Among the dinosaurs and evolvers of journalism

As a cub reporter I used the phrase “objective journalism” in a newsroom debate. My colleagues looked away and I felt like the man in the Bateman cartoon who ordered a whisky and soda in the Pump Room at Bath. The news editor patiently explained to me that objectivity was impossible in journalism: everything we write is coloured by our own experiences, beliefs and experiences.

Whenever I see a journalist using the word, I know there is a particularly fruitless argument on the way. In Britain it is now largely used by people people lambasting reporting, but in the United States it is still widely discussed.

Jeff Jarvis uses “objectivity” in his reference to the latest flare-up in the debate on journalists and bloggers. It started when Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia journalism school wrote a piece in the New Yorker, a week ago headed, AMATEUR HOUR Journalism without journalists.

After that Jarvis had mounted an attack on Lemann:

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

Lemann’s article is long but in essence he is saying professional journalists (since when was journalism a profession?) can do things amateurs cannot:

Citizen journalists are supposedly inspired amateurs who find out what’s going on in the places where they live and work, and who bring us a fuller, richer picture of the world than we get from familiar news organizations, while sparing us the pomposity and preening that journalists often display….

…but what has citizen journalism actually brought us? It’s a difficult question, in part because many of the truest believers are very good at making life unpleasant for doubters, through relentless sneering. Thus far, no “traditional journalist” has been silly enough to own up to and defend the idea of belonging to an élite from which ordinary citizens are barred.

Rebecca MacKinnon, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, responded in another long and rather opaque piece which included this vituperative comment:

I can’t read his mind and I haven’t asked him, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Lemann has been feeling somewhat on the defensive lately – and somewhat in need of explaining to students why they should fork out what amounts to a year’s salary for many people in order to get a journalism degree. With this context, Lemann’s choice of focus makes more sense, but it also makes me wonder why he chose to avoid addressing the objectivity debate in his New Yorker piece, choosing instead to focus on the comparative quality of amateur vs. professional reporting.

Jay Rosen, an advocate of citizen journalism at New York University and another journalism academic, in another long piece takes a more measured approach, saying:

I try to stay away from these extremes but journalists don’t seem to want that. They prefer what Lemann terms “the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations.” It’s the extreme claim that interests them. If they don’t have speakers to quote they just go without.

Reading these posts I feel a sense of dismay at a rather arid and wordy debate in which the web has released the writers even from the very loose space constraints of American newspapers.

The objectivity debate should have ended years ago and and that on citizen journalism is essentially doomed to a similarly circular path. We are in a period of rapid and unpredictable change: journalists who choose to be dinosaurs will become extinct but those who evolve will, I believe, emerge stronger.

Of course, we need to discuss these issues but, please, can we raise the tone of the debate to consider how we best harness the opening up of journalism to a more participatory audience.

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  • Michael Kenward

    A trivial intervention, I know, but one thing that differentiates the “professional” journalist from the amateur is experience. (I assume that “since then was journalism a profession?” contains a typo for when, in which case, I agree.)

    The stuff that masquerades as citizen journalism is from people with, at most, a couple of years in the business. That’s how long they have been able to perform.

    I knew everything when I started in journalism, but the longer I work, the less I know. But the more questions I can ask.

    In other words, I gradually learned that I knew not much.

    Let’s see where the influential bloggers five years from now. I pay more attention to journalists that I have followed for years – even if it is dismissive attention Ms Phillips – than to a new name on the block.

    Then again, a mere 35 years climbing up my own learning curve, maybe I am being ageist.

  • Tom Foremski

    Journalism is professional in that there are journalists who are paid to be journalists. Yet in the US, it seems as if there is the belief that unpaid citizen journalists can do a better job and therefore mainstream media is being disrupted by the legions of bloggers. This is nonsense but hardly anybody will challenge this because of the sacred notions around “community” and that the “community” knows best.

  • Trevor Butterworth

    I’d just like to point out to those who dismiss the idea of objectivity that philosophers have engaged with this problem for, what, a few thousand years? Some of the things they’ve written might usefully inform discussions by journalists. I would begin by noting that you can’t have a working notion of subjectivity without its much maligned opposite…

  • journo21

    Debates about objectivity and subjectivity tend to run into the buffers.

    There is certainly a place for committed journalism of which John Pilger is a classic example.

    But newspapers need reporters who, in the old language, tried to be objective.

    So accepting that everything we write reflects the way we see the world it is still vital to encourage reporters to seek to suspend judgment on any particular event on which they are writing and who seek to find as many different kinds of people who have witnessed the event, and who seek by careful interviewing to discover how they saw that event.

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