a journalism degree — I think I know a little about journalism.

  7. I’ve realized recently that this gets at the heart of what is holding us back from a true move toward “community engagement,” involving the audience in our journalism at every step of the process, and in having a real conversation with readers instead of a one-way relationship. Our reporters and editors agree that those things need to happen, and see the value, but when it gets to the conversation, they are speechless. They’re speechless because they have been trained so well to put on the robot act. There’s nothing they feel they CAN talk about. They literally don’t know how to behave like a normal human being would for fear that it punctures the myth of the dispassionate and objective journalist. So if you survey the “engagement” efforts of newspapers and other media outlets across the country (including my own), you’ll often see questions, “What do you think about this story or topic?” and that’s where the conversation ends, with readers’ responses.

    1. I totally agree, Matt — which is why I put in the stuff about social media policies. Newspapers don’t feel that they can allow their reporters and editors to be human with readers because they have trained them not to be. It’s a serious problem.

  8. Blogs attached to some major media outlets have allowed for some of this already. A closer look might indicate that this appears to be more of a trend, but, personally, I still favor placing a disclaimer on each piece, noting that it is dotted or washed in opinion. The reader has the right to know.

  9. Everyone wants fair and honest journalism. But now that Michele Norris is not hosting “All Things Considered” for the duration of the 2012 election season, it’s clear to me that NPR’s ethics policy is increasingly untenable, and ultimately, indefensible. What happens after the election season? Norris goes back to her host position, and is somehow suddenly untainted and magically unbiased? NPR seems to believe it is effectively fighting a battle of appearances and is shielding itself from critics, but it’s a fight that can’t be won, and certainly not like this.

    1. I agree, Julie — I just don’t understand what NPR thinks they are doing with these decisions. They seem to be reacting more out of fear than anything, but it is really shortsighted.

      1. To be clear, I can see why Norris might, especially personally, have an awkward and tricky time reporting on the election horserace day after day on the radio, a medium that doesn’t lend itself well to constant disclosures if she felt she needed to make them. But she has stated she’s only stepping down temporarily. The message — her loyalties matter now, but will cease to matter once the nation has elected someone — is problematic to me.

  10. Remembering Henry Norr…

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