Joho the Blog » objectivity

March 13, 2013

[2b2k] Events are not the facts

The Tunisian newspaper Tunis Afrique Presse ran a story on the four priorities announced by that country’s new prime minister. It’s a straightforward story, and it is told in a factual, straightforward way.

But now I want to understand it. I know that some of the people involved in the revolution were disappointed that the new government was so Islamist. I know a moderate politician was assassinated there recently, which has destabalized the coalition government. But that’s about it for me. (I’m an American.) So, I read the four priorities of the new prime minister in the Tunisian article, and they seem positive from my point of view. But are they? Perhaps they are disappointing, or fail to address some key point, or are code for repressive policies. I don’t have enough context to know.

So, I go to Google and find a BBC article that fills in much of the context that I need. For example, I didn’t know the country has both a president and a prime minister. I couldn’t have told you anything at all about the coalition government, other than that it’s led by an Islamist party. To understand, we have to be just far enough away.

But what I really needed came from an “analysis” by Jim Muir embedded in the BBC article. Muir’s first paragraph says:

There was little in the announcement from Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh to inspire Ennahda’s [the ruling party] many critics to drop their opposition to the Islamist-led establishment in Tunisia.

Aha! Now I understand!

Of course, I’m assuming that Muir and I share some basic values, and that he’s attempting to give a sincere and honest assessment. I assume that based on cues: It’s the BBC, it’s marked as “analysis” and not “opinion,” the rhetoric isn’t obviously skewed away from my own views. To understand we need to have a lot in common with the person we’re learning from. I would thus be foolish to seek out, say, a Jihadist as my first source, although it might be quite interesting to read such a source as a second source.

We are right to learn what happened from people with whom we share values and assumptions because that way we don’t have to initially dig through a whole bunch of stuff that is either wrong from our point of view or incomprehensible to that point of view. But there’s also another reason:

I want to know what happened. But what happened in Tunisia was not that some personage uttered some words. What happened was that the Islamist party failed to forge a coalition that is likely to bring that country stability. In the same way, what happened last November was not the aggregated sum of factual accounts of how people marked X’s on ballots, and was not even the county-by-county vote tallies. If you started to tell me all of that, I’d be shouting until blue in the face, “But who won the election????” because that’s what happened. Events happen, and events have meaning, which means they only show up from a point of view. Events at the level of knowledge are not a mere recital of facts.

Newspapers for a long time have realized that much of their continuing value comes from the analyses they provide, not just the reportage. But the newspapers’ culture still tends in the other direction. And if you’re not sure that’s right, ask yourself why the analysis was a sidebar to the reportage, instead of the other way around.

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February 23, 2013

[2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs

I was steeling myself a couple of days ago to say something in a talk that believe but don’t want to: We shouldn’t feel guilty about relying on sources with whom we agree to contextualize breaking news. It’s ok. It’s even rational.

For example, if the Supreme Court hands down a ruling I don’t understand, or the FCC issues a policy that sounds like goobledygook to my ears, I turn to sites whose politics I basically agree with. On the one hand, I know that that’s wrong on echo chamber grounds: I’m getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology I’m not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to understand the implications of a change in Obamacare, I’m not going to go to a Tea Party site. [Hint: I'm a liberal.] Oh, I might go afterwards to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I’m going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.

Unfortunately, saying that in my talk meant I’d have to acknowledge that if I can to go to, say, DailyKos for primary contextualization, then it’s fine for right-wingers go to Fox News. Then I was going to have to explain how Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, since Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But that’s a distraction: If it’s ok for me to go to a lefty site to contextualize my news, it’s ok for you to go to your righty site. That feels wrong to me, and not only because I think right sites are wrong.

I finally realized that I’ m using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode. Fox News is like that. So are Slate and Salon, although to a lesser extent because they allow comments and because they present themselves as opinion sites, not news sites. Kos much less so because of the prominence of blogs and community. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks.

Because I’m old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are based on topic, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that’s what conversations are for. For example, a couple of the lists I’m on this morning are talking about what it would mean if Tom Wheeler [someone give that man a Wikipedia page!] were appointed as Chair of the FCC as seems increasingly likely. Tom comes out of the cable TV industry, which raises suspicions on my side of the swimming pool. So there has been an active set of discussions on my mailing lists among people who know much more than I do. The opinions range from he’s likely to be relatively centrist (although veering to the wrong side, where “wrong” is generally agreed upon by the list) to he’s never once stood up for users or for increasing competition and openness. Along the way, people have pointed out the occasional good point about him, although overall the tenor is negative and depressed.

Now, do I need to hear from the cable and telecoms industry about what a wonderful choice Tom would be? Sure, at some point. I even need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I’m trying to find out about who this Tom Wheeler guy is. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool — a hammer that’s all handle — if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it’s incremental: Given that I favor a wildly open Internet and given that I favor achieving this via vigorous competition, then what should I make of a Tom Wheeler FCC chairmanship? That’s my question this morning, not whether an wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.

So, I don’t feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.

And now, like the fine print in an offer that’s too good to be true, here are the caveats: My social networks may not be typical. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable filter bubble. I acknowledge the risks, but given the situatedness of understanding, every act of interpretation is risky.

And yet there is something right in what I’m saying. I know this because going to “opposition” sites to understand the meaning of particular FCC appointments would require me to uncertainly translate out of their own unstated assumptions, and sites that try for objectivity don’t have the nuanced conversations enabled by shared, unstated assumptions. So, there is something right in what I’m saying, as well as risk and wrongness.

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February 12, 2013

[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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November 15, 2010

Without agenda?

Chris Johns, editor in chief of the National Geographic, praises Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs documenting the lives of women members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:

…Stephanie has no agenda. She does not judge. There is nothing superficial or glib about her work. Her photographs are honest. They reflect her insatiable curiosity. They also reflect her compassion and sense of responsibility… Stephanie understands that others may want to pass judgment, but that is not her role. She photographs what she sees and provides the opportunity for insight. The rest is up to the reader.

In a world full of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. Yes, we will cover controversial topics like the FLDS, and yes, we will devote time and resources to get the story right. It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years. Our commitment is to show the world in all its complexity—and to publish the work of photographers, like Stephanie Sinclair, who can present that complexity with compassion and fairness.

Many of the adjectives praising the photos seem deserved, but not the “unbiased presentation of facts” and “she photographs what she sees” guff. Take a look at the photo that illustrates the blog post. It’s a terrific photo because it has such a strong point of view. Chris seems to have confused Stephanie with a camera.

Then, of course, there’s the inevitable fact that the editors at NatGeo decide which of her photographs make it in, culling based on which photos tell the story they want to tell.

Photography provides the clearest, and indeed most literal, example of Jay Rosen’s argument against “the view from nowhere.” Just try taking a photograph without having your camera point somewhere.

BTW, if the photograph illustrating Chris’ blog post isn’t proof enough for you, read the comments.

(Tip of the hat to Alan Mairson for the link.)

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July 18, 2010

[2b2k] Long-form and web-form arguments

I just re-read Jay Rosen’s piece on objectivity as persuasion more slowly than I did the first time. It’s like watching a master carpenter bang nails. Beautiful.

Jay’s post is #6 in a series. Jay tells me he has at least one more. So far, he’s written 15,000 words … and his commenters have written 96,000. (That second number seems way too high, but it’s based on my copying and pasting the comments (plus Jay’s integrated roundups) into a text editor. My clerical skills are poor, however.)

For Too Big to Know, I’ve written a section (which means I’ll probably be unwriting it tomorrow) taking these six pieces as an example of one type of long-form writing on the Web … or, more exactly, web-form writing. At the end of the discussion, I list advantages and disadvantages of Jay’s webby version of long-form argument versus standard, book-length, printed long-form arguments. In abbreviated form:

Advantages

1. The argument assumes a natural length.

2. The ground the argument covers is more responsive to the ground itself. Readers will point out neglected areas that the argument requires the author to talk about.

3. The work becomes embedded in a loose-edged discussion that more naturally reflects the messy, intertwingled nature of topics.

4. Readers are given fewer reasons to get off the bus midway. When Darwin writes in Chapter Four of On the Origin of Species that “He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory,” he’s opening the door and inviting passengers to get off. If Darwin had published in a webby way, he would have discovered unanticipated objections, and he would have been able to meet at least some of them.

5. Ideas get out to their public far faster than the old write-in-private, publish-in-public model.

6. The ideas more successfully escape the grasp of the author so that they can change the world.

7. Readers are more involved in the long argument the author used to be having with himself.

8. The author’s authority gets right-sized. Simply seeing the author engage with readers through comments tells the great percentage of readers who do not leave comments that the author recognizes that her/his words need defense, that her/his authority goes no further than the worth of the ideas.

9. We can see some of the effects of the writer’s words rippling through the culture.

Disadvantages

1. Some people don’t like to work this way.

2. Some arguments work better rhetorically if they are presented all at once.

3. Some ideas won’t do well commercially if developed in public for free. Note, though, that it’s not clear that our assumptions here are correct. Cory Doctorow, among others, has succeeded commercially, as well as in the impact of his ideas, by giving away online access to his books even as he sells hardcopies.

4. The published book is a traditional token of expertise and achievement. They look mighty impressive arrayed on one’s bookshelf.

5. It is harder for us to know what to believe, because more voices are present and in contention.

(By the way, these forms of argument are not mutually exclusive. Both and many more as well are present simultaneously on the Net. On the other hand, traditional long-form arguments posted on the Web inevitably become embroiled in web-form arguments, and thus are not unchanged.)

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June 3, 2010

[pdf] Truth, factchecking and online media

Brendan Greeley is moderating a panel on truth and factchecking. He begins by wondering if we need argument-checking as well as fact-checking.

Bill Adair of Michelle Bachman.) They also check pundits. And they have an Obameter that tracks how Obama is delivering on his 500+ campaign promises. They have also begun state sites. “It’s a whole new form of journalism,” he concludes.

Brendan: Couldn’t you have done this before the Net? No, says Bill. You couldn’t do the research. Plus, the corrections would have only run in the one edition of the paper, and if you missed it, you would have missed it forever.

There is a jurisprudence to the Truthometer, Bill says. They’ve had to invent how to distinguish an “untrue” from a “pants on fire.”

Jay Rosen says that 58 yrs ago, Joe McCarthy exploited defects in the media to make a name for himself, at great cost. Charges are news. What happens today is news. Senators are worth reporting on and have some credibility. News can’t be untold. Eventually, the media figured out that they’d been exploited; the press had been put in the service of untruth. So, reporters changed the rules: It suddenly became ok to do “interpretation.” I.e., it was ok for them to point out that a public official might have another motive for what he said. Fifty years later, politicians are exploiting different weaknesses. The best known is “he said she said” journalism. That’s a response to the quest for innocence, i.e., a demonstration that you are neutral in the cultural/political wars. Rather than having an agenda for the left or right, the press has an innocence agenda. He-said-she-said also helps journalists make their deadlines: you don’t have time to interrupt, so you get someone to state the other side.

In December, Jay tweeted that Meet the Press ought to fact check its guests and run the results on Wednesday. ABC has started doing it, for ABC This Week. MtP has refused, possibly because the person who’s been the most frequent guest is John McCain, who Politifact rates as a pants-on-fire liar. But, some college students have put up MeetTheFacts.com to

Marc Ambinder says that he’s getting more comfortable going outside of traditional journalism’s box, and getting angry about being told to stay inside of it. E.g., there’s nothing to the story of the White House offering a job to Sestak, but the press is covering it as if it’s an issue. The solution is for reputable journalists to say that it isn’t a story and then covering something else, but you’re dealing with an entrenched set of habits.

Bill points to TechCrunch as his favorite voice on the Web, which, as he says, is strongly voiced and non-neutral. Jay says that it used to be that you lost credibility if you judged, but that has flipped. This is part of a culture war in which the press is an object of attack, Jay says.

Brendan says that Jay was right 5 yrs ago to say that the war between journalism and blogging is over. Now there’s the same sort of controversy over factchecking. How do we get past the conflict, Brendan asks. Bill says we need to get past the “bucket of quotes” mentality. Factchecking should be a standard part of the journalist’s toolkit. Jay says that the birther phenomenon is interesting. That Obama was born in the US is as verified as a fact can get. But, within politics, the overriding of that fact has given rise to a political movement. There is no journalistic response to this. They can’t treat it as a claim within the spectrum; it’s actually a repudiation of journalism. Marc and Jay agree that the remedy is not within journalism but within the political system: Republicans ought to shame the birthers.

Q: What about factchecking that goes wrong?
A: There’s still room for journalists.
A: (jay) Reputation systems work.
A: (brendan) But email is anonymous.

Q: Reputation systems can be gamed. And we need the Sunday shows to do the factchecking on the same episode so people can see it.
A: Yes. We’re seeing progress, but… ABC deserves credit.

Brendan: There’s selection bias in factchecking. Factcheckers decide what to count as worth checking?
Bill: Is it something that Mabel — our typical reader — would wonder about?
Jay: News orgs used to establish trust by advertising their viewlessness. now they need to say where they’re coming from.

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July 19, 2009

Transparency is the new objectivity

A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is, well, epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can. [Tags: ]

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July 5, 2009

News is a network

Jeff Jarvis has a terrific, provocative post about the narcissism of newspapers in which he discusses a number of myths. The discussion afterwards is also really inte)resting. Here’s the comment I posted there (with a minor edit or two, all of which can really be reduced to the title of this post:

Terrific post and discussion. Thanks, Jeff.

May I add one more, related, myth to your collection, Jeff? Here goes: That it’s possible to cover the day’s events.

This is just a different way of putting your formulation “One man’s [sic] noise is another man’s news.” But I think it’s worth calling out since the promise of sufficiency is a big part of traditional newspapers’ promise of value to us: “Read us once in the morning, and after going through our pages, you will know everything you need to know.” (Do radio stations still make the ridicule-worthy “Give us 8 minutes and we’ll give you the world?” claim.) Yeah, no newspaper would ever maintain that claim seriously if challenged — they know better than their readers (or at least they used to) what they’re leaving out — but it’s at the base of the idea that reading a paper is a civic duty. The paper doesn’t give us everything but it gives us enough that reading one every day makes us well-informed citizens.

The notion that newspapers give you your daily requirement of global news — which works out to wondering, along with Howard, if there is such a thing as “news” — seems to me to be as vulnerable as the old idea of objectivity. Like objectivity: (1) It’s presented as one of the basic reasons to read a newspaper; (2) it hides the fact that it’s based on cultural values; and (3) it doesn’t scale well in the age of the Net.

Ultimately, this myth is enabled – as so many of the myths of news and knowledge are — by paper. Take away the paper and the newspaper doesn’t become a paperless newspaper. It becomes a network. That’s what’s happening now, IMO. From object to network … and networks are far far harder to “monetize” (giving myself a yech here) than objects.

(By the way, this is what I was trying to ask in the question I horribly botched at PDF. Sigh.)

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June 2, 2009

[berkman] Lokman Tsui: Beyond objectivity

Lokman Tsui is giving a Berkman talk called “Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the future of Journalism.” This is based on research he’s been doing for his doctoral dissertation.

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.

Lokman has been long interested in the Chinese Internet. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, and says that the Dutch often don’t like difference and diversity; they’re struggling with the idea of cultural complexity. After wrestling with what to study, he talked with Andrew Lih and came away wanting to study something that works but that we don’t understand well. Lokman chose Global Voices.

He’s interested in “how the world comes to know itself.” Lokman thinks journalism is crucial to this. James Carrey [sp?]: The public is what forms when people get together to talk about the news. Now, with the Internet, we have strangers everywhere. “What does that mean for the kind of journalism we want?” Lokman cites Habermas. We need to re-think journalism. “My purpose here is not to celebrate the Internet” or to dismiss the dangers, but to see it as an historic opportunity. By thinking about the global nature of communication, we can design better institutions.

His research begins with a study of GV as a a “newsroom.” What are the journalists’ routines? How do they socialize? How do they get news? E.g., it used to be easy and convenient to get info from gov’t sources, leading to a bias towards those sources. But the GV newsroom is different. Multicultural, global. And the newsroom is online, which leads to different interactions and shapes the news. We need a new conceptual toolkit to understand it.

Is GV journalism at all? GV is the trickster of journalism, in Lewis Hyde’s sense: it provokes us to respond and develop. GV and journalism are both ways of seeing. There are three ideals of journalism, intertwined with ideals of democracy. (1) Professional J, with liberal democracy, aimed at providing information. (2) Alternative media, with participatory democracy, aimed at representation. (3) Public journalism along with deliberative democracy, aimed at conversation.For a long time, we’ve taken objectivity as the “gold standard” of journalism. But this doesn’t make sense for public journalism; it makes no sense to ask whether a conversation is objectivity. How do we judge conversations? GV gives some hints. GV supports “communicative” democracy (a la Iris Young) , aiming at conversation, and replacing objectivity with hospitality. Habermas was thinking of coffee houses where people have to bracket differences to enable conversation. Hospitality enables conversations even when there’s a disparity of power. Differences can be very useful in having a good conversation. E.g., the powerful host serves the guest, subverting the power relationship. That’s hospitality. It’s a way of judging journalism as well, seeking to include difference and diversity.

Hospitality goes back to Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” His third law suggests that hospitality is a right based on the fact that we share a world. Kant says we cannot refuse a visitor if it will lead to his/her destruction. Hospitality is about access, recognition, and appropriate response. Arendt wrote about intersubjectivity as a way toward truth. We now have an abundance of stories on line. The constraints have changed, so the way we judge journalism should change. The challenge is that, while the cost of speech as gone down, our attention is still scarce.At RottenTomatoes.com, the objectivity is in the dry summary. But the subjective reviews are more interesting and useful. The professionals should aggregate and amplify all these voices. You need to put them all together. What would an aggregation site look like for the news? It’d look a bit like GV. You get curated news and posts and tweets, and then comments and conversation.

Q: [me] Why has the term “hospitality” become less used precisely when we are most in contact with different cultures?
A: It may be partially due to the paradox of choice, and a fear of the unknown that’s come about in recent years. We’re very happy to send our products, our TV programs, and our money everywhere. But the flow of people is restricted. And it’s a matter of being able to listen, which some places are better at than others. I’m playing with the hospitality ratio: how much you listen vs. how much you speak. E.g., how many films you import vs. expert. A few years ago I looked at how many links link back to you and how many links to others. I compared a-list blogs and newspapers. Newspapers didn’t link out much at all.

Q: How do we train people for journalism?
A: J is a craft as well as a profession. The Internet is making us think about J as a craft: pursuing excellence for its own sake in something you care about. Most GV people think of themselves as craftspeople. Q: Where’s the hook in what you’re saying? And, btw, journalist didn’t come out of people seeking the truth but hard-drinking people who were getting paid to present a point of view. Also, you might look at Erik Erikson.

Q: Hospitality is reciprocal. How might the concept of respect apply to journalism?
A: Reciprocity is a huge part of hospitality. It means journalist need to include more views.Q: There are many public spheres, even within GV.
A: Yes.

Q: Does GV connect to other kinds of civic spaces, other than journalism?
A: GV isn’t just a bunch of people trying to do journalism. It’s an infrastructure for other sorts of projects, such as translation, herdict.org… There are tons of other civic practices there. Q: [ethanz] I want to temper some of your optimism. I think it’s great that you’re offering a new criterion — hospitality — for evaluating journalism. I think these ideas get stronger in combination. My main criticism of your work is that you’re not critical enough of GV [which Ethan co-founded]. GV is at best partially successful.

[I missed the last few questions. Sorry.] [Tags: ]

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May 6, 2009

Evidence-based journalism

Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC‘s World Service and Global News, has posted an excellent engagement with Jay Rosen’s piece on He Said/ She Said journalism. He agrees that that type of journalism is a problem, but the problem isn’t with the He Said/She Said format. The problem is lazy journalism, says Richard. He points to some cases where we want a juxtaposing of views, which I’m sure Jay agrees with. Richard says his real concern is that some may take Jay’s piece as license to simply spout off. He writes:

Evidence-based reporting, the basis of objectivity (as distinct from impartiality) is in retreat and needs to be bolstered. He Said, She Said started life a hundred years ago as a journalistic discipline to counter yellow-journalism as Pulitzer and others tried to establish a degree of civic responsiblity in the press. It may have run its course but there are many who simply favour journalism of opinion – under the cloak of “calling the story”. I maintain we need evidence, fact-based reporting more than ever in a world awash with information rumour and opinion. That sometimes calls for a journalism of restraint – in which the New York Times (and the BBC) has an honourable tradition.

Evidence-based is a nice way of cutting through the argument about objectivity’s corrupt philosophical underpinnings. Of course, people are going to argue about what counts as evidence and what the evidence means — that is, I disagree with the implication of Richard’s blog’s tagline — “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — but evidence is an important term not used often enough in these discussions. Evidence provides a way to disagree that can progress towards truth, or at least towards agreement, or at a minimum, an understanding of where the actual disagreement lies.

Of course, I offer this opinion without any evidence :).

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