What is the value of a journalism outlet that abandons objectivity?
Eric Odom, founder of American Liberty Alliance (ALA), the group that launched and organized the tea party movement across the country, announced Friday what he calls a movement-minded news portal and his answer to the the Huffington Post.
Read more at Dawn Teo’s blog on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dawn-teo/tea-party-founder-announc_b_300347.html
Essentially, Odom feels that the Huffington Post displays a liberal bias and performs a role as a one-stop aggregator of news content for liberal-minded consumption. He says,
“I mean, I despise a lot of what is written at Huffington Post. But the reality is… they’re good at it. They cover very wide ranges of topics and they cover them well. On our side you need to visit a good ten sites in the morning to get the full web digest. On their side you just go to Huffington Post and you know about everything that’s happening.”
Teo takes exception to his assertion, citing aHuffPo’s open editorial policy, where bloggers may post whatever content they like, as long as it is accurate. But, what if we assume that Odom is right, that this process, or even the self-selection of bloggers who apply to post under the Huffington Post masthead, does introduce a liberal bias to the content? Does this undermine HuffPo’s credibility, or would creating an outlet emphasizing opposing viewpoints be the proper response?
I’ll get back to this question in a minute.
Transparency vs. Objectivity
I have been thinking about transparency vs. objectivity in recent months, after reading two articles:
Putting Man Before Decartes by John Lukacs and Transparency is the New Objectivity by David Weinberger
They both describe a shift in the value of the role of a publishing journalist (for example), from an objective mediator of news content to a reliable curator. The consumer of news then takes up the responsibility for arbitration, the decisions about which facts are true and which arguments are persuasive after evaluating multiple perspectives. Lukacs and Weinberger claim that transparency rather than objectivity represents a more authentic role in what Weinberger calls the “ecology of knowledge.” The traditional assumption of objectivity, he feels, is an aspiration that is impossible to truly achieve.
Claims of objectivity are always open to question. They are often refuted, so when you accept a source’s evaluation, you still must cite the evidence that underlies the argument. This means that an objectivity claim must be evaluated by the reader in any case, so it may be better to drop the pretense and leave it up to the reader to decide in the first place. Weinberger suggests that “transparency” is an alternative goal that replaces some of the function of objectivity, recognizing that the perspective offered by a blogger or journalist no longer can be a “stopping point for knowledge.” Instead, journalists must build their credibility on transparency, which exists where a reader “can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it.” The reader can follow the logic and assess the validity of the conclusion. It isn’t necessary to rely on a claim of objectivity to believe. Over time, credible sources establish their reliability; you become familiar with their premises, and maybe even their biases. But they don’t establish objectivity, and they don’t need to, because their goal in a linked knowledge system is not to establish stopping points.
Instead of attempting to be objective, Lukacs suggests that a historian could aim for a different goal, understanding. He says, “The ideal of objectivity is the antiseptic separation of the knower from the known. Understanding involves an approach to bring the two closer” and adds, “All knowledge is personal.” A reader’s goal in the pursuit of knowledge is to bring it closer to oneself. When reading news of distant events, the account of an observer who promises objectivity and delivers a story “balanced” with quotes from a couple opposing perspectives fails to make the best understanding of the issues at hand possible for the reader. Side A says, “…” Side B says, “…” End of story? This type of journalism is a stopping point.
There are dangers to pursuing “objectivity” by “balance.” J. Bradford DeLong posts an example about Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald. He cites Michael Massing, writing for the New York Review of Books, who with one hand praises Greenwald’s abandonment of “balance” in his columns and with the other criticises the “polemical excesses,” which prevent Greenwald from coming up with a practical argument. But it is precisely the fact that Greenwald holds to strong principles without equivocation that allows his readers to get something of value from his arguments. It may be that a politician could legitimately believe that there are some “practical considerations” that justify a program of interrogation-by-torture in some instances, but it is not Glenn Greenwald’s role to dilute his every article with that concession. A reader can see through his posts to the principles he holds, and when readers feels there is an exception to one of those principles, they can add the perspectives of others justifying the exception to their understanding. As DeLong notes, Massing fails to reference the “persuasive” arguments against Greenwald anyway. This is one of the “stop sign” moves that doesn’t work in the ecology of linked information. It is a claim of objectivity, that (I think) fails to counter Greenwald’s transparency.
Transparency does not undermine the authority of a source; it may actually enhance credibility. Furthermore, lack of transparency can undermine a claim of authority. If Massing had linked to the President’s supporters who had persuasively countered Greenwald, his assertion could be upheld.
I see the role of a news aggregator, such as the Huffington Post and Eric Odom’s proposed right-wing news portal, as a curator of content. These sites organize and present a particular take on the relevant news and commentary of the day. Odom notes that the Huffington post has become a very successful news curator for people sharing a liberal perspective, meaning that liberal readers go there and get a personally satisfying dose of news content. He believes that HuffPo’s curation leans toward perspectives that embody a particular bias, and he wants to counter it with an alternative of his own that leans in another direction. It looks like he is accepting that a transparently partisan curator is a necessary player in the news ecology, that transparency supersedes objectivity.
The important point here to me is that HuffPo’s curation of content has created a one-stop-shop of value for liberal news readers. Curation of content is one of the primary roles of a publishing Web citizen. In his presentation at the 2009 Open Education Conference in Vancouver BC, Gardner Campbell identifies it among three “recursive practices” that students engage in on the Internet. I think they can be adapted to how any web-publishing individual behaves. Each of the three are critical to how information spreads through the “knowledge ecology” of the modern world, and the Huffington Post embodies each. The first role is “Narrating,” being willing to think aloud, telling the story of the process of learning. Curating is the second, meaning “arranging… stuff for yourself and people who come to see it.” The third is Sharing. About Sharing, Jon Mott says, “Meaning happens when the two people connect.” I think Lukacs’ concept “understanding”, which is personal could be substituted for “meaning.” The sharing of content connects people and builds understanding. The Huffington Post is a place for narrating (blogs), curation (organized links to news stories and reporting) and sharing (comments and social networking features). It may be because of its fulfillment of these three roles that it has grown to be such a popular location in the news space.
There is a potential danger embedded in a news ecology where individual readers rely on the perspectives served up by a curator that does not aim for objectivity. That is the possibility that reading only perspectives that arise from one’s chosen premises could lead readers into an echo chamber that would be dominated by “groupthink.” Groupthink is ‘a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action’ (Janis, 1972). Social networks where users self-select “friends” based on common interest or belief are susceptible to this kind of concentration of agreeing opinion, where alternative perspectives are shut out. Twitter, a network where users choose to “follow” only those who they want to regularly read might be particularly susceptible to this weakness. Commentators note this weakness and sometimes also caution readers to actively try to avoid groupthink by paying attention to their consumption and sometimes even encourage them to actively follow thinkers they tend to disagree with. So we can see that it isn’t exactly the transparent bias of the members of the selected group that tends to cause groupthink, but the tendency not to step outside the space of comfortable arguments one probably already agrees with.
The availability of alternative perspectives makes it possible to counter this tendency, and an informed media consumer should try to read articles from a variety of perspectives and maintain an awareness of the ideological slants of their reading material. Where journalists and other commentators pursue objectivity over transparency, however, it diminishes a reader’s attempt to perform this ideological sorting. It can produce a false sense of security when news users feel they have achieved an adequate survey of available positions after merely hearing several selected quotations from different sides of an issue. The selection of particular quotations included in an “objective” article may actually omit the views of outsiders to the traditional debates. (Frequently, journalists seem to seek comment from one Democrat and one Republican and call it a day). A news reader must question an “objective” article’s choice of embedded perspectives as part of analyzing its objectivity, and this step could easily be missed. A “transparent” commentator bares his or her premises and argument so that it may be more easily evaluated. I think it is these perspectives that will be ultimately more valuable for the news consumer.
Knowledge is a Process
The image of an “ecology of information” entails that the development of understanding is a process, not an end product. Understanding develops and is refreshed in successive generations. There are no stopping points. Instead, there are jumping-off points for continued discussion and growth of understanding. I think a partisan curator of content could thrive in this environment, but it will only lead to the development of better understanding when the transparency of premises allows the critique of those premises. Dawn Teo is right to be worried about the quality of Odom’s new news venture if it may only post articles when “the editorial team approves [bloggers'] posts. In other words, bloggers will get paid only when their articles are in agreement with the site’s founder” if this process means that the premises of the right-leaning arguments are not up for discussion. If that is the case with Odom’s news site, the needed critique of those principles will still happen, but outside the space Odom is creating. If conservative readers rely only on Odom’s project for their news consumption, this could be a recipe for destructive groupthink. In the new ecology of information, curators have to build and constantly justify trust. It’s harder to be endowed with trust, but it can be earned.