Posts Tagged ‘ bias ’

The objections to objectivity

At the dawn of my journalism career, I sat in a college classroom and listened as a central tenant of my new profession was ripped to shreds.

Ripped apart by a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist no less.

That man was Allister Sparks, a distinguised reporter and editor from South Africa whose front-line work exposing the corruption in his nation’s apartheid government had won him international respect and acclaim. Sparks was now a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaching a small seminar course to a handful of undergraduate journalism majors that included myself.

Just a sophomore at the time, my reporting experience was limited to a single internship and a bunch of articles for the Daily Tar Heel. It was still enough time to have the idea of objectivity firmly entrenched into my code of ethics, to the extreme that I would measure the column inches I gave each speaker at a debate — regardless if one had more interesting or insightful things to say — to make sure my coverage was equal and no one could accuse me of bias.

But the notion of objectivity, so engrained in the fundamentals of my intro journalism classes, was promptly tossed out the window by Sparks. Over the course of several classroom periods we debated how merely providing balanced coverage of both sides does readers a disservice. Sparks argued that only subjective choices regarding what is honest, morally sound and relevent produced reporting on controversial issues that made a difference. Had he taken the neutral route, Sparks said, his reporting would have merely propped up the injustices of apartheid rather than pushed the nation to democracy.

That class didn’t instantly make me a convert. But it planted a seed that grew over the next eight years as I worked in print journalism. Time and time again the “objective” reports simply transcribed two opposing views without any insight into which had merit, while the meaningful investigative pieces carried a fact-based viewpoint that highlighted the important information while dismissing the trivial. Over time I came around to the idea that true objectivity in journalism, even if obtainable, could never deliver the change and enlightenment the profession seeks to create.

Others monitoring the industry have also come around to this idea. Among those is Robert McChesney, whose exhaustive critique of the modern media landscape continues to dominate much of my class discussions for graduate school. McChesney derides objectivity as a tool inserted into the standard protocol of “professional” journalism by elites hoping to maintain the status quo. If reporters are shackled from revealing too much information that favors a particular side, then even dishonest positions can maintain credibility in the eyes of the public.

It’s one thing to be fair and accurate in reporting. It’s quite another to ignore obvious truths because doing so would reveal your preconceived beliefs and bias on a topic.

Strangely enough, it’s this desire to be freed from objectivity that has propelled me into public relations, an industry McChesney (and many of my old journalism colleagues) deride as ethically bankrupt for spinning facts to suit an agenda. There’s no doubt that does take place in some corners of the industry. But at its heart PR involves spreading information and viewpoints that need to be heard. If I help a courageous non-profit raise its voice to a large audience — as my fly-in project to Panama seeks to do — then I am reporting with a subjective agenda, but one that helps a worthwhile cause.

Objectivity has its merits, especially with regard to research papers and governmental reports. But when it comes to making a difference in communications, often the subjective approach proves more powerful.

Advertisements

Is PR the new partisan press?

Last fall I was helping a political newcomer with her campaign’s media relations, and it came time to warn her of PR’s limitations. I tried to explain that the press release I had written for her would not be reprinted in the local newspaper, but hopefully paraphrased to the extent that her views would be heard.

I ended up proving myself wrong when the newspaper printed quotes from the press release verbatim, without even calling her for a follow up. So much for my cautious view of PR’s power over print.

This is exactly the type of situation that would make Robert McChesney, a media critic and scholar whose book I’m now digesting for class, cringe with disgust. Or maybe he would just shake his head with acceptance. McChesney frequently makes the point that the PR industry has an ever-growing sphere of influence over what “objective” media report as news these days. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. In a televised interview on PBS, McChesney points out that in the 1960s there was roughly the same number of PR professionals and  journalists in the workforce. But now there’s a 3-1 ratio in favor of PR.

This statement left my classmates debating whether the papers they had worked/interned for would ever resort to the practice of printing press releases. The views were mixed.

Practices are mixed as well. The half-dozen community papers I’ve worked/interned for during the past decade would never quote a press release for a major story, but for briefs and featurey pages the prepared statement sometimes came through unfiltered. Other times the press release got a rewrite, but the content and message remained unchanged.

The more and more newsroom staffs are decimated by layoffs, the more frequent this practice will become. If a staff is going to produce some meaningful stories — or even just a fully filled edition — on a shoestring budget with declining manpower, that often means resorting to PR for the minor stuff. Ideally all media outlets would print only staff-written copy, but the economics of the industry today force these companies to cut staff or fall into the red.

Is this the end of objective, unbiased journalism? Perhaps. But it’s also a great opportunity for worthy causes to get their message out directly to the public, provided that they’re willing to create content. There’s a void right now that honest, engaging PR can fill. A non-profit can’t always find a reporter to tell its story anymore, but if it figures out how to tell the story on its own, there are outlets to find an audience.

This concept goes against the modern-day standards of the unbiased news outlets. But that model is quickly falling away, both because it now struggles to turn a profit and because most readers still see journalism as biased anyway. It’s worth noting that the news industry began in this country using a highly partisan model, where papers printed information with a specific agenda. McChesney even praises this model in his book, talking about how the multitude of strong views ensured that those in power would always be challenged somewhere.

Could a news industry where PR has a prominent place mark a return to the partisan model? Hopefully the arguments and agendas will be carried out with more civility and honesty than they did circa 1800, but we shouldn’t automatically fear journalism with an agenda. What matters in the end is that every voice — be it through a reporter or through PR — still gets heard.

Unmasking Internet ads in disguise

If there’s any governing mantra to the mishmash of advertising campaigns floating about the Internet these days it’s this — don’t make your ad look, sound or feel like an ad.

Easier said than done. Consumers are highly attuned to commercial persuasion and are always developing new defense mechanisms against the bombardment of ads assaulting their senses every day. So marketers instead make commercials entertaining, or they sneak product placement into scripted movies/television shows, or perhaps they just package the whole message as if it’s legitimate news.

This third tactic is perhaps the most effective, and disturbing. Many Americans, at least among older generations, were raised to trust that mainstream news sources are objective with regards to commercial interests and will only praise a product if it meets exacting standards. So when they see print ads made to look like newspaper articles or TV commercials made to look like news broadcasts, significant credibility is fraudulently conveyed.

Maybe that’s the thinking behind the Federal Trade Commission’s newest regulations on bloggers touting a product. The guidelines stipulate that bloggers must disclose all ties to a company they write about, all the way down to any free samples they receive in order to review the item. Among certain demographics, blogs are now trusted sources of information. If a blogger is getting paid by a company in order to garner more favorable copy, the F.T.C. reasons, readers have a right to know.

It’s a fair point, but one open to scrutiny for its double standard. Both bloggers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau have lashed out at the regulations only targeting blogs and not traditional media outlets. A blogger faces a possible $11,000 fine if he fails to disclose that a record label sent him a free CD that he reviewed. But if a music critic in a newspaper or magazine doesn’t make the same disclosure, there’s no punishment. And these critics get free goodies all the time.

The regulations also open up a slippery slope of potential new restrictions. How are Tweets and Facebook postings, with severe constraints on content length, supposed to disclose biased reviews? And what about traditional media outlets that do glowing feature stories on a prominent advertiser? Why are they left off the hook for such highly deceptive behavior?

It’s the F.T.C.’s job to ensure truth in advertising. Sharpening the line between independent content and paid advertising is an important part of that mission and worthy of some new regulations. The problem comes in singling out bloggers as the only ones engaging in the shady practice. There’s plenty of culprits to go around. In the end it will take a more savvy consumer and some more practical legal guidelines to unmask all these disguised ads.