Last week students in my Media & Society class engaged in a discussion of journalism's partisan roots, discussing how many newspapers in colonial America got their start from political parties and "radicals" who opposed the King of England. They were interested in the tale of John Peter Zenger, whose arrest for "seditious libel" and subsequent release paved the way for the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Later they talked about journalism's conversion to "objectivity" in the early 1900s, and the continuation of that mantra to today. Then we got into a discussion of Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
"Not a lot of objectivity there," they agreed. However, they also agreed that these "journalists" have developed a healthy following, if not always a healthy adherence to "objective" reporting. And the students seemed to agree that these journalists have generally fulfilled their mission in serving their respective audiences.
For example, the students readily agree that Stewart and Colbert are satirists more than journalists. Nevertheless, they have succeeded in raising awareness during the presidential campaign and have spurred many young people to get involved in politics. And that's a good thing.
So I just saw a post on Social Media discussing the apparent return of partisan journalism. The post was based on a New York Times article, which notes that many news outlets can attribute their success and growing audience to their own partisanship that is on display for all to see.
While these partisan news outlets grow in stature and audience, newspapers are withering, in part I think because their readers aren't particularly interested in their claims of objectivity. They know where the newspaper's staff stands on the issues, and that's great if readers agree. If not, why bother when they can get the news from someone who shares their political outlook.
As my students reinforced, perception guides much of what we do, why should news consumption be any different? People will trust those they perceive have similar biases. Maybe it's time for newspapers to stop with the charade of objectivity, call things as they see it, stir things up, and perhaps they'll rediscover an audience of eager readers.