Objectivity Is I: A Dream Born From a Lie, Composing, 17/02/2015

One thing I always loved about the practice of professional philosophy was the intellectual challenge. Wrapping my head around complex concepts is some of the best mental exercise you can do. I always knew I’d miss that when I decided to move on from the university world to the business world.

Except that I don’t have to miss it at all. I’m a student member of the International Association of Business Communicators, and every Thursday, there’s a Twitter chat open to all its members. I’ve been taking part every now and then because it’s an easy way to network all over the country and beyond, but it’s also a good place to just have interesting Twitter conversations.

Last week, a discussion of brand journalism turned into a fascinating discussion of the nature and possibility of objective knowledge. Some industry context. Brand journalism is essentially when the marketing wing of a corporation uses the tools and products of journalism to build its image throughout multiple media platforms. Essentially, the methods of journalism are used to build complex narratives about companies. 

The New York Times used to be the paragon of the
journalistic virtue of objectivity, but a naïve belief in
such a virtue today appears hypocritical.
I don’t really consider this controversial. It’s one additional way that companies build their public images. But the concept of brand journalism unsettles people, I think because of the popular myth that the profession of journalism developed over the 20th century as the guardians of public trust by their fidelity of total objectivity. 

Brand journalism therefore unsettles people because it uses the tools of journalism for purposes that are clearly not about communicating information objectively. It’s an openly partisan activity, journalism for the sake of building a company.

Here’s my own perspective on the entire issue. Journalism is a collection of techniques in gathering, reporting, and assembling information about ongoing social and political issues and events. It’s typically used to refer to a profession of people who use those techniques, and they have usually worked for organizations like newspapers and television networks whose goal is simply to inform people about the wider world. 

When mass market journalism began, its discourse was often very sensationalistic, because its economy was driven by people paying for copies. In a competitive marketplace, where sales were driven literally by people shouting front-page headlines in the street, the most sensationalistic content generated the most money. This is the model of the yellow press. 

When newspapers began to be sold by subscription and less by newsboys, they secured their income through reputation. And the most reputable subscription newspapers became known for depth of analysis and objectivity of perspective. 

Murdoch at least as the virtue of being up front about
his socially conservative, hateful biases, and how they
explicitly inform the publications he owns.
As this reputation became the dominant popular conception of journalism, it was widely believed within the field itself. One tweeter during the #IABCTOchat described a former editor he had during his days as a journalist who still believed in the myth of pure objectivity.

Because it was always a myth. Although the practice of journalism remains motivated by its goal of pure objectivity in individual stories, every story has an angle and every editor identifies what stories will be pursued and which will be left to whither in obscurity. I don’t know how anyone can believe in the essential objectivity of journalistic practice in the era of Rupert Murdoch. 

No matter the virtues of its individual practitioners, their powers are constrained by the corporate policies of their employers. No one believes that any media outlet has a genuinely unbiased approach to the news. Even the lack of bias is a bias, an act of turning away from problems of injustice, responding to situations of clear discrimination or exploitation with the empty platitude, “two sides to every story.” 

So what are we to do in this modern environment where objectivity has become an impossible dream? To be continued . . . 

No comments:

Post a Comment