Sunday, November 2, 2008

Journalism: A Return to Its Partisan Roots?

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.

1 comment:

Gary said...

This is a great observation. Complete objectivity is impossible and perhaps journalism would be better served if we didn't attempt to hold ourselves to an unattainable standard. It has always amazed me how readers/viewers assume bias in stories, even if none was purposefully expressed or intended. It really used to crack me up when one person would call and say how a story demonstrated the liberal bias of the publication I was working for and then another caller would say the same story demonstrated a conservative bias.
The problem members of the media have is that our readers have a bias and they read or view a story with that bias. If they feel their ox was gored more than the other guy's we obviously had a bias. I've seen editors measure quotes (heck I've done it myself) to try to be fair and balanced and still be accused of bias. I think that's one reason blogs have become so popular is because they comment on the news but the blog owners/writers let their bias show. It will be interesting to see if the Amercian media returns to a style of reporting from a perspective in order to flourish in the 21st century. As you and your students point out, it would be a return to our roots. It would be repeating history. Of course, someone will think it is a brand new idea for a new media millenium.