Axios Ridiculously Calls For Newsrooms To Ban Journalists From Having Opinions Online

from the view-from-nowhere dept

For years we’ve talked about the journalistic perils of what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” or the pretty common misconception that journalists should prioritize factual symmetry in news reporting, instead of actually trying to get to the truth. This usually results in “he said, she said” reporting where both sides are given equal weight (even if one side is clearly being intentionally misleading), with the idea that the reader can then ferret out the truth, while the journalist him or herself stands stoically protected from accusations of “bias” because they refused to take a real stand.

Rosen put it this way during an interview back in 2010:

“Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ?impartial.? Second, it?s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it?s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.”

The problem, as you’ll often see in modern reporting, is this bid to embrace false equivalency often tends to ignore what’s actually true. It’s a major contributor to the partisan strife that’s ripping the country apart, and it’s frequently exploited by companies and politicians who use it to perpetuate outright falsehoods, since even the dumbest ideas must, under this model, be treated with perfect journalistic symmetry, in the process inadvertently advertising the false claims (especially if you choose your headlines poorly).

But a journalist’s job isn’t just to just report cold claims, it’s to get to the truth — often by adding necessary context, or, in some instances, by not running a story at all if the entire underlying premise is fluff and nonsense. Trump’s manipulation of the press is the pinnacle of this dysfunction, with every false claim bouncing around an echo chamber of false objectivity and good intention.

One extension of the view from nowhere is the newsroom idea that journalists should be unfeeling automatons, hiding their true opinions (even if those opinions are fueled by years of experience on a subject) from readers, especially when engaging on social media. Case in point: late last week Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei penned this blog post in which he proclaimed to have devised a solution to the “fake news” problem that’s currently plaguing the world. One of those solutions, according to VandeHei, was to urge newsrooms to ban reporters from having opinions online:

“News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media ? especially Twitter ? beyond sharing stories. Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.”

Yes, banning reporters from joking online will surely fix everything.

VandeHei’s “solution” solves nothing, but does indicate he doesn’t understand that in the modern media age, the sterile, false objectivity he supports directly contributes to the fake news he proclaims to have the cure for, and the “skeptics” he’s trying to appease long ago stopped making claims of bias in good faith, since a key component of modern partisan tribalism involves wielding the word “bias” as a bludgeon against any discordant opinions. Meanwhile, why can’t reporters make jokes if their reporting is driven by integrity? How exactly does a snarky comment on Twitter magically erode a career’s worth of reporting?

Under this model of journalism, instead of debunking clearly false statements and giving them less (or no) weight when appropriate (say when Ajit Pai clearly spreads falsehoods about net neutrality for the eightieth time), these kinds of reporters tend to give those claims equal attention, assuming the reader can ferret out the truth.

That manifests itself constantly in issues like net neutrality, where false claims are often amplified in headlines and throughout a story, counterbalanced by the other take (usually partisan in nature) as if both sides are somehow correct and Ajit Pai hasn’t been lying his ass off on this subject for the better part of two straight years. The only positive outcome of that falsely-symmetrical reporting is you’ve amplified what’s often outright disinformation and given the reader no context to debunk it. More well-rounded reporting in the post-truth era absolutely must evolve, stop playing patty cake, and call a duck a duck when it’s factually appropriate.

Donald Trump, Ajit Pai and their ilk thrive under this view from nowhere because it often assumes that to be fair, blatant lies are one valid half of a two-sided, always perfectly symmetrical story. Fortunately numerous folks were quick to ridicule VendeHei’s take, including New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik, who quite correctly points out that you don’t just magically “build trust” by banning your reporters from sharing years of informed opinion on social media:

Others, like reporter Karen Ho, were correct to point out that white, wealthy males are usually the ones who get to define what objectivity means in many major media newsrooms, something VandeHei doesn’t seem all-too keyed in on:

Again, “he said she said” reporting has been absolutely fatal for America, and to suggest that banning your reporters from expressing their informed opinions (or god forbid being snarky about it on Facebook) doesn’t even come close to understanding the problem, much less fixing it. And this is all before you even get to the oceans of disinformation (both foreign and domestic) that’s been happily kicking the truth in the crotch in this country for the better part of a generation.

As we’ve noted previously, it’s not “bias” if you’re genuinely seeking the truth or pointing out obvious falsehoods, snark or not. It’s “bias” if you refuse to call a patently false statement a false statement, or help give clearly inaccurate arguments weight they don’t deserve. This belief that journalists should stand stoically silent in an illusory “middle,” apply perfect dispassionate symmetry to all things, and then assume the reader can just mystically infer the truth from your sterile, often incomplete reporting–is one of the biggest reasons we’re currently facing a disinformation apocalypse in the first place.

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Comments on “Axios Ridiculously Calls For Newsrooms To Ban Journalists From Having Opinions Online”

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Wally Snibbles says:

But it's even falser to pretend objective when actually partisan

As I see Techdirt doing. You pretend to be journalists when wish, or bloggers having no ethical requirements when wish.

I’ve no problem with anyone stating they’re a flaming commie-lib and I can lump it. I read so long as interesting, happy to test my notions and arguments. BUT when pretend you’re coldly objective observers when there’s clear evidence NOT, then that’s a topic in itself.

And I’ve a specific: In NO pieces regarding Google does Techdirt ever mention that Google “sponsors” Masnick’s “Copia” whatever (he calls it variously a “think tank” and “sister organization).

That’s always relevant, there’s OBVIOUS linkage. No one sponsored by corporations is ever regarded as totally objective, not even The Maz. — Question is why that’s never raised here by even those who worry about corporatism and the notion they’re “persons”. Yet Masnick is apparently exempt from all criticism by the regulars… Leading me to conclude comments here are mostly astro-turfing.

Wally Snibbles says:

Re: Re: But it's even falser to pretend objective when actually part

Re: Member when you promised to leave?

No, but I do remember TRICKING you knuckleheads who didn’t read all the conditions. It’s only too easy.

I did underestimate how long you’d remain tricked, and even more how long you’d used it for vague ad hom when can’t respond on topic. Sheesh.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Re: But it's even falser to pretend objective when actually partisan

He can’t comprehend that a "blog" is basically a diary that anyone can read.

He also can’t comprehend that "censorship is only illegal when the government does it."

He probably doesn’t even understand that "Objective" means that you subject both sides of a subject to the same scrutiny, instead of no scrutiny.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But it's even falser to pretend objective when actually partisan

“You pretend to be journalists”

I would be interested in any evidence you have to support your claims. In fact, there have been several times I have read TD comments that point out the complete opposite … you know, as in they actually said they are not journalists.

No ethical requirements? Like what for example …
You seem to make life easy for yourself by putting everyone into one of two groups – right?

ECA (profile) says:

God forgive us Idiots.

Seeking opinion is like asking WHO LIKES ICE CREAM, and what flavor do you want..

Journalists are NOT investigators, or detectives..
State facts..State what happened..
Dont Judge, dont criticize..
The news is NOW 15 minutes long and 15 minutes of commercials..

If you want to DIG into a subject..Fine. but its the same rules..SHOW what you found, connected a few dots and DONT make a conclusion, unless you have PROOF..

Wally Snibbles says:

Read again: you rant about Trump lying. STATE ONE UNEQUIVOCAL.

You typify the worst of the hidden partisans, just ramble alleging that Trump lies without giving any specific. Of course, your BIAS is obvious, but you apparently believe that it’s not! Risible.

State just one lie by Trump with something resembling proof. Not just that you have Trump Derangement Syndrome and hate everything around Trump including everyone who merely hopes he’ll upset the The Establishment, regardless of his own nature, but some statement that’s clearly a lie.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Read again: you rant about Trump lying. STATE ONE UNEQUIVOCAL.

“I’ll Build a Wall!”

“I’ll Make Mexico Pay for It!”

“Ted Cruz’s family helped assassinate Kennedy!”

“Global Warming is a Chinese conspiracy to hurt American Manufacturing!”

“Saudi Arabia may have Murdered a Reporter in their Consulate, but we Need to Be More Concerned about our Business Interests!”

Need more?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Read again: you rant about Trump lying. STATE ONE UNEQUIVOCAL.

Fortunately, the Washington Post has stepped up to the plate.

And that’s just August. Imagine how many more there are since then!

My favorite is “I passed the biggest tax cut in history!” Sorry Trump, only the 8th:

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Read again: you rant about Trump lying. STATE ONE UNEQUIVOCAL.

Remember the time Trump claimed he did not claim that climate change is a chinese plot against america? And the Tweet still exists?

How about when he claimed Mexico doesn’t have birthright citizenship and only america is “stupid enough” to have it? Despite the fact that Mexico and 31 other countries have it?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Journalistic opinion

The only caveat I care about is that journalists identify opinion vs fact.

The facts must have sources, and anonymous sources should be considered sketchy.

Opinions should have reasons, based in facts. While analysis might be wrong, if they document how they got there, wrong analysis or opinion could be forgiven.

Lies are a different story. Lies are supposed facts without documentation.

Statistics only count when the studies are peer reviewed and the methodology strictly scrutinized and found unwanting.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Journalistic opinion

Those are good rules of thumb, and I think all are essential to good journalism.

However, I don’t think they’re sufficient by themselves.

Sometimes simply reporting an opinion lends it an unearned credence. Climate change is the most obvious example I can think of offhand. I believe that the news media simply shouldn’t be offering climate science deniers a forum to share their opinions. When you have a panel with a climate scientist on one side and a climate sciene denier on the other, you create the false impression that the two viewpoints are equivalent. They are not.

Merely stating what’s a fact and what’s an opinion isn’t enough. When an "opinion" is actually just a false statement of fact, media outlets should make the editorial decision not to invite speakers on that hold that opinion.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Journalistic opinion

Yeah, I stopped watching PBS News Hour after Ray Suarez allowed his guest to state many falsehoods and failed to challenge him in any way. It is tough to present a both sides argument in the typical news piece, what maybe 2 or 3 minutes long? The news magazine format offers more time, but then there are other factors at play, like advertisers for example. Or whatever was on Ray’s mind that day.

Print media have some of the same problems, there is only so much space in x number of pages, constrained by all those ads.

So we come down to the Internet. There are no space issues, only attention span. How one goes about giving both sides of an argument and retain the readers or listeners, or watchers interest is a big issue. Maybe more than one article, or podcast, or video. One for each side and yet another conclusatory. That leaves the possibility to be quoted out of context. Not a good thing, but regardless of format not preventable.

That’s why I said facts must have sources. Provable sources. If an opinion is based in fact, then those sources should be listed. If the opinion is stated in a short format like Twitter (an abomination to my thinking) then the underlying facts should be linked.

So far as media outlets not inviting opposing or folks with opinions based on ‘false facts’ (and here comes the discussion of whether facts are provable or false, a lesson our dear president needs not to just understand, but practice, which would screw his agenda greatly) I am not sure that excluding them is the right way to go. There is some editorial control over who speaks first and who speaks last and what the ‘conclusions’ are after both sides are heard. The problem is whether those conclusions are ideologically or logically constructed.

Hence the need for identification, fact (supported) or opinion (supported or not supported) by provable facts.

Koby (profile) says:


If you don’t present the best arguments from both sides, you will definitely never reach the truth. If you only want to present one side, that’s fine, and it’s your right to do so, but then you don’t get to claim that you’re objective. And I think a lot of folks do want a switch back to objective reporting, rather than opinionated reporting.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Presentation


When Alex Jones claims that our government has been infiltrated by lizard people who are using chemtrails to turn frogs gay, the Washington Post should not devote a column to debating him. There are only two acceptable responses to those claims: to ignore them, or to report them as the deranged ravings of a dangerous snake oil salesman.

Objectivity does not mean that all viewpoints should be given equal weight with no editorial criticism. Objectivity means saying that true things are true and false things are false.

What’s the line from 1984? Freedom means being able to say 2 + 2 = 4?

Anonymous Coward says:

“This usually results in “he said, she said” reporting where both sides are given equal weight (even if one side is clearly being intentionally misleading), with the idea that the reader can then ferret out the truth, while the journalist him or herself stands stoically protected from accusations of “bias” because they refused to take a real stand.”

Actually, I think this has some benefit. Consider that we must give the following viewpoints equal weight and both viewpoints must be reported as facts.

Viewpoint 1: Ajit Pai claims that the public overwhelmingly supports net neutrality repeal.

Viewpoint 2: Ajit Pai is a lying asshole douchebag in the pay of telecom companies and should go fuck himself.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t agree with the idea of a ban, but considering that many people are douches on social media in general, maybe forbid them from being assholes to potential customers? It just isn’t good optics to have your reporters being assholes to anybody, considering online news platforms are ubiquitous now and readership (and potential sponsorship/subscriptions) can come from everywhere.

Another mistaken idea is that interpretation of the facts must be delivered along with the facts.

Reporting doesn’t have to be dispassionate if the majority of the story is factual. People will inevitably have their own style of presenting facts, but it’s always been with a tiny helping of their own beliefs. That will affect their wording, their voice tone/delivery, what words will be emphasized and which may be avoided. It doesn’t even have to be consciously done (though I’m skeptical that no news reporters mean to tailor their stories this way today).

School shooting narrative #1: anti-gun zones don’t work.
School shooting narrative #2: guns should be banned.

There is no, “Well, let’s try having science figure this problem out and stop attempting the same ‘solutions’ over and over again that are proven to NOT work, maybe?” That’s complex and not really satisfying to anyone.

Who tunes into the news to hear “we don’t know how to make things better yet”? Better to have a “decision” made so that people understand what the “right decision” to side with is. It makes people feel better and pushes them in a direction instead of saying “there is no good direction to go in yet”.

Even if there is no good solution, is there someone or something we can blame as being what/who is making things unsolvable? Let’s go with that then! /sarcasm

Beating the dead horse of false solutions or false dichotomies is necessary because news sites and channels have a race to win: the views, the clicks, the ad revenue. News orgs won’t get attention or money if they start to break viewers out of their “This is where I get the news that I want to watch/read” bubbles.

It’s the same repeated talking points, made to be more important than saying it simply: 44 people were injured at the school, there were 5 student deaths, and the rest of the staff and students were safely evacuated. There are grief counselors on the scene tending to the evacuees and the injured have been sent to local hospitals.

Editorials about these stories are still okay of course, so long as it’s obviously marked as opinion and not slipped in as commentary at the end of the story. When reporters slip in opinion this way, it often feels like the story itself is only meant to be a vehicle to push the narratives, whatever they may be, rather than to simply report on what happened.

Even in the 90s the news didn’t seem so blatantly biased. Biased reported was still happening in the past, make no mistake, but in the present opinions expressed have become so immense, to the point of possibly overshadowing the facts of the story.

I remember that there used to be more “opinion people” at the news, they’d comment on things, but their news segments were well-labelled as being editorial or opinions. They wouldn’t even sit in the same studio space as the regular reporters, maybe they were even sitting in another studio room altogether.

But no, since we need to compensate for people’s dying attention spans, make the news more “exciting” than it is, put opinions in everywhere and the news remains indistinguishable between fact and soapbox. People will stay confused, be too ignorant to know the difference between opinion and fact or get irritated and disengaged because they’re old enough to remember things used to be better.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“School shooting narrative #1: anti-gun zones don’t work.
School shooting narrative #2: guns should be banned.

There is no, “Well, let’s try having science figure this problem out and stop attempting the same ‘solutions’ over and over again that are proven to NOT work, maybe?” That’s complex and not really satisfying to anyone.”

I like this statement..but let me add something strange.
Im abit old so let me say..
MY schools had steal doors and were LOCKED.
the Main door at the office was the only way in, and IT was locked with a doorbell.
The side doors were locked by the teachers NEAR those doors.

add to that, if there were s Ruckus, in the halls, the teachers CAME OUT to solve the problem.. They were also the Hall monitors between classes..

So, what has happened?

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