Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Journalistic Neutrality

So there's another clusterfuck in which people are confused about journalistic neutrality and what it's for and how to use it properly.

*sighhhh* I suppose I can't really complain about this being someone else's job since I'm a wordsmith. So let me lay it out ...

* Neutrality is a goal, not an absolute. It's something to aim for, not something you expect to get perfect.

* This is because everyone has a perspective, and perspectives are useful. That's why a good journalistic venue will have sections designated for this purpose such as Opinions or Essays or Letters to the Editor. What matters is that they are clearly labeled AS opinions, not as facts.

* It's also okay for a venue to have a slant. Most of them do. There are liberal ones, and conservative ones, and financial ones, and feminist ones, and gay ones, and so on. When you pick up a thematic publication, you expect it to uphold certain ideals, a party platform for its theme if you will.

* However, there are also venues that aim for neutrality to the point they really don't want to have a slant. This is often valuable, as they're more likely to report just the facts without a lot of interpretation. It's ideal for all the topics that consist mostly of facts, like the current or past weather (although forecasts are interpretive opinions, not facts) and scientific findings and lists of upcoming events. It's fantastic for politics when a venue has equal coverage of all candidates for an election. But it gets ridiculous when people try to create "unbiased" coverage of things that aren't actually a balanced debate, like dinosaurs. You also have to consider when something has "enough" weight to make it an established concept, like climate change; and how ethical it is to provide balanced coverage of things where one side can cause catastrophic damage if it wins.

* Another way to create objective coverage is to counterbalance opposed views instead of trying to neutralize views. The venue is objective if you have people debating each side of an issue in equivalent length and, if you are diligent and lucky, with approximately equal skill. I used to run a debate column for a magazine and damn it was hard to find an equal balance of entries sometimes, but we got some glorious discussions that made people think.

* You also have to consider what is "objective" vs. "subjective" in the first place. Let's take a nice hot-button example, poetry. Lots of people will say poetry can't or shouldn't be edited because it is all subjective. This is nonsense. It has both objective and subjective aspects. Frex, if it is rhymed and metered, those either fit the parameters or they do not: fact, not opinion. Mistakes of grammar, spelling, and other technicalities are also objective. There is a place for "word art" poetry, but it has its own rules. The subjective aesthetics are separate from these objective factors. So too with the news. One might approve or disapprove of a given event, but the event has facts such as its time, date, title, number of attendees, etc.

* The trouble comes in when people mix up this stuff in ways that obscure facts and opinions. Bad things in journalism include:
** Presenting opinion as if it is fact, or fact as if it is opinion.
** Slopping opinion and fact together so readers can't tell which is which.
** Bending, stretching, or otherwise distorting the truth in support of a personal agenda.
** Concealing part of the truth so people can't find it.
** Stifling opinions that disagree with your own.
** Pretending that "everyone agrees" or "there is debate" when this is not so.
** Using facts to eclipse the human element so people get hurt.
** Using opinions to make decisions instead of facts so people get hurt.
** Allowing personal bias to get in the way of honest reporting.
** Accepting surface appearances without digging deeper.
** Taking bribes, trading favors, yielding to undue influence, or otherwise letting outside factors undermine journalistic integrity -- a clear conflict of interest in the case of advertising.

The goal is to tell the best stories we can, as clearly and honestly as we can, so that people know what is going on enough to make good decisions. Bad data leads to bad decisions. Sometimes this requires sticking to the facts without interpretation. Sometimes it requires exploring what the facts could mean beyond just their hard data. Sometimes it's best achieved by giving everyone a voice and letting them debate the pros and cons of an issue. Sometimes what we need are human stories of personal experiences. ALL of that is part of good journalism, but you have to know which tools to use when in order to get the best results for the most informed populace.

Of course young people are confused. Of course they're tempted to think that objectivity is a myth; they haven't seen much of it. The younger they are, the less they've seen. Most of what's thrown out nowadays isn't news at all; it's infotainment or promotional blurbs, much of it handed out by the very people who profit from it. But that doesn't make objectivity less important or journalism less real. It just means they aren't popular in a world that follows Twitter like oxpeckers riding a bison waiting for it to crap.

We are now finding out what a bad idea it is to have a populace who can't readily tell the difference between facts, opinions, and flagrant nonsense. Though I have to say, it's harder now than it used to be. Once upon a time, if something sounded really nuts, it was probably not true. Now if it's physically possible, you have to consider that someone might actually have done it. However, there are still sources that are more reliable than others, clues that things are more likely true or false, and people can learn to identify those.

The truth is whatever will bite you on the ass whether you believe in it or not. And you are more likely to recognize it if you aim for objectivity than if you let bias blind you to some of the input.

Read widely, but don't believe everything you read. Value rational arguments. Question everything. Think for yourself.
Tags: news, reading, writing
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