Chasing the holy grail of balance in news reporting

6 November 2013

Fairfax Media

By Jonathan Holmes

Last Monday, in the bowels of the Sydney Opera House, I shared a stage with two of America's most articulate thinkers about the media. Both made the same fundamental point: the digital revolution has brought about the revival of a style of journalism that is at least 200 years old.

The occasion was an all-day Public Knowledge Forum put on by Sydney University's United States Studies Centre. The topic was the changing face of modern journalism. My fellow panellists were foreign policy guru, blogger and all-round egghead Walter Russell Mead; and academic, media contrarian, blogger and tweeter extraordinaire, Jay Rosen of New York University.

Both made this point: what many of us think of as the ''new journalism'' — the opinionated, argumentative, passionate and unpredictable world of the blogosphere — is actually old journalism in modern clothes; the delegates to the Philadelphia convention in 1787, arguing passionately over every clause of the American constitution, were the bloggers of their day; Glenn Greenwald, railing against America's security state from Brazil, recalls that radical stirrer Tom Paine, fulminating against England's tyranny from across the channel in revolutionary France; and Paine was already part of a tradition that stretched back more than a century, to the Levellers and Diggers and the motley political spruikers whose tracts poured off the printing presses in the wake of England's civil war in the 1640s.

As Rosen puts it — and I can quote him accurately, because true to form he posted his remarks on his blog, pressthink.org — for the proponents of what he calls ''old testament journalism … financial support is difficult to obtain, opposition is intense, competition is fierce, the authorities are frequently upset with the troublemakers in the press, popularity balloons and contracts … It is a wild ride and a precarious way of life.''

Rosen contrasts that with what he calls ''new testament journalism'': the more staid, more professional, more ''responsible'' journalism of the great newspaper chains and broadcasters, which claims to publish the ''objective'' truth. Many of us think of it as traditional, old-school journalism. But, Mead and Rosen pointed out, it is a 20th-century tradition, which arose in concert with the big media companies for whom corporate reputation is more important than the individual brand of those they employ.

It is a tradition that is under attack: not just because the business model that sustained its commercial champions (especially the great US newspapers, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Herald, The Baltimore Sun, and more) has collapsed; not even because the new-style old-testament prophets, the bloggers and columnists across the political spectrum, from Greenwald to Andrew Bolt, are proving more capable of cutting through the digital maelstrom than the ''straight news'' beloved by the traditionalists.

It's under attack because many of those prophets, and their readers, reject the very notion of ''objective reporting''. In a recent and fascinating online exchange, Greenwald had it out with Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times and a champion of objective reporting. ''Journalists in this tradition,'' Keller wrote, ''have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts … they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.''

To which Greenwald responds: ''This model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?''

One of the most intriguing participants in Monday's forum, Mary Kissel of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, is in political terms Greenwald's polar opposite. But in a piece she wrote for the US Studies Centre's ''American Review'', she too describes as a ''conceit'' the notion that ''there's a holy grail called 'balance' in news, which everyone can and should agree on, but which ends up being a formula of he-said, she-said paragraphs … It is the epitome of lazy reporting''.

Well, it's a familiar enough meme, these days, and there's a lot of truth to the critique. But, as I pointed out, the public broadcasters, which carry a lot more journalistic weight in Australia and the UK than they do in the US, are legally bound to pursue the holy grail of unbiased reporting, however chimerical it may be. The ABC Act enjoins the ABC's board ''to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism''.

To Kissel, that is self-evidently a hopeless ambition, as well as an absurd one. Indeed, state-backed broadcasters in a democracy are ''an oxymoronic concept par excellence''. But when she made a similar point in the forum, a discernible mutter of protest rolled through the audience. She tweeted later:

''Fascinating that my critique of @ABCAustralia received the biggest rise out of the crowd at #pkf13. Does no one here question it?''

To which I might have replied, ''Oh yes, Mary. Plenty do. Including The Australian's editorial writers, about every three weeks.'' But the evidence shows that the ABC is Australia's most trusted news outlet, by a substantial margin. And that, it seems to me, is no coincidence.

At the end of the day, Rosen was on a second panel. He was asked what he could take away from the forum. He surprised me. We Americans, he said, could learn from Australia that a public broadcaster can be supported by the taxpayer with the whole-hearted support of the people. Well, we could learn from it, said compere James Fallows, but we're not going to do it, are we?

''No,'' said Rosen. ''We're not.''


This article was originally published in Fairfax Media

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Tags: Jay Rosen, Jonathan Holmes, Journalism, Mary Kissel, Public Knowledge Forum, The Media

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