My View: 'Objective' journalism is a charade
At TedxPortland last month, University of Oregon alum and journalist Ann Curry began her talk with a question: Who can we trust to tell us the truth?
It's an important question for journalists to be asking. In 1976, 72 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said they trusted the media. Today, that number is around 40 percent — and far lower among Republicans.
Something has gone wrong, and our country's democracy desperately needs us to fix it.
I had hoped Curry would present a bold, forward-looking vision for how journalists can reverse the current trend and rebuild trust with the communities they serve.
But she didn't. Instead, Curry delivered a nostalgic message that basically boiled down to this: Let's go back. Go back to reporting "just the facts." Go back to being "unbiased." Go back to ignoring commercial pressures and putting news value ahead of ratings (as if that ever actually happened).
Curry's theory seems to be that if journalists just get back to fundamentals, they can somehow return to the golden age when news anchors like Walter Cronkite said "that's the way it is" and millions of Americans believed it.
I've given journalism's trust problem a lot of thought over the past two years. UO journalism professor Ed Madison and I even wrote a book about it, and I have a few bones to pick with Curry's argument.
For one, let's stop romanticizing the "golden years." If we're being honest, Cronkite's signature sign-off — "that's the way it is" — was really a shorthand way of saying "that's the way it is … for middle-class, college-educated, politically moderate white urbanites like me."
The media was a white man's world, and the news reflected what those men thought was newsworthy and who they thought was credible. Sure, this homogeneity meant fewer "alternative facts," but it also meant fewer alternative perspectives — from women, from people of color and from anyone outside the political mainstream.
In a country that's becoming ever more diverse, going back to that is not a formula for rebuilding trust.
We also need to stop conflating "facts" and "truth." Curry used the words interchangeably in her speech, but they're not the same thing.
Facts are objective. We can all agree, for example, that the Blazers got swept by the Pelicans in the playoffs last month. That's a fact.
But did the Blazers lose because they have a hapless roster that must be overhauled if they ever want to contend? Or because they ran into a red-hot team and missed some shots they usually make? Or because the refs swallowed their whistles every time Dame drove into the lane?
As The New York Times ad says, "the truth is hard." And it's about more than facts. It's about how those facts fit together and how they support one version of the truth or another.
Connecting those dots is a subjective process. Yes, subjective! Journalists need to stop treating that like a dirty word and start being more honest about what our readers already know — we're humans, and we're biased. We have experiences and beliefs that shape the stories we pursue, the questions we ask, the quotes we include or leave out and the perspectives we amplify or ignore.
Journalists have spent the last century defending themselves against charges of bias. It's time to give up that charade, because the antidote to subjectivity (and the actual key to trust) isn't denial. It's diversity.
News organizations need to hire more journalists who don't look alike, think alike, pray alike, love alike, or live alike — and then empower those journalists to connect the facts with their own best version of the truth.
This approach won't give us "objective" journalism, but it'll give us more honest, inclusive journalism — and I believe that's what will ultimately help us earn the public's trust.
Ben DeJarnette edits Bridgeliner, a Portland online publication where this column originally appeared; he co-wrote "Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters are Transforming News."