Saturday, November 13, 2004

Why Journalism is Broken

(1) When journalists use the word 'objectivity', they are not speaking English.

Grab a dictionary and have a look. Nothing in either of the two dictionaries I have at hand makes any mention of the notions of balance or 'he said she said' that define what journalists mean by objectivity. Instead, dictionaries define objectivity as referring to what most lay-people think it means, and what they wish they were getting when they read the newspaper: The real truth. That which can be observed. That which exists not just outside of the journalist's mind, but also outside of the minds of the Republican operatives and Democratic spinners that he interviewed for the story.

Journalists, then, are using jargon when they use the term objectivity in their own sense. The journalistic jargon kind of objectivity might better just be called 'he said she said' -- at least, as a lay person, there seems to be little more to defining it.

Besides journalists, there are several other professions whose reason for existing is mostly/entirely to find the objective truth: scientists, judges, lawyers, and policeman, for example. Each of these professions has chosen a very different way to get at the truth, each has its own pros and cons, and any journalist (or lawyer, or scientist) can benefit greatly from thinking hard about how other professions seek the truth and how those techniques apply to his own profession.

Let me recommend to the serious journalists the technique used by scientists. To oversimplify, scientists start by pointing out what 'he said' and what 'she said' too. This is the first 1% of their effort. They then go on to work hard to understand the real facts, and with the last 99% of their effort craft an article in which they describe what they find to be the facts, exactly how they were checked, and why the reader should be confident that they have gotten the facts straight, and how the facts relate to what 'he said' and 'she said'.

Always easily applicable? No. Easily applicable when one of the major sources quoted in the article is known to be lying, as for example happened several times during the Presidential Debates? Yes, easily applicable. And very helpful to the journalist's true goals.

(2) Journalism is not nearly as 'scholarly' as it might be -- that is, not nearly as good at including in an article easy ways for the reader to check the facts that the journalist is presenting.

In journalism, almost all citations are to spoken words that aren't archived. Instead, articles should be full of citations to the source material -- they might be underlined in the print copy and html-linked in the online copy. Links should be e.g. to audio and video clips quoting, in full, things that were said in public, or in taped interviews with the journalist. Or to previous articles in the same paper or elsewhere that are related to what 'he said'. Or to detailed economic data that forms the background for so many articles.

Us real readers, we want to see this stuff.

[Originally posted on PressThink]


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