Objective versus opinion journalism, not an either/or proposition

by Russell's Rants

Originally published February 11, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor Gives Speech At Commonwealth Club In San Francisco

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Do we really need to choose between the two forms of journalism – subjective versus objective – or side more toward one than the other? Certainly there are outer boundaries that neither should cross. Even an opinion writer should not secretly be on the take as a paid appendage of a politician or corporation. And an objective journalist should not lazily rely on the false dichotomy of so called “he-said/she-said” reporting to treat informed and ridiculous views as though they are equal. But not every journalist, newspaper, blog and news broadcast needs to be either a crusading muckraker or Jim Lehrer, a man without a party, bias or seeming ability to control, let alone direct, a debate.

Why not enjoy both the front and opinion pages of the newspaper? Can’t I read the New York Times in the morning to get the facts and then watch Chris Matthews at night to make sense of those facts and get some opinionated perspective?

In The Origins of Objectivity in American Journalism, Richard Kaplan tells us that

. . . [J]ournalism’s professional ethic reflects the overarching structure of the political field with all its contentions about who is a proper public speaker and what is proper public rhetoric. When these broader political institutions and cultural ideas shift, those changes are inevitably reflected and refracted in the public mission of the press.

Thus, the partisan press of the Gilded Age; the objective press of the Progressive Age; and the fractured press of the Internet Age would seem to fit the moment.

But maybe the internet can serve to democratize journalism by allowing in more and differing voices, while maintaining the press’ Twentieth Century role as the neutral arbiter of the truth. After all, the news of the last century, with the Fairness Doctrine and all, was presently to us largely by white men of a certain age and education. In retrospect, it seems so Eisenhower Administration.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a good metaphor for what the internet brings to the dissemination of news and opinion. She is just the third woman but the first Latina on the Supreme Court. At her confirmation hearing, a faux controversy broke out about an earlier speech in which she said that a “wise Latina woman” might reach better conclusions than white males without the same experiences. In response, she had to explain that she was not advocating deciding cases based upon her personal bias.

Rather:

Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don’t have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying.

In other words, judges, or journalists, should not consciously interject their pre-existing biases in deciding a case, or reporting a story, but they may have a broader perspective making them susceptible to some facts that might be ignored by others. The more the internet eases access to and dissemination of news, the more likely we are to get at the broader truth, which can only come from a multitude of views. Some presented objectively, and some subjectively.

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