Ben Huh says journalistic objectivity is a trap

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As the CEO of the I Can Has Cheezburger empire, Ben Huh probably finds it hard to get taken seriously when he talks about journalism — after all, what could pictures of LOLcats and other hilarious internet memes have to do with something serious like that? Despite his day job, however, Huh has been thinking hard about how journalism is evolving for some time, and (not surprisingly perhaps) some of his ideas are a little unorthodox. For example, he believes that journalistic objectivity is an outdated concept, and that it and a number of other aspects of journalism need to be rethought from the ground up for a digital age.

Huh — who has a degree in journalism — made these comments in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab at ROFLCon, a convention held to honor all the amusing internet memes that the Cheezburger network and others such as 4chan have made famous, including the guy from the double-rainbow YouTube video, the Tron-costume guy, the creator of Nyan Cat and so on. Not the most likely place for a discussion about journalism, but Huh has been spending a lot of time thinking about the topic because he is working on a top-secret new startup called Circa, which is aimed at solving some of the problems he sees in journalism, and in the media business in general.

Don’t we need standards for credibility? No, says Huh

At one point, Adrienne LaFrance of the Nieman Lab asks Huh whether the internet needs some kind of system for establishing the credibility of information sources — since there is such a profusion of content and no one really knows who to believe, now that the traditional gatekeepers of truth have lost much of their power. Huh says he “totally, absolutely, positively, wholeheartedly” disagrees that there is any need for such a thing. But isn’t it harder now to find the truth now? Says Huh:

Creating a singular measure of credibility is a slippery slope to censorship. Like, “Oh, these people are not credible, so maybe we should all act in concert to not print their things,” or discard them. The world’s greatest ideas come from the crazies, the people on the fringe. For a while, they’re not credible, but then one day they are. So that’s a very, very dangerous idea.

LaFrance then asks the Cheezburger CEO whether it isn’t important to have credible and objective (i.e., professional) sources that focus on the facts, instead of just a profusion of opinions from different parts of the spectrum, and Huh responds:

This thing called objectivity is B.S. We are being subjective merely by deciding what to cover and what we decide not to cover. I don’t like the term “partisan papers,” but I’m okay with the idea of more differentiated perspectives.

This point is similar to one made by New York University journalism professor and digital-news veteran Jay Rosen about what Rosen calls the “view from nowhere.” The traditional media industry’s scrupulous devotion to an artificially balanced version of events, Rosen says — where issues or viewpoints are given exactly the same weight and treatment regardless of whether they are factual or even plausible — has not built trust but actually helped to destroy it. Harvard researcher and author David Weinberger has argued for some time that objectivity is not as necessary on the web because transparency is better.

In order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal

Huh argues that not only is a personal viewpoint a benefit, but for an increasingly social medium like the internet it is absolutely necessary — a way of connecting the issue or the event to people’s lives. Although he doesn’t mention it, this is the kind of thing that the Kony2012 video did so well, which helped it to “go viral” so quickly. There is plenty of debate about whether that phenomenon was positive or negative in the long run, but there is no debate about the effectiveness of the message or its delivery.

In a way, Huh is making the same kind of point that Jonah Peretti — the co-founder of Buzzfeed and one of the viral-media experts behind the early success of The Huffington Post — makes about the nature of media now, including a presentation he did at a recent AdAge conference. If you want your content, whatever it may be, to get shared and distributed and engaged with in any way, it has to have some kind of personal connection with its intended audience. That is no less true for serious journalism than it is for cat videos or LOL-worthy animated GIFs. Says Huh:

If you look at great journalists, it’s not because they were able to convey the facts, it’s because they were able to convey part of the emotion on the things that are subjective to the right audience. I want more of that in journalism. It’s a very, very dangerous tool, because it’s a tool of emotion but I think we are lacking that. I think journalism became very sterile.

Traditional journalists worry about the decline of objectivity because they fear that the world will become a cacaphony of competing biases, riddled with conflicts of interest and outright lies — and that this will reinforce the “filter bubble” effect that pushes people into narrow niches of belief. But in some ways, all the internet has done is return journalism to what it was during its earliest days, as The Economist noted in a feature package last year: namely, a kind of stew of competing viewpoints and agendas, communicated through hundreds or even thousands of different newspapers, gossip sheets and other periodicals.

Another point Huh makes in his interview is similar to one Stijn Debrouwere made in a recent blog post: that journalism is facing competition from a host of different sources — many of which don’t even look like journalism — and therefore now is the time to experiment, rather than trying to duplicate old models. Says Huh:

The future of journalism is going to come in from some place really strange. I don’t think we have technology or the platform or the social consciousness, actually, to recognize that that’s the future of journalism. We think that the future will look linearly similar to today, because for the last 100 years, it kind of did before. But it won’t.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Big Omaha/Malone and Co. and neolao

We’ll be discussing these kinds of media issues and more at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads on May 23 in New York City. Register today.

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