A special report on the news industry: Impartiality
In the internet age, transparency may count for more than objectivity
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition
ONE OF THE world’s most profitable news organisations is Fox News, an American cable-news channel that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In 2010 it is thought to have made a profit of over $800m on revenues of $1.5 billion, according to SNL Kagan, a research firm—more than its rivals CNN and MSNBC put together. Fox was set up in 1996 by Roger Ailes, a former media adviser to three Republican presidents, specifically to appeal to conservative viewers. Its star hosts, such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, offer distinctively right-wing opinion and commentary, though the channel insists that its news reporting is unbiased. Fox is famous for being opinionated rather than for being profitable. Bill Shine, head of programming at Fox News, thinks these two characteristics are related. “We offer opinions not seen anywhere else,” he says.
In a world where millions of new sources are emerging on the internet, consumers are overwhelmed with information and want to be told what it all means. Fox is not the only news organisation that is unafraid to say what it thinks and is prospering as a result. Other examples include Al Jazeera’s unabashed support for reform in the Arab world, Jon Stewart’s satirical take on the news in the “Daily Show”, Rush Limbaugh’s hugely popular conservative radio show or even The Economist. Perhaps significantly, MSNBC, which has lately been positioning itself to appeal to a left-wing crowd, is picking up viewers (see chart 5). “It’s not quite as political as what Fox does,” says Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, “but we definitely have a progressive sensibility, a sensibility to the left.”
CNN, meanwhile, continues to lose out to its more strident rivals, in prime time at least. Mr Griffin, himself a former CNN employee, reckons that the channel has failed to move with the times by favouring the “disinterested, at-arm’s-length anchor”. Mark Whitaker, CNN’s managing editor, disagrees. He says his (highly profitable) channel is known for “integrity and avoiding cheap opinion”, and for providing more global coverage than its rivals. “In this day and age you should have a point of view, but not necessarily one that’s rooted in knee-jerk ideology,” he says.
The idea that journalists should be impartial in reporting news is a relatively recent one. “A lot of newspaper people treat it as one true religion, when it’s an artefact of a certain set of economic and historical circumstances,” says Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. America’s Founding Fathers nurtured a vibrant, fiercely partisan press with no licensing of newspapers or policing of content. During the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance, for several reasons. By appealing to a wider audience, they were able to increase their circulation and hence their advertising revenue. Consolidation, and the emergence of local newspaper monopolies, also promoted impartiality. “When you are the only paper in town, you can’t risk pissing off liberals by being too conservative, or vice versa,” says Mr Benton.
With the professionalisation of journalism in the early 20th century came a more detached style of reporting. In effect, a deal was struck between advertisers, publishers and journalists, says New York University’s Jay Rosen. Journalists agreed not to alienate anyone so that advertisers could aim their messages at everyone. That way the publishers got a broader market and the journalists got steady jobs but gave up their voices. Objectivity is “a grand bargain between all the different players”, says Mr Rosen. When radio and television emerged, America’s private broadcasters embraced impartiality in their news reporting to maximise their appeal to audiences and advertisers and avoid trouble with regulators.
These days different countries have different preferences. In Europe overt partisanship in newspapers is widespread and state-run television channels often have partisan allegiances: Italy’s three state channels are each aligned with specific parties, for example. The political independence of the BBC in Britain is unusual, and is in any case contested by critics who complain that it is too left-leaning. In India 81 of the 500 satellite-TV channels that have sprung up in the past 20 years are news channels, most of them catering to specific political, religious, regional, linguistic or ethnic groups. Only a few take an objective, pan-Indian approach, says Daya Thussu of the University of Westminster.
If impartiality is already the exception rather than the rule, the internet is now eroding it further. In America it undermines local news monopolies by reducing advertising revenue and providing access to a wide range of alternative sources, thus undoing Mr Rosen’s grand bargain. In Britain and other countries where news broadcasters are required to be impartial, at least in theory, the convergence of television and the web makes such rules seem outdated. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, said at a seminar last December that he thought the case for polemical, opinionated news channels was “persuasive”, though the BBC’s own news coverage would remain impartial. The internet has also compressed the news cycle, with headlines delivered instantly by smartphone or Twitter, creating a demand for immediate analysis and opinion.
Moreover, the internet makes it easier than ever to find and synthesise different views, says Krishna Bharat, the creator of Google News. The idea for the site occurred to him in the months after the attacks of September 11th 2001, when he became frustrated by the inefficiency of visiting lots of different websites to get a broader picture of the news. When news comes from multiple sources, a mix of strong opinions becomes more desirable. “It’s time to embrace the fact that certain news sources have a point of view, and that’s why they have the following they do,” says Mr Bharat. “I think there’s a place for all of them.” By undermining many of the traditional arguments for objectivity, the internet may thus cause a wider “Foxification” of news and a return to the more opinionated and partisan media landscape of the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Almost every country that has an open society is going to have some kind of opinion television programming,” says Mr Shine.
This does not mean that all news organisations should take overtly political positions. Mr Rosen is just one of many media watchers who think it is time to release journalists from the straitjacket of pretending that they do not have opinions—what he calls the “view from nowhere”. Journalists signal their impartiality by quoting people on opposing sides of an argument and avoid drawing conclusions, even when the facts are clear. “There have been times in the past when CNN has been criticised for being neutral—not only non-partisan, but not really having positions,” says Mr Whitaker. But lately, he says, “we have been stronger in taking a point of view when we think it is supported by our reporting and by facts.”
One way forward, suggests Mr Rosen, is to abandon the ideology of viewlessness and accept that journalists have a range of views; to be open about them while holding the reporters to a basic standard of accuracy, fairness and intellectual honesty; and to use transparency, rather than objectivity, as the new foundation on which to build trust with the audience. He cites the memorable phrase coined by David Weinberger, a technology commentator, that “transparency is the new objectivity”. In part, this involves journalists providing information about themselves. For example, on AllThingsD, a technology-news site owned by Dow Jones, all the journalists provide an “ethics statement” with information about their shareholdings, financial relationships and, in some cases, their personal life (two journalists are married to employees at large technology companies). “People are more likely to trust you if they know where you are coming from,” says Mr Rosen.
Transparency also means linking to sources and data, something the web makes easy. Bloggers have long used the technique to back up their views. Ezra Klein, a blogger at the Washington Post, has suggested that news organisations should publish full transcripts of interviews online. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, a fan of radical transparency if ever there was one, makes a similar argument. “You can’t publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results. That should be the standard in journalism,” he said last year. Mr Weinberger has observed on his blog that transparency prospers in a linked medium: “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.”