Judging only from the current state of journalism, it would seem that blogs and the Internet have introduced a new challenge to the longstanding, steadfast tradition of objective journalism – where the writer is not an individual, but merely a catalyst through which the story flows, unmarred, from pure fact to written word.
It would seem that social media and the proliferation of the citizen-as-reporter pose a threat to the natural state of journalism.
But that’s not the case at all. In the longer story of journalism and its developing styles and edicts, the standard of objectivity is only a blip on the screen – an experiment that never fully took hold, and might be on its way out for good.
At the birth of journalism as we know it, in the 1600s, considerations of objectivity and personal involvement weren’t part of the equation. The idea was to get information to the public, whether by eyewitness accounts, second-, third- or fifth-hand accounts told as if they were first-hand, convenient fabrications, wild speculations, personal axe-grinding or any combination of the above.
“British Troops, unmolested and unprovoked, wantonly, and in a most inhuman manner, fired upon and killed a number of our countrymen,” was perfectly acceptable language for a news story in 1775, when it appeared in The Massachusetts Spy. If that line crossed a New York Times editor’s desk today, he would probably change it to something like, ‘British troops fired upon and killed a number of Americans,’ harder to dispute, but also less interesting to read.
It wasn’t until about a century ago – even as the muckrakers were setting the standards for hard-hitting investigative journalism – that objectivity became a concern.
“Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion,” announced the “Canons of Journalism,” published in 1922. “News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.” Dry and distant style became the standard toward which journalists were expected to strive, as it still is today in most circles.
But in the same decade that the “Canons of Journalism” came out and told reporters to be objective, some found the model insufficient. Vera Connolly wrote her 1929 Good Housekeeping article, “The Cry of a Broken People,” from the perspective of “we,” letting on immediately that she felt connected to what was happening. She was part of the scenes she described, not hovering above like an impartial specter.
She retold the complaints she heard at a meeting about the quality of government boarding schools for Indian children. An objective reporter wouldn’t have allowed the sympathetic pleas of parents for better treatment of their children to dominate the article, as she did, let alone to come in right at the top of the piece so that the reader reads the rest of the article with the image in his head of “children so underfed that they snatch like little famished animals at plates of bread.”
And let’s not forget Hunter S. Thompson, whose work flies gleefully in the face of objectivity. By the strictest standards, Thompson might not even be considered a journalist, but a memoirist who writes about being a journalist. His piece, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” can hardly be considered coverage of the Kentucky Derby – it’s an essay about Thompson’s experience covering the Derby. Even the first word of the piece is “I.”
“I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal,” Thompson begins. In case a reader might think he was just setting the scene in the first person but would later transition to focus on the Derby, his supposed subject matter, they needn’t fear. The rest of the piece consists almost entirely of scenes of Thompson’s thoughts, actions, and interactions with other people. He uses the pronoun “I” 123 times in the piece, which is just over 7,000 words long.
Yet Thompson is one of the most well-known and celebrated journalists in history, and only one member of the group of journalists who popularized the “new journalism” – this unapologetically biased journalism where the reporting is woven in with a personal narrative, often the story of the reporting process itself.
Though, while it’s called new journalism, this style, which has since been picked up and put on a pedestal by every bright-eyed blogger who thinks they have something important to say, was less abomination and more return to journalism’s roots.
Journalism functioned without objectivity, and ever since it’s been introduced as the supposed norm, reporters have been rebelling against it.
And even if, despite their numbers and popularity, the subjective journalists who use personal narratives to relay the news were always outliers, one phenomenon promises to bring that style back to center stage, and maybe even to abolish the unnatural goal of objectivity for good.
That phenomenon is the Internet.
If news comes from Twitter feeds and blogs, whose writers don’t try to remove themselves, there can be no pretense of impartiality. Social media – not just in the nominal sense of the sites invented for communication, but in the cultural sense that news is becoming more and more social – relies on the opinions and experiences of dozens, hundreds or thousands of individuals, and it’s up to the reader to filter through the abundance of information and decide what to believe.
I believe, in my personal, subjective opinion, that the people informing the people through social media is closer to the ideal journalism that the founding fathers had in mind than a giant press machine that meticulously filters humanity out of news and delivers the same message to the doorstep of every American.
by Lilly O’Donnell