Journalists Need A Point Of View If They Want To Stay Relevant

from the the-view-from-nowhere dept

This article is republished from The Conversation under its Creative Commons license. On a side note, apparently, The Conversation is now moving into the US after focusing on the UK and Australia in the past — and that’s pretty cool, because it’s a great site.

If extreme polarization is now an enduring feature of American politics ? not just a bug ? how does that change the game for journalists? I have some ideas, but mainly I want to put that question on the table. ?Conflict makes news,? it is often said. But when gridlock becomes the norm the conflicts are endless, infinite, predictable and just plain dull: in a way, the opposite of news. This dynamic has already ruined the Sunday talk shows. Who can stand that spectacle anymore?

A recent task force of American Political Science Association put it this way:

The United States used to be viewed as a land of broad consensus and pragmatic politics in which sharp ideological differences were largely absent; yet, today, politics is dominated by intense party polarization and limited agreement among representatives on policy problems and solutions.

In a fascinating paper on ?philanthropy in a time of polarization,? three authors ? Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt and Mark Schmitt ? take up the question. They point out that leaders in these grantmaking foundations operate from assumptions that extreme polarization can be overpowered by ?strong ideas and persuasive research?[that] will motivate elected officials? to act. They believe in the message of bipartisanship and urge foundations to ?stay above the political fray.?

The way Obama?s health care reform became law shredded that script. Elites in Washington believed that a compromise would emerge by ?combining a broad goal favored by liberals with ideas traditionally supported by conservatives.? Nothing like that went down. One side passed the bill. The other demonized it and continues the fight to this day. Teles, Hurlburt and Schmitt write:

Foundations have traditionally seen themselves as part of civil society ? as mediating institutions that form a bridge between dispassionate knowledge and political advocacy. Their resources, many in the sector have hoped, could fund objective, nonpartisan research that would take the edge off partisan conflicts and pave the way for broadly accepted social progress.

That view of American politics no longer makes sense. Nothing has taken the edge off partisan warfare, least of all ?objective, nonpartisan research.”

The battle over the Affordable Care Act showcased American?s deep ideological divide, which nonpartisan research has done nothing to lessen. dbking/Flickr, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC-SA

Is ?objectivity? in journalism dead ?

It?s tricky to compare foundation officers and journalists because officially the mainstream press has no theory of change, no policy agenda ? indeed, no politics at all. Officially, journalists are merely out to get the story, tell the truth, inform us about what?s going on, and in special circumstances share their opinion.

But anyone who observes its work cannot help but notice that the Washington press corps shares a certain world view, analogous in many ways to the typical foundation officer?s. (Steve Coll moved easily from the Washington Post to the New America Foundation and on to the deanship of Columbia Journalism School. Walter Isaacson, editor of Time magazine, CEO of CNN, is now president of the Aspen Institute.)

Here are some of the components of this shared world view. Recognize them?

  • ?Successful candidates move to the middle??
  • Politicians who know how to get things done cut deals among insiders on both sides of the aisle. (Ronald Reagan working with Tip O?Neill is the usual reference point.)
  • To ?cede the ideological center? is the political mistake par excellence.

And as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein wrote in the Washington Post:

?Both sides do it? or ?There is plenty of blame to go around? are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias.

What if the ideological center is effectively gone? What if striking deals with insiders from both parties no longer describes the way the world works? For as authors Teles, Hurlburt and Schmitt put it: ?Pundits who say that ?nothing can get done without bipartisan support? no longer have the evidence on their side.?

What are the options?

Under these conditions, political journalists have a choice. They can try to muddle through with the framework they had before extreme polarization became too obvious to ignore. If they take this route, they will write well-informed articles about the trend. They will report the data about polarization without drawing any conclusions about their own practices. Or, they can recognize that they too have a world view, and that its assumptions have gone bust.

If they choose the latter, what then?

Instead of trying to stay in the middle between polarized extremes and avoid criticism, political journalists and their bosses could recognize that there is no escape from charges of bias because these charges are just a further aspect of polarization. If you?re going to be attacked anyway, might as well let it rip.

That?s what the Washington Post did when earlier this month it hired Chris Mooney to cover the environment in blog form. Mooney is the author of two books ? The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain (subtitle: The Science of Why They Deny Science ? and Reality) ? that leave no doubt about where he stands. In announcing his appointment, the Post described Mooney as a writer with a distinctive voice and a consistent argument: ?that people?s preconceptions ? political, religious, cultural ? color the way they view science.?

Being transparent about point of view is the honest approach for reporters

Newsrooms are better off with reporters who know their beats, nail their arguments, make clear where they?re coming from and meet high standards of verification, always. Intellectual honesty is a more reliable basis for trust than a ritualized objectivity. A clear voice is more valuable than a nonpartisan veneer.

Calling out falsehoods that have gotten traction is another thing journalists can do once they realize that extreme polarization is a feature, not a bug. Ever since the fact-checking site, Politifact, won the Pulitzer Prize for ?separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters,? fact checking has become routine in the coverage of politics. Now the press needs to take the next step: identify the worst offenders, deny them respectability and platform, raise the cost in reputation for relying on falsehoods: in a word, fight. ?Detached from the partisan fray? won?t cut it.

The non-profit investigative newsroom,, calls what it does ?accountability journalism.? It is the only kind of journalism ProPublica is interested in doing. Here?s how they describe it:

Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ?moral force.? We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

That is a view of the world as strong as polarization is deep. Political journalists need to adopt a similar view or they will slide into irrelevance. There is one other option: savvy analysts of the game. Winners and losers, who?s up, who?s down, strategy and tactics. That really isn?t journalism, though. It?s scorekeeping.

The Conversation

Jay Rosen is an adviser to The Conversation.

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Comments on “Journalists Need A Point Of View If They Want To Stay Relevant”

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David says:

"Obamacare" is one of the saddest partisan politics examples

since its much reviled principles are more or less a carbon copy of “Romneycare” implemented in Massachusetts.

While the latter has not been a poster child for large-scale technical problems like the national-wide Affordable Healthcare Act has been, the rather appalling technical problems are not what the protests are focused on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Obamacare" is one of the saddest partisan politics examples

The really cool thing is that almost everyone hates Obamacare, but they like the better insurance they are getting.

So if you do a pole that asks if Obamacare should be repealed, many people are in favor of repealing it. If you do a pole asking if the individual parts of Obamacare should be repealed without using the word Obamacare, a large majority of people are against repealing any of the provisions.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s worse than that, it’s the fact that some people have to pretend there are two “sides” to everything – even when there’s many more options, or when there’s only actual correct answer. Giving equal weight to kooks and liars, or omitting valid 3rd, 4th, etc. opinions is as much of a problem as people who only choose to consider one source. No, for example, the fact that a homeopathy vendor claims that his brand of water cures cancer just as well as chemo does not mean that his medical opinions have equal weight to those of an oncologist. You may consider his input, but his product is not a going to cure your tumours.

Ninja (profile) says:

Much of what I’ve read against Obamacare is pure bullshit, much like the banner of the guy going full Godwin in the picture (at least in this specific case). From my understanding as an outsider I see it may not be the best solution (and it doesn’t address glaring issues such as overpriced medical goods in hospitals and health insurance playing dirty tricks) but it benefits a lot of people who were simply abandoned to their own luck. See, when you extend things to people who ALSO PAY TAXES but aren’t the elite the elite itself is going to freak out. Happened here in my country, happens everywhere. Sure all programs need to find a balance and in my opinion everybody should benefit from Govt programs, including the elite if they so wish.

What you see all around are clueless people making clueless statements devoid of fact about Obamacare (interestingly the name itself was coined to mock the Affordable Healthcare Act). Because people forgot to discuss what’s best for the country and started focusing on pure partisanship.

As for the journalistic aspect of the article, I think that merely reporting the news isn’t journalism. Journalism is shedding light in all sides of the question even if they won’t be popular with part of the readers. That’s why having more than one journalist working independently in the same issue may help: each of them will see a different thing that is worth a shot even if the event being reported is the same. And this can work in politics too. Even if the report is somewhat biased and you are opposed to said party you can still extract a lot from it by seeing the good in the proposal or whatever is being scrutinized in the news piece.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Implementation and rollout problems aside, what people don’t realize Obamacare was a compromise from the very beginning. The original bill was designed to get the support of right-leaning pols (mandate, exchanges) and left-leaning pols (public option, medicare/medicaid expansion. It was subsequently watered down by Republicans and ConservaDems to what we have today. And don’t get me started on the ‘Death Panels’ or ‘Hitler Gave Everyone Healthcare’ agitprop

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Compromise? It was passed without a single Repbublican vote. It was almost dead until changes were made and the insurance companies signed on. And why wouldn’t they sign on, they now have a well armed Government forcing people to buy their product. Wouldn’t every salesman like that?

Michael J. Evans (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, it started out already targeted at the center ground based upon prior events. Then as a tool for getting a more biased result, Republicans demanded ‘compromise’ (further shift towards their goals) trying to kill the deal and finally denied it support just because they were not getting the credit for leadership on that issue.

I hate all political parties. I hate the voting systems that keep them in place (first past the poll). I hate the myopic voters who pick a party line and blindly stick to it. However what I hate most are those who would put petty squabbles before serving the people they are purportedly representing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And now you begin to understand the issue. In the past, when one side had enough votes to pass a bill, the other side would concede, and work to make the bill better, and more palatable. In the case of the ACA, Republicans offed amendments, and changes were made, but the point of those changes was only to delay, and not to improve.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

none of you get it… partisan politics is not a problem… never has been never will.

Politics has always ever been what the majority wants.

We voted in Obama and we are suffering for it. We vote in the idiots from both sides at different times. We are grossly ignorant and foolish pretty much the vast majority of the time.

When you cut out all the fluff, regardless of religion, ethics, politics, or demonology. It has always been about 1 thing… the majority or rather… the most powerful getting their way to the detriment of others.

In the past we enslave minorities and classed them as non human. No we steal from the middle class via government programs. It will all eventually lead to war again and no one will see it coming until its knocking on your door in rapid fire mode.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I think it is simplistic to level all responsibility with voters (and their ignorant folly).

First, electronic voting on propriety machines fundamentally calls into question the validity of elections.

Second, becoming informed is not really a choice for the millions struggling to merely access food and shelter. This combined with elections being “sponsored” by multinational corporations with fundamentally antisocial agendas, and a ubiquitous propaganda machine controlled by the same state/corporations, conditioning people to believe lies and act against their own interests, does not make for an informed citizenry.

I think that corruption, abuse of power, and bad social policies (like corrections, health, education, welfare, defense, etc etc) deserve a mention.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“partisan politics is not a problem… never has been never will.”

I disagree. The whole problem with partisan politics is that they avoid addressing the issue of what people actually want and instead appeal to the question of what tribe people feel that they’re a part of.

“Politics has always ever been what the majority wants.”

Not partisan politics. Please name a politician in recent memory who was actually voted for by the majority of the voting public. I can’t think of one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“Politics has always ever been what the majority wants.”

Wrong. With disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and lack of interest, low voter turn out means the minority gets to elect someone who supposedly represents their wishes. Then whomever achieves office does whatever they want, to hell with those peon scum suckers.

“We voted in Obama and we are suffering for it”

I’m sure Romney would have been much better.

“We are grossly ignorant and foolish pretty much the vast majority of the time.”

Speak for yourself homeboi

“steal from the middle class via government programs.”

Is that how they are doing it? Wow, and I thought it had something to do with off shoring, continuous war and crashing the world economy. Silly me.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s why having more than one journalist working independently in the same issue may help …

That ship has sailed (

In 1989 there were 95 weekly science sections in US newspapers. By 2012 there were just 19. In 2008, CNN eliminated its entire science team.

News orgs have cut reporting staff to the bone. There’s not enough money in it from their traditional sources of funding. That said, I’ve seen more than one person praise CNN’s reaction to the ebola outbreak as being far more reasoned and informative than most others.

Matthew says:

Great article. The only problem I foresee is the fact that the majority of our news media is now owned by major conglomerates with their own agendas. As such, I sincerely doubt the journalists in the mainstream media possess the capability to make the kind of change suggested here. We’re increasing likely to need to rely on independent and overseas journalism for good reporting in this country.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m going to chime in here and argue the author is attempting a view from nowhere. Every time I see the ‘muh polarization’ theme come up I can’t help but point out the effect has been asymmetric.

Whoop dee freaking doo, the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party has re-emerged. Nothing that hasn’t been around before. Whereas we now have a hyper-reactionary Republican party with a handful of kinda-sorta sane officials. And no, this comment is not meant to excuse the President or his party supporters/enablers for all the bad things he’s done.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The United States used to be viewed as a land of broad consensus and pragmatic politics in which sharp ideological differences were largely absent”

That was before the American Jihad started. Invading everyone, imposing governance and stealing resources.

Now that these idiots have screwed everything up they try and make it look like someone else’s fault. Asshats.

antidirt (profile) says:

This article is republished from The Conversation under its Creative Commons license.

I love it when people come on Techdirt and remind us that their works are copyrighted. There’s no shame in it! Thank goodness copyright gives you the power you’ve exercised in granting this license. Flaunt those rights!

Being transparent about point of view is the honest approach for reporters

I agree, which I why I find it so strange that Mike can’t be transparent and honest about his views on copyright. Why won’t Mike tell us whether he thinks authors and artists should have any exclusive rights? Why is he so desperate to tell us what he really believes about a subject he writes about frequently?

jackn says:

Re: Re:

geez, he is pretty transparent with his views on copyright.

Do you think authors and artist should have exclisive rights to their works? or, do you think a corp should own the rights to the works of artist/ creaters? I call these corps ‘takers.’ I think things are a little more complicated than your mind could handle.

p.s. I thought you were dead.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

@ Antidirt, the exclusive rights you speak of are a relatively new phenomenon. When the Constitution was written, copyright lasted but 14 years. Look at it now.

Your error is thinking of creative output in terms of property; it was never considered in those terms until recently.

Copyright is a temporary monopoly on the right to copy and distribute the item in question. That is all it ever way and all it ever will be. Complicating it by adding property rights, welfare provisions, and God knows what else has caused more problems than it solves and only benefits rightsholders — who aren’t always the actual authors.

NOW do you get it?

Drop the property rights. Move away from the property rights. Now off you go and find another business model.

dataGuy (profile) says:

One side of the story, then another side of the story; then next story

“Journalists Need A Point Of View” – It would be a huge improvement for them to actually be journalists; rather than spin doctors. For a given story, provide as much of the facts as can be determined and let the audience make up their own mind. If done correctly, I shouldn’t even know what the journalist’s thoughts, on the matter at hand, are.

When it comes to reporting on politics, the media need to recognize that there is a whole 360 degree spectrum of thought and not just left/right or blue vs. red. Libertarianism being one example that political reporters seem completely baffled by.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: One side of the story, then another side of the story; then next story

While I’ll agree 100% that news should be just facts, history and even historians will show otherwise. Everyone has opinions and even inadvertently that will come out in your reporting. So while I’ll gladly disagree that all news programming should be FOX/CBS news (IE republican/democrat), I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of personal opinion.
To me it sounds like this guy wants every news broadcast to be Nancy Grace or Rush Limbaugh, and thankfully that’s not the world I live in.

Pragmatic says:

Re: One side of the story, then another side of the story; then next story

Libertarianism being one example that political reporters seem completely baffled by.

Most of the Libertarians I know are pretty right wing AND anti-government “Let Them Die” types. And I know that because I argue with them all the time. It’s often hard to distinguish between current Republican positions and Libertarian ones. Am I missing something?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: One side of the story, then another side of the story; then next story

“It’s often hard to distinguish between current Republican positions and Libertarian ones. Am I missing something?”

It depends on whether you’re talking about the Libertarian Party position or the positions of actual libertarians. There is often a pretty wide gulf between the two (this is no different from the Republican or Democratic parties).

When talking to actual libertarians, the old joke often rings very true to me: libertarians are republicans who want to smoke dope and get laid.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: One side of the story, then another side of the story; then next story

Libertarianism being one example that political reporters seem completely baffled by.

Most of the Libertarians I know are pretty right wing AND anti-government “Let Them Die” types. And I know that because I argue with them all the time. It’s often hard to distinguish between current Republican positions and Libertarian ones. Am I missing something?

I think you just proved his/her point. However, there’s a fairly wide range that “libertarian” covers, including a lot of people who think and say they’re libertarian yet have no understanding of what the word means. These days with every tea partier saying they’re libertarian, the word’s becoming as cheapened and valueless as liberal and conservative are.

Add to this the common revulsion for Ayn Rand (commonly believed to be libertarian) who despised government handouts to special interests including corporations, and that Rand disapproved of Libertarians, it gets pretty murky pretty quick.

“An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it”, and “Check your premises”, are always wise to keep in mind.

GEMont (profile) says:

The End of the Truth-Free Press

Simple reality.

If journalists want to work for a business that treats honesty in news as a prerequisite and where billionaires do not call the shots, there is only one possibility open.

Quit your jobs working for the Truth-Free Press, and together, crowd-fund a new News Service, owned and operated by the Reporters and the Public.

DakotaKid (profile) says:

No "objective" point of view.

Journalism has never been and will never be unbiased. As a scientist (I have worked as a Physicist and a Chemist) the idea that someone cannot be unbiased is fiction. To make any observation you must take a point of view, that is set up boundaries to decide what to report and not to report. The language, point of view, instruments used (Eyes ears, other observers) make the observation biased. There is a Journalistic point of view taught in schools, an Aristotelian point of view, a Christian point of view, a Buddhist point of view, etc. Each makes decisions about what is important and what is not. The “polarization” in American politics and culture in general reflects a split in the point of view in the country, primarily between urban(Cities and inner suburbs) and rural (outer suburbs smaller cities and countryside). The divisions are real,the perceptions are different and in many cases are not able to be compromised. The different realities can be addressed by a live and let live attitude.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: No "objective" point of view.

…the idea that someone cannot be unbiased is fiction…

Methinks you meant:

“…the idea that someone CAN be unbiased is fiction…”

And while I agree with your observations, I think what is needed is not “unbiased reporting” – since, as you say, that is impossible – but simple “honesty in reporting”.


As long as there is a cadre of special interests deciding what should and should not be reported, and honesty is never even mentioned or considered, the “NEWS”, is NOT.

It is simply fantasy entertainment, like the rest of the Media.

I believe there are a great many people out there who truly desire to report the truth about everything, but the system that has developed over the years, that I call the Truth-Free Press, prevents them form doing so, because those making the news, like those who write history, insure that the guilty are protected.

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