Monday, May 9, 2011

Obsession with Objectivity: Losing Sight of Our Purpose

Katie Flaherty

With all of the buzz about political/in general news bias in the media, it makes you wonder if we are getting too preoccupied with a technicality that we are missing the point of our stories. In the article by Brent Cunningham, he uses the term "disinterested observers" multiple times to describe journalist role when gathering information. Do we really want to be known as "disinterested observers?" I think you can definitely still be interested and investigative, but still objective. In fact, I think it necessary to be interested in a topic to be able to report it well.
The media has become obsessed with avoiding bias, and the public is equally obsessed with pointing out the bias. As journalist, we are so worried about getting the facts and the quotes accurate that we do not trust our own intuition to analyze the situation. This also creates a hole in information because we don't take the time to research further and find other interviewees or viewpoints to approach for our stories. If we are not interested in the stories we write and don't delve far enough into the issue we cannot take a clear stance on the topic. This does not mean we should write this position as an opinion, but it should spur enough intrigue to ask more revealing questions. If we haven't thought through the materials and quotes we get how do we expect our readers to have enough information to make their own conclusions on a particular subject.

Cunningham also mentions objectivity can deter reporters from covering issues that aren't already in the media. I think this is another example of not trusting our intuition and following the media trend. If you have an interest in an issue, most likely this would attract the public as well. As journalists we have to make news judgments and if we constantly follow and repeat stories that we pick up from other aggregates or social media we are losing opportunities to report on other areas. In this article from the Huffington Post, President Obama slams the media for placing so much attention on the already "debunked" controversy over his birth certificate. If we constantly follow the stream of information and never try to tap into other avenues we will continue to have bias and limited coverage.

This kind of reporting starves the public of fresh information. With all the social media today, reporters are frequently gathering their information from the internet including various unreliable information sources such as Twitter and Facebook. You will occasionally hear news anchors quote something from a Facebook website as evidence in a crime report. As Cunningham mentions the widespread use electronic media facilitates laziness in our profession. We don't talk to human sources as much as much anymore. We are always in such a rush to get the facts and make deadlines that we often resort to phone interviews or even Skype. This robs the story of crucial elements like atmosphere and mood. These observations could enhance the story's credibility as well as creativity. I am a magazine major so I suppose there's some bias in there towards spicing up the typical news story.

Now this is not at all to say we should be making up stories or trying to add details that will in some way make them more interesting to the reader. We do however need to be accountable even in situations where the information source is not. In particular journalism struggles with this problem in war coverage. During the Vietnam War, journalist were both praised and condemned for their involvement. Many thought it was a break through in disseminating information and pictures that helped the public really see what war was really like. Others saw the media as propagandist with too much transmission of government filtered information. This is again an instance where we need to question our sources and push them to uncover real information and not just what is prepared or commonly released to the public. If we do not push investigation of controversial human interest such as war then we are simply acting as an arm of our source. In the case of Vietnam, the government had engineered its own pretext for war, and not questioning or digging further for more sources severely injured our reputation as "watchdogs."

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