Monday, April 9, 2012

Don't ask. Don't tell.

There was a big brouhaha last week in Milwaukee. It exposed the realities of achieving the journalistic ideal of "objective" news reporting. It shook management at local broadcast news organizations to their core. It threatened the reputation they've long cultivated for providing "unbiased" news reporting and endangered the trust relationship with listeners and viewers.

All the noise was about the revelation that staffers in the newsrooms of each of Milwaukee's local broadcast news organizations had signed petitions to recall Wisconsin's governor. Talk about a big oops if you're trying to maintain a reputation for "unbiased" reporting.

Management went into immediate damage control mode. Here's a sampling of their responses:

 "Until they (those involved) leave the station, they are not going to be allowed to cover anything related to Scott Walker (the governor)."

 "We want you to know that we consider this a serious issue. We are in the process of dealing with it internally. Our reputation of being a fair and unbiased news source is of paramount importance to us."

 "Station policy prohibits overt political activity. As journalists, our folks know that they must remain totally unbiased."

One television station reported that "many employees" defended the petition signing. They told management "it didn't feel like a political act, but instead felt similar to casting a vote". Management disagreed saying, "Voting is private. Signing a petition is not".

I get it. It's okay to vote because no one, including management, will know how you voted. It's not okay to sign a petition because your bias will be on display for everyone to see. This sounds like the news media version of "Don't ask. Don't tell." Hide your bias and your objectivity and ability to deliver unbiased reporting will not be questioned by management or news consumers.

Milwaukee isn't the only place where "Don't ask. Don't tell." is practiced. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, the policy seems to be alive and well in most major news organizations. It's likely a significant factor in the increasingly contentious relationship between news consumers and the news media. The latest Gallup poll reports a record 57% of Americans "have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". Ouch.

Maybe it's time to get real about what it takes to deliver on the ideal and promise of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting. It requires reporters to somehow erase from their reporting any influence of their life experiences, personal feelings, and instinctive reasoning understanding that humans do not reason entirely from facts. We all view facts differently based on our life experiences and personal feelings. It's nearly impossible for reporters to eliminate the influence of these things from their reporting. It's not human.

Paul Harvey recognized the difficulty of achieving real objectivity and decided to acknowledge the problem when he chose the name for his news broadcasts. Here's how he explained it:

"I think anyone worth his salt is for or against certain things. It's going to come through if only in the selection of what goes on the air and what goes into the waste basket. So it seems more honest for me to call it 'Paul Harvey News and Comment'. That way listeners know they're getting their news from my perspective."

Paul Harvey decided it was more important to be trusted than attempt to achieve the nearly impossible journalistic ideal of being "objective". It worked pretty well for him. 

A recent poll conducted by Boston's Suffolk University revealed that Fox News and Bill O'Reilly are the most trusted names in news. It's clear from this study and other recent research that news consumers want to know exactly where their news source is coming from; transparency not "objectivity" equals trust. 

So, wouldn't it be better for reporters to reveal their biases rather than hide them? Wouldn't it be better for managers at major news organizations to recognize the biases of their reporters and make assignments accordingly with the goal of reporting from multiple perspectives that might come close to delivering on the ideal of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting?

Hiding your bias doesn't make it go away or enable you to be objective in your reporting. So, why do it?

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