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Summary:

Journalism has been evolving away from just a repetition of facts or events and towards context and analysis, research shows — but this evolution has also created tension for media companies because it conflicts with the principle of objectivity.

We’ve argued before that the life-span of a breaking-news alert or scoop is declining rapidly, thanks in part to the rise of social-news platforms like Twitter and Facebook — and also that a ruthless commitment to objectivity is becoming less of a strength and more of a hindrance for news outlets of all kinds. In a recent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, journalist and data scientist Jonathan Stray says this is more than just a point of view: research shows that, for better or worse, journalism as we know it is becoming less about the simple recitation of facts, and more about context.

This trend isn’t specifically a result of the growth of social media or even the rise of the web in general, Stray says. In fact, the research he describes — a study published earlier this year (PDF link) by two researchers at Columbia University — shows that it has been going on more or less continuously since the beginning of what we call the mass-media era in the 1950s (an era that itself may just have been an accident of history, as I discussed in a recent post). “Contextual” journalism of various kinds has been climbing steadily and conventional fact-based reporting has been declining.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

As Stray puts it: “Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.” He notes that no one really needs a news organization whose sole job is to tell us what the White House is saying when all of their press briefings are posted online — an extension of the principle that now “sources can go direct,” an idea proposed by media theorists like blogging pioneer Dave Winer. As a result, Stray says, journalism has to figure out how to “move up the information food chain” and provide more than just facts.

If context is all, what happens to objectivity?

Interestingly enough, both Stray and the authors of the study note that this kind of journalism doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name. Some call it in-depth reporting, some call it longform journalism, some refer to it as analytical or explanatory, but it has no established terminology. As the study’s authors note:

“Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.”

Stray, who runs a data-visualization project for Associated Press and also teaches computational journalism at Columbia University, says that he believes one reason for the lack of discussion about this change in the media is that it conflicts with the view that journalists have to be scrupulously objective — in other words, that they provide “just the facts, ma’am.” If everything requires context and interpretation, then that means an end to the rigid version of objectivity that many journalists were trained to accept and the rise of other values such as transparency and engagement.

“This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground.”

It may be messy and complex, but I think Stray is right when he says that the shift must be made — and that the desire for context helps explain the rise of unbalanced outlets like Fox News, but also of commentary-based journalism of the kind practiced by publishers like Gawker Media and even individuals like Andrew Sullivan. Where the trend ultimately takes us remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn

  1. @Mathew meta shift is publications are/were paid to cover people and things. Now people and things are getting paid to cover themselves. All else secondary and middle getting streamlined.

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  2. Clearly, Mathew, you are of this new breed of “context providing journalist” rather than “objective journalist” with a hilarious claim such as “unbalanced outlets like Fox News”.

    Do you recognize the difference in their news vs opinion shows?

    How can you even write about this when your assessment of objective calls out Fox News as unbalanced but ignores CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC?

    “The shift must be made”??

    One cannot report without a viewpoint. Your viewpoint just happens to match up with those who report for other outlets but Fox News so you can’t see it and just deem it objective.

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  3. I disagree with this sentiment.

    “He notes that no one really needs a news organization whose sole job is to tell us what the White House is saying when all of their press briefings are posted online — an extension of the principle that now ‘sources can go direct,’ …”

    There’s plenty of information that the powers-that-be would prefer not to disclose in “press briefings” that are “posted online.”

    And readers don’t have the time, knowledge or inclination to dig up that type of hidden information.

    It’s important for journalists to do so.

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  4. Lowell Winer Monday, May 27, 2013

    the world is complicated. people don’t have time to digest all the facts and come up with their own, articulate opinions to share with others. Easier to find a journalistic venue that you can relate to that will give you the facts AND a credible opinion to call your own.

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  5. Merrill Brown Tuesday, May 28, 2013

    It’s very important to note the difference between context and ideology/partisanship. Journalists can provide background and provide insight around stories without ti necessarily being driven by the writers ideology or political leanings. It’s a critical distinction in my mind.

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  6. Another thought-provoking post, @mathewi. I think you’re on to something here, except for one point: You parse out transparency as something separate from objectivity. Objectivity is about the method, not the person. The journalistic process has to have a relentless commitment to verification, and part of that verification process includes transparency, explaining what you do and don’t know, and clarifying how you obtained the information you got.

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    1. Mathew Ingram Tuesday, May 28, 2013

      Yes, that’s a good point.

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  7. Tomme Actkinson Tuesday, May 28, 2013

    I agreed with much of what was said, but also agreed that you showed a bias when you made the comment about unbalanced reporting from Fox. Sorry, but your context (bias) is showing there. You had to look really hard to find any criticism of the Obama administration on any other network than Fox over the last four years. Belatedly they now seem to finally understand that Ben Ghazi, the IRS, Fast and Furious, etc. might have another side. Despite the obvious slant of some Fox commentators, most at least allow a person with a differing viewpoint. Didn’t ever see that on the mainstream “contextual” channels.

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  8. Work Avoidance Log Sunday, June 2, 2013

    You must be kidding.
    “Despite the obvious slant of some Fox commentators, most at least allow a person with a differing viewpoint.”
    Most Fox News Channel panel discussions include a conservative and an arch-conservative. Of course, in the FNC universe, Juan Williams is considered “liberal.”
    And as for the often-advanced notion that FNC’s opinion shows are conservative but its newscasts play it straight down the middle, if that was ever true (which is doubtful), it certainly isn’t in 2013, as a few minutes of viewing will confirm.
     

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    1. Tomme Actkinson Sunday, June 2, 2013

      You must not watch the opinion shows very often. There are plenty where it includes a conservative and a democratic liberal voice. Bob Beckel (sp?) comes to mind (and yes I know it’s four to one, but he’s a good debater and holds his own). Of course if you charactize Juan Williams as a not a “liberal” but rather a “conservative” then you are obviously so far to the left that no meaningful discussion will happen. We aren’t in the same universe.

      What really bothers me about many liberals and the liberal mainstream media is not that they have a differing viewpoint, but that they cannot consider any view other than their own. If Fox had not been around in the last four years there would have been little if any criticism of Obama (and there is plenty to criticize). I can certainly give you a list of things I think the Republicans did wrong on the “conservative” side under Bush, but the only wrongs that I hear of the current administration is that it didn’t move further toward liberalism and big government.

      As a view that I think should have been criticized a lot more by the mainstream media is the ongoing IRS scandal. They quickly dropped that. They say that Obama took action. Hah. He had the director resign two weeks before he was going to quit anyway and it’s still an open question as to whether Obama knew what was going on. What kind of country is this where it is OK for one political agenda to use the IRS as an instrument of intimidation. I guess the end justifies the means. What really gets me is I that I remember Watergate. The press got it’s teeth in that and shook it like a dog with a bone. Some of the recent administration scandals, and especially this targeting and intimidating of political groups who disagree with you really reminds me of Nixon and his enemies list. So where is the continuing outrage from the mainstream media? And sorry pal, if you don’t think an issue like this is important, then again we don’t speak the same language, nor come from the same universe.

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  9. Glad to see this article; I did not know the study Ingram speaks of. I do know that the trend toward transparency was first observed in PR academic journals around 2005, and that its implications were developed for investigative reporting by myself and my colleagues at INSEAD’s Stakeholder Media Project in 2010. (See our report “Disruptive News Technologies: Stakeholder Media and the Future of Investigative Journalism Business Models”). We don’t think the shift from objectivity to transparency is driven only or mainly by ideology, btw. It’s driven just as much by distrust of ideology. Viewers assume bias in media (see the Pew Center’s studies), and wish to know precisely what the bias is.

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