Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Margaret Sullivan on Objectivity

[2b2k] Margaret Sullivan on Objectivity

Magaret Sullivan [twitter:Sulliview] is the public editor of the New York Times. She’s giving a lunchtime talk at the Harvard Shorenstein Center [twitter:ShorensteinCtr] . Her topic is: how is social media is changing journalism? She says she’s open to any other topic during the Q&A as well.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Margaret says she’s going to talk about Tom Kent, the standards editor for the Association Press, and Jay Rosen [twitter:jayrosen_nyu] . She begins by saying she respects them both. [Disclosure: Jay is a friend] She cites Tom [which I'm only getting roughly]: At heart, objective journalism sets out to establish the facts, state the range of opinions, and take a first cut at which arguments are the most rigorous. Journalists should show their commitment to balance by keeping their opinions to themselves. Tom wrote a memo to his staff (leaked to Romenesca
) about expressing personal opinions on social networks. [Margaret wrote an excellent column about this a month ago.]

Jay Rosen, she says, thinks that objectivity is an outdated concept. Journalists should tell their readers where they’re coming from so you can judge their output based on that. “The grounds for trust are slowly shifting. The view from nowhere is getting harder to trust, and ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ is become more trustworthy.” [approx] Objectivity is a cop out, says Jay.

Margaret says that these are the two poles, although both are very reasonable people.

Now she’s going to look at two real situations. The NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Jody Rudoren is relatively new. It is one of the most difficult positions. Within a few weeks she had sent some “twitter messages” (NYT won’t allow the word “tweets,” she says, although when I tweeted this, some people disagreed; Alex Jones and Margaret bantered about this, so she was pretty clear about the policy.). She was criticized for who she praised in the tweets, e.g., Peter Beinart. She also linked without comment to a pro-Hezbollah newspaper. The NYT had an editor “work with her” on her social media; that is, she no longer had free access to those media. Margaret notes that many believe “this is against the entire ethos of social media. If you’re going to be on social media, you don’t want a NYT editor sitting next to you.”

The early reporting from Newtown was “pretty bad” across the entire media, she says. In the first few hours, a shooter was named — Ryan Lanza — and a Facebook photo of him was shown. But it was the wrong Ryan Lanza. And then it turned out it was that other Ryan Lanza’s brother. The NYT in its early Web reporting said “according to early Web reports” the shooter was Ryan Lanza. Lots of other wrong information was floated, and got into early Web reports (although generally not into the N YT). “Social media was a double edged sword because it perpetuated these inaccuracies and then worked to correct them.” It often happens that way, she says.

So, where’s the right place to be on the spectrum between Tom and Jay? “It’s no longer possible to be completely faceless. Journalists are on social media. They’re honing their personal brands. Their newspapers are there…They’re trying to use the Web to get their message out, and in that process they’re exposing who they are. Is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing for us to know what a political reporter’s politics are? I don’t think that question is easily answerable now. I come down a little closer to where Tom Kent is. I think that it makes a lot of sense for hard news reporters … for the White House reporter, I think it makes a lot of sense to keep their politics under wraps. I don’t see how it helps for people to be prejudging and distrusting them because ‘You’re in the tank for so-and-so.’” Phil Corbett, the standards editor for the NYT, rejects the idea there is no impartial journalism. He rejects that it’s a pretense or charade.

Margaret says, “The one thing I’m very sure of is that this business of impartiality and balance should no longer mean” going down the middle in a he-said-she-said. That’s false equivalence. “That’s changing and should change.” There are facts that we fully believe are true. Evolution and Creationism are not equivalents.

Q&A

Q: Alex Jones: It used to be that the NYT wouldn’t let you cite an anonymous negative comment, along the lines of “This or that person sucks.”

A: Everyone agrees doing so is bad, but I still see it from time to time.

Q: Alex Jones: The NYT policy used to be that you must avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. E.g., a reporter’s son was in the Israeli Army. Should that reporter be forbidden from covering Israel?

A: WhenEthan Bronner went to cover Israel, his son wasn’t in the military. But then his son decided to go join up. “It certainly wasn’t ideal.” Should Ethan have been yanked out the moment his son joined? I’m not sure, Margaret says. It’s certainly problematic. I don’t know the answer.

Q: Objectivity doesn’t always draw a clear line. How do you engage with people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to yours?

A: Some issues are extremely difficult and you’re probably not going to come to a meeting of the minds on it. Be respectful. Accept that you’re not going to make much headway.

Q: Wouldn’t transparency fragment the sources? People will only listen to sources that agree.

A: Yes, this further fractures a fractured environment. It’s useful to have some news sources that set out to be in neither camp. The DC bureau chief of the NYT knows a lot about economics. For him to tell us about his views on that is helpful, but it doesn’t help to know who he voted for.

Q: Martin Nisenholz] The NYT audience is smart but it hasn’t lit up the NYT web site. Do you think the NYT should be a place where people can freely offer their opinions/reviews even if they’re biased? E.g., at Yelp you don’t know if the reviewer is the owner, a competitor… How do you feel about this central notion of user ID and the intersection with commentary?

A: I disagree that readers haven’t lit up the web site. The commentary beneath stories is amazing…

Q: I meant in reviews, not hard news…

A: A real ID policy improves the tenor.

Q: How about the snarkiness of twitter?

A: The best way to be mocked on Twitter is to be earnest. It’s a place to be snarky. It’s regrettable. Reporters should be very careful before they hit the “tweet” button. The tone is a problem.

Q: If you want to build a community — and we reporters are constantly pushed to do that — you have to engage your readers. How can you do that without disclosing your stands? We all have opinions, and we share them with a circle we feel safe in. But sometimes those leak. I’d hope that my paper would protect me.

A: I find Twitter to be invaluable. Incredible news source. Great way to get your message out. The best thing for me is not people’s sarcastic comments. It’s the link to a story. It’s “Hey, did you see this?” To me that’s the most useful part. Even though I describe it as snarky, I’ve also found it to be a very supportive place. When you take a stand, as I did on Sunday about the press not holding things back for national security reasons, you can get a lot of support there. You just have to be careful. Use it for th best possible reasons: to disseminate info, rather than to comment sarcastically.

Q: Between Kent and Rosen, I don’t think there is some higher power of morality that decides this. It depends on where you sit and what you own. If you own NYT, you have billions of dollars in good will you’ve built up. Your audience comes to you with a certain expectation. There’s an inherent bias in what they cover, but also expectations about an effort toward objectivity. Social media is a distribution channel, not a place to bear your soul. A foreign correspondent for Time made a late-night blog post. (“I’d put a breathalyzer on keyboards,” he says.) A seasoned reporter said offhandedly that maybe the victim of some tragedy deserved it. This got distributed via social media as Time Mag’s position. Reporters’ tweets should be edited first. The institution has every right to have a policy that constrains what reporters say on social media. But now there are legal cases. Social media has become an inalienable right. In the old days, the WSJ fired a reporter for handing out political leaflets in a subway station. If you’re Jay Rosen and your business is to throw bombs at the institutional media, and to say everything you do is wrong [!], then that’s ok. But if you own a newspaper, you have to stand up for objectivity.

A: I don’t disagree, although I think Jay is a thoughtful person.

Q: I blog on the HuffPo. But at Harvard, blogging is not considered professional. It’s thought of as tossed off…

A: A blog is just a delivery system. It’s not inherently good or bad, slapdash or well-researched. It’s a way to get your message out.

A: [Alex Jones] Actually there’s a fair number of people who blog at Harvard. The Berkman Center, places like that. [Thank you, Alex :)]

Q: How do you think about the evolution of your job as public editor? Are you thinking about how you interact with the readers and the rhythm of how you publish?

A: When I was brought in 5 months ago, they wanted to take it to the new media world. I was very interested in that. The original idea was to get rid of the print column all together. But I wanted to do both. I’ve been doing both. It’s turned into a conversation with readers.

Q: People are deeply convinced of wrong ideas. Goebbels’ diaries show an upside down world in which Churchill is a gangster. How do you know what counts as fact?

A: Some things are just wrong. Paul Ryan was wrong about criticizing Obama for allowing a particular GM plant to close. The plant closed before Obama took office. That’s a correctable. When it’s more complex, we have to hear both sides out.


Then I got to ask the last question, which I asked so clumsily that it practically forced Margaret to respond, “Then you’re locking yourself into a single point of view, and that’s a bad way to become educated.” Ack.

I was trying to ask the same question as the prior one, but to get past the sorts of facts that Margaret noted. I think it’d be helpful to talk about the accuracy of facts (about which there are their own questions, of course) and focus the discussion of objectivity at least one level up the hermeneutic stack. I tried to say that I don’t feel bad about turning to partisan social networks when I need an explanation of the meaning of an event. For my primary understanding I’m going to turn to people with whom I share first principles, just as I’m not going to look to a Creationism site to understand some new paper about evolution. But I put this so poorly that I drew the Echo Chamber rebuke.

What it really comes down to, for me, is the theory of understanding and knowledge that underlies the pursuit of objectivity. Objectivity imagines a world in which we understand things by considering all sides from a fresh, open start. But in fact understanding is far more incremental, far more situated, and far more pragmatic than that. We understand from a point of view and a set of commitments. This isn’t a flaw in understanding. It is what enables understanding.

Nor does this free us from the responsibility to think through our opinions, to sympathetically understand opposing views, and to be open to the possibility that we are wrong. It’s just to say that understanding has a job to do. In most cases, it does that job by absorbing the new into our existing context. There is a time and place for revolution in our understanding. But that’s not the job we need to do as we try to make sense of the world pressing in on us. Reason can’t function in the world the way objectivity would like it to.


I’m glad the NY Times is taking these questions seriously,and Margaret is impressive (and not just because she takes Jay Rosen very seriously). I’m a little surprised that we’re still talking about objectivity, however. I thought that the discussion had usefully broken the concept up into questions of accuracy, balance, and fairness — with “balance” coming into question because of the cowardly he-said-she-said dodges that have become all too common, and that Margaret decries. I’m not sure what the concept of objectivity itself adds to this mix except a set of difficult assumptions.

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