Voices

Paper-thin argument

As the newspaper declines, so does the rationale for conventional objectivity

Issue: "The people have spoken," Feb. 4, 2006

Sometimes philosophical debates are just word-flinging. At other times, though, material change allows innovators to put new ideas into practice quickly. This is such a time for journalism.

For nearly two decades I've been writing now and then about the shortcomings of the conventional journalistic definition of "objectivity" as purportedly value-free neutrality. I've noted its philosophical and practical limitations and proposed that Christians should practice biblical objectivity: Since God knows the real nature of things and we do not, we should as much as possible-given our position as fallen sinners-try to see everything through the lens of God's inspired book.

Two books of mine from the '80s and '90s that are now online, Prodigal Press and Telling the Truth, lay out that analysis. Some Christian journalists subscribe to it but others remain wedded to conventional objectivity, arguing that the 20th-century doctrine is our best bet for getting mostly factual information to the most people. Now, though, the internet is chopping away at that rationale.

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Think of how we get news and views. Say a half-dozen people watch the State of the Union address. They all agree on the who, what, when, and where, but they differ on the significance and meaning of what they've heard. You don't expect each to offer, in carefully tailored tones, a "balanced" account. You expect each to tell you what he thinks is important. You'll evaluate the perspectives, taking into account both the specific detail offered and the reliability of each analyst, and then arrive at your own conclusions.

Conventional doctrines of objectivity gained traction because newspaper readers could not hear directly those half-dozen accounts. Few people subscribed to more than one newspaper (now, few cities have more than one), so it made sense to argue that the newspaper should report all the different viewpoints neutrally. The odds of getting at the truth would be lessened if we heard only one subjective account and not the other five, so it made sense to give the reporter the role of evaluator and presenter, and demand that he not take sides.

One-source reliance is rapidly becoming outmoded. Prior to the Internet Age, I would have had to subscribe to a dozen newspapers, flip through all of them, and buy a hundred birdcages to give the pages appropriate final resting places. Now I check the news every morning by quickly hitting a variety of websites and blogs. Millions of others also are trading in old, one-stop information-shopping for the freedom to read for themselves multiple perspectives.

This new freedom also allows journalists to present their own perspectives with the knowledge that readers can readily access opposing views. Similarly, the "fairness doctrine" in broadcasting is outmoded: It's not unfair or socially irresponsible to present one point of view when viewers or listeners can instantly move to dozens of others.

This doesn't mean that journalists should ignore opposing views, because their stories will be stronger if they fairly cover and quote opponents. It does mean that publications can and should honestly say where they're coming from, instead of pretending not to have opinions. As newspaper publishers increasingly perform holding actions with their paper products and throw their new investment dollars into websites and blogs, this move toward transparency should pick up speed.

The speed with which the web captures advertisers will determine how soon newspaper deaths bury the doctrine of conventional objectivity. Already, more classified advertising is going electronic as Craig's Lists and others become popular. Local department stores and supermarkets now buoy newspaper revenues and allow publishers to keep the sales price well below the paper- and gasoline-driven cost of production and distribution. But as those costs rise and ad revenues decrease, the dinosaurs will give way to the internet mammals.

Magazines like WORLD still have a future, because once-a-week distribution of 48 to 64 pages is more economically feasible than daily distribution of masses of newsprint. But as technology moves to speed up downloads of pictures and words, and to create a computer screen as light, flexible, and readily readable as a piece of paper . . .

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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