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Oles on the Election

It’s Time to Loosen Our Grip on Objectivity

By Emma Whitford October 4, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

I’ve found that there are two types of political journalists on Twitter. Those who have surrendered to the anemic condition of the news media and cautiously embraced sensationalism, and those who still complain about the death of “the golden age of news,” quietly press on with ineffective writing habits and hope for a miracle. I am the latter, and I am foolish for it.

If the news industry is to survive – which it will – there are a number of things that need to be re-evaluated. Perhaps the most pressing is the traditional idea of “objectivity.”

In an online exchange with Bill Keller in the New York Times Opinions Pages in 2013, Glenn Greenwald described the dangers of the “standard model” of reporting in the current culture of media.

“A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful ‘here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts’ formulation,” Greenwald writes. “That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on ‘objective’ reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge.”

Greenwald’s concerns about the standard model are extremely relevant to 2016 election coverage. Donald Trump is a caricature of a dishonest, corrupt official and has benefitted immensely from the objective journalist’s inability to make determinations about the truth of Trump’s statements. Mere months into his campaign, Trump had American media working for him. Any press is better than no press, and Trump gets a ton.

Striving for pure objectivity creates problems for journalists, and those problems are exacerbated during this election. Not every story has multiple sides and not every perspective is equal.

According to a story by Huffington Post Highline, Clinton has a policy team that has put out more than 60 policy papers detailing her plans in office, whereas Trump has released only a handful. If a journalist was writing on college debt plans with the full desire to be “objective,” they’d need to do substantial digging to figure out if Trump has said anything about college debt, let alone created policy, in order to present a two-sided debate. Positioning Trump’s policy equally next to Clinton’s inflates Trump’s empty policy statements to seem concrete and is therefore misleading.

I run into this problem often in my own reporting. I’ll search out opposing viewpoints where there aren’t any and give them a platform so that the piece can be read as “balanced” and no one will question my credibility. But that in itself is misleading and it weakens the article.

Keller counters Greenwald by arguing that the “evidence will speak for itself.” At this point in the election – when a inflammatory, billionaire businessman is neck and neck with a highly experienced politician – it seems silly to assume that the evidence will speak for itself. How is the evidence supposed to be seen, let alone speak, if the information is buried under Taylor Swift-Kim Kardashian feuds and Brangelina’s breakup five minutes after it goes live online. Not only do journalists need to weigh perspectives differently within each article, but they need to weigh articles against each other. News outlets should tell the public – and then remind them again and again – what is important to know and what isn’t.

The American public is not equipped to process the amount of information available to them. Journalists are trained in information gathering and they often have specialized knowledge of the topics they write about. It would be more beneficial during this election cycle to be told what is true rather than to look for it amongst all the noise.

As the election progresses, publications are making bolder claims about the Trump campaign and calling out his lies and inconsistencies. Some, including The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, The Observer, and the Los Angeles Times, have formally endorsed Clinton.

Journalism has always been considered the “fourth branch of government.” Throughout the 20th Century the industry was working hard to get more news to the public faster and more easily, but now it’s overwhelming. It’s time for journalists to slow down again and value quality over quantity. As the entire news industry still struggles to figure out what it is in the digital age, perhaps Donald Trump is exactly what American media needed.

About the Author

Emma Whitford is a junior political science major at St. Olaf college from Middleton, Wisconsin.