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Summary:

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan says in some cases transparency by journalists can trump the principle of objectivity, although she still argues that reporters should refrain from expressing opinions. Unfortunately for the Times, that horse has already left the barn.

Is the status of objectivity as a sacrosanct principle of the journalism industry beginning to weaken? There have been some encouraging signs lately, not the least of which are some recent blog posts from New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan: in the most recent, she argues for the benefits of allowing reporters (in certain cases) to inject themselves and their opinions into a story, and in another she agrees with journalism professor Jay Rosen that what he calls the “view from nowhere” — the rigid balance produced by an overly aggressive commitment to objectivity — doesn’t really do news consumers much of a service in the long run.

In her latest post, Sullivan takes on the case of NYT reporter Scott Shane, who wrote a story about former CIA operative John Kiriakou, a man who is facing a prison term for leaking classified information to journalists, including background information about one of his CIA colleagues and his involvement in a mission to capture a suspected terrorist. The journalist who was given that information — during a series of off-the-record interviews with Kiriakou — was none other than Scott Shane, who described what happened in detail in a recent piece for the Times.

Objectivity, fairness and the “View From Nowhere”

In her post on the story, Sullivan notes that the NYT was criticized by a number of journalists and other observers — including the former director of the investigative reporting unit at the Miami Herald — for allowing someone who was involved in a story to write about it. This was a “glaring conflict of interest,” said the Herald editor, suggesting that the Times should have had someone else write the story and interview Shane to get his side of what happened. But Sullivan disagrees:

“In this case, no one could have told this important tale as well. Those who have read it know more about how government and reporting work than they did before. It’s the kind of story that makes you think; it may make you question the status quo. That’s a pretty good definition of what effective journalism does.”

Sullivan also tackled the broader issue of transparency vs. objectivity a few days earlier, calling it “an increasingly important subject, and a complex one.” She described a conversation with Rosen in which the NYU journalism professor talked about how a rigidly objective piece can become a useless “he said/she said” exercise. “The View from Nowhere is slowly getting harder to trust,” said Rosen, whereas the disclosure by a writer of his or her viewpoint can actually make that person’s work more trustworthy rather than less.

NYT newspapers

The NYT public editor said she wasn’t prepared to admit that “transparency is the new objectivity” (a phrase coined by David Weinberger of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society), but she agreed that the idea has merit — at least insofar as it means that journalists should “let readers get to know their backgrounds, their personalities and how they do their jobs.” And she agreed that the “view from nowhere” should be tossed out. But she still maintained that expressions of opinion on public issues by reporters was a problem, and that the Times shouldn’t allow it:

“The Times should continue to enforce its rules that bar journalists from the most visible forms of partisanship: contributing to campaigns, joining rallies or making public shows of support for candidates or causes. It would be hard for readers to believe that a reporter who contributed to a campaign or carried a sign in an abortion-related rally could report without bias.”

Transparency doesn’t replace other journalistic virtues

The only problem with this approach is that it’s like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop advancing: banning reporters from rallies is one thing, but what about expressing opinions on Twitter? Is everyone going to get a NYT editor appointed as their dedicated social-media nanny, as Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren recently did? Should reporters be blocked from joining Facebook groups or “liking” certain things? Why is Shane allowed to talk about his reactions to things, but Rudoren isn’t? In a follow-up post to Sullivan’s, Rosen argues this particular horse has already left the barn:

“Viewlessness as a means of trust production in news came with voicelessness for the individual author. That is now ebbing away, especially with social media and two-way interactions between journalists and users… The costs of sticking with the default model in trust production are visible and mounting, and increasingly journalists are looking for a way out.”

Rosen’s larger point, as I understand it, is that transparency and intellectual honesty shouldn’t be seen as antithetical to the other virtues of journalism — things like fairness and accuracy, for example — but should be seen as worthwhile additions to the modern journalist’s approach. Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media wonders whether journalists should adopt a kind of scientific method, by providing their hypotheses and evidence as they construct a story, and that is certainly worth further discussion as well.

In the long run, it’s worth asking what we can gain by allowing reporters to be human beings while they do their jobs, instead of only asking what we lose by doing so, and Sullivan’s posts appear to be a step in that direction — albeit a small one.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Donskarpo and Getty Images/Mario Tama

  1. Indeed Ms. Sullivan’s column is a small step — as it should be. These incremental advances are certainly frustrating for those of us who, like Dr. Rosen, find the old institutions stifling. But it’s easy to get your argument dismissed if it pushes too far too fast. Having seen how the journalistic establishment pushes back against these arguments, I support the slow approach because I believe it gets us farther in the end.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian.

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