A New View Of Objectivity: Taking A Side p.65

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By: M.L. Stein Ethicist says following the myth of strict neutrality does readers a disservice

Journalism is being shaped by new forces that are making the shibboleth of objective reporting a dinosaur, but many news organizations still cling to old ways that distort the news and shortchange readers, an ethicist told a group of ombudsmen in San Diego.
In her speech, "The Death of Objective Reporting," Deni Elliott, professor of ethics and director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, said journalists today are caught in a "clash of paradigms" ? the old style of straight objective reporting vs. the new, which is largely driven by new information providers such as the Internet, cable, C-Span and Matt Drudge, who don't follow the old rules and have unlimited news holes.

OBJECTIVITY = POWERLESSNESS
An objective press in today's complex world "is a powerless press, used and exploited by powerful sources," Elliott contended. "Instead of objectivity, which forces reporters to be the mouthpieces of the powerful, citizens need journalistic perspective. If the job of journalists is to tell us what we need to know for self-governance, then some of what we need to know is who is trying to manipulate the journalists, how are they trying to do it and why." Under the new paradigm, she said, journalism should be an objective conduit but serve in an "active role brimming with professional perspective."
Speaking at the Organization of News Ombudsmen last month, Elliott, former TV newswoman and ethics and reporting coach at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal, traced the old paradigm ? straight objective reporting ? from World War II, when good and evil were clearly defined for Americans, through the McCarthy era in the 1950s when the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy spouted charges, usually reported by the press without challenge, of communists in government.
Watergate, she noted, marked the beginning of the new paradigm, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post uncovered the conspiracy by sidestepping official sources and using underground methods to obtain information. The two helped destroy "the notion that the job of the journalist is to report rather than create the news," Elliott said. "Well, the sad truth is that news has never existed like a wildflower in the meadow, waiting for someone to come along and discover it."
DISMISSING NEWS AS WILDFLOWER
Despite Watergate, the idea of unexplained objective reporting is still very much in vogue with the stress being on stories having only two sides and good guy/bad guy dimensions, Elliott went on.
"Anything more complicated than an earthquake is going to be a story with many sides," she said. "Journalists must choose among the many sides to provide focus to their stories. But when they choose only two ? giving an either/or perspective ? they lose the story."
Such failure, Elliott claimed, was demonstrated in the coverage of President Clinton's health-care initiatives during his first term. Journalists, she said, oversimplified the issue by reporting it only in terms of a choice between national health care or fee-for-service.

TAKING SIDES
"This either/or situation left millions of Americans and health-care providers unprepared for the managed care system that we now have and that already was evolving at the time," she pointed out. "Now we don't have either of the either/or that journalists told us about."
More recently, Elliott asserted, the Washington Post "intentionally lied" to readers in reporting on President Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case. The Post, she recalled, published a leaked transcript of the deposition and denials by Clinton's or Jones' attorneys that they had released the document.
"The quotes printed were probably accurate presentations of those named sources' denials, but logically, at least, one of them was false." Supporters of Clinton, Jones or special prosecutor Kenneth Starr "were indeed responsible for the leaked information. And the Washington Post knows who."

DISCOMFORT LEVEL
If a statement known to be false is worth publication, the speaker said, news organizations should help readers understand that some statements should not be believed. Elliott said the Post's stance in the case of the deposition reflected the old paradigm of straight, objective reporting. "If the thought of a new structure for news reporting is a little uncomfortable," she said, "let me say that none of the notions that we hold dear from the old paradigm: objectivity, external news, two-sided reporting, or named sourcing developed out of some fundamental ethical principle."
The news media, Elliott continued, also failed their audiences in reporting the dramatic story last month of the man who stopped his truck at the intersection of two Los Angeles freeways and killed himself with a shotgun after lighting the truck on fire and burning himself. The man blocked the freeways at rush hour to get the attention of TV cameras and air his gripe against HMOs, she said.
"The death of Mr. Daniel Jones was not news," Elliott maintained. "The visual telling of his last hour was not information that people needed to have for self-governance. People in L.A. needed to know that the freeways were blocked, and people everywhere need to know about the human tragedies caused by our nation's lack of a health-care policy. The first story could have been told in a l5-second bulletin."

SEARCH FOR MARKETS
Elliott said such lapses are to be expected because old methods of reporting are deeply ingrained. But she predicted that the media's search for specialized markets "points the way for the development of new understandings of what it means for journalists to act ethically in fulfilling their social function. The days of 'he said/she said' reporting are over ? and not a minute too soon. Because news is now a 24-hour all-the-news-all-the-time cycle, a news story has become a never-ending story with pieces added bit by bit and created by a wide variety of news organizations."
Ombudsmen also heard from Karin Winner, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who called them "mouthpieces for credibility, arbiters of fairness and good taste, and judges of what's right and wrong." Ombudsmen, she added, play a major role in convincing readers that newspapers are essential to a free society.
Noting that the Union-Tribune was one of the first newspapers to have an ombudsman, Winner said it is important that editors and ombudsmen support each other to maintain "the vital link between us and our constituents. You provide the proper measure of constructive criticism and consciousness-raising but also diligently defend our First Amendment rights when freedom is under constant attack, often unfortunately, because we've abused it."

?("Instead of objectivity, which forces reporters to be the mouthpieces of the powerful, citizens need journalistic perspective.") [Caption]
?(? Deni Elliott, ethicist and former newspaper
journalist ) [Photo & Caption]

?(Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 20, 1998) [Caption]

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