Hiding behind objectivity is not just outdated, it's boring
We witnessed a much-needed debate this past weekend over objectivity -- one of modern American journalism's most hallowed precepts. Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and soon-to-be former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald framed the question nicely.
Keller, naturally, upheld the tenets that have made the Grey Lady the apotheosis of 20th century news organizations. A reporter is like a black-robed judge, teasing out and testing facts, withholding judgment, writing findings and ultimately allowing the truth to emanate organically.
Greenwald is a shooting star of new media who has blended fierce investigative reporting about privacy and the national security state with pointed political commentary. He argued that by feigning objectivity when they're really not, reporters hedge their bets and propagate unchallenged and specious information. A reporter's transparency about his biases is the best antidote to that, Greenwald claimed.
(Here's a Cliff's Notes version in PaidContent thanks to the stellar chronicler of our changing industry, Matthew Ingram.)
Now, I was schooled in the traditional style, and I promoted that viewpoint through my work. But my career since 2000 has been in new media, and my thinking has evolved significantly.
My take is that the traditional style of writing which seeks to hide the reporter behind a veil of impartiality is not only unnecessary, it's also uninteresting. In today's socially-fueled media landscape, we prefer to connect emotionally with the people who report for us, not just with what they write, curate or share. That means we expect to understand how they feel, who they are and where they come from. It makes the information we receive from them more interesting and, ultimately, easier to judge from a crediblity standpoint.
We're doing that every day as we scroll through friends' shares on Facebook, lists of headlines from innumerable media sources, Tweets, Instagrams and posts. Who tells us and how they feel about what they're telling drives our interest, not just the information they aim to provide.
We in the professional media should take a deeper look at adopting this style of writing. As many of us already know, some of the most relevant and fast-growing news organizations today already have. It doesn't have to impact the facts in what we present. By definition, facts should be immutable anyway, but traditionally, in our desire to look objective, we would toss a bone to the Flat Earth Society, or write "only time will tell" when we knew it was likely the bell had already tolled.
Even before the explosion of socially-driven media, some newspaper columnists and television reporters recognized how you could marry personality with reporting to forge a closer emotional bond between your audience and the story. The best know the story isn't about them and that analysis based on fact far outweighs propaganda, or worse, demagoguery.
We used to call this kind of reporting, reporting with authority. As long as we are transparent about our point of view while focusing on uncovering, understanding and analyzing facts, we can help our audience get the truth; especially since these days, they're much more likely to consume what we produce if we infuse it with a bit of ourselves as well.