Published on June 7th, 2013 | by Dr. Jimmy Wall0
Truthful Reporting Through Subjective Journalism
Journalism is a profession that is in constant change. So much that scholars, and even journalists themselves, often disagree on what journalism is and what it is not. For decades objective journalism, as a style, has been considered the only true form of journalism. A style that claims to guarantee balanced, factual, fair and accurate reporting. If a news report is not labelled objective, it is often not considered to be proper, professional journalism — especially subjective journalism such as activist journalism. In this essay I will argue that subjective reporting can often be more truthful than what is considered objective reporting by examining citizen journalism, new journalism and gonzo journalism, and analysing objective journalism’s shortcoming compared to subjective journalism.
Since the early days of journalism, the task of a journalist has always been to document and make available what they witnessed, what the public not often themselves were witness to. The limitation of what has been made public, for the sake of profit, has been controlled by the gatekeepers of the newsroom. Which often journalists themselves are blamed for, only publishing what is profitable for the newspaper, not admitting loudly enough they often have the last say in what is to be published or not (Ashuri, 2012, pp. 39-40). Too often do we see journalists lambast critique of conventional journalism. Where they instead should stand behind the critique and demand that their fellow journalists and editors start writing for the public again, demanding the media houses that is accused of tearing down trustworthy journalism to be held accountable (Broersma, 2010, pp. 22-24). Professional journalists seem to be forgetting how to still be truth-seekers (Busch, 2012, p. 62).
Technology in the western world has provided the public with greater power to reach out to an audience, circumventing journalists and their gatekeepers. With the growing distrust with the media, doing this has become more appealing. Instead of sending a letter or a few photos to the editor, they can have these instantly published and spread online with devices and online tools at hand (Blaagaard, 2013, p. 3). This can be one of many reason citizen journalism— which act as rogue activist journalists —has managed to get a foot in the door, often being considered a positive competitor of conventional journalism. It might often be biased, lack professionalism and be poor of fact checking before publishing— hence the use of the word rogue —but it is mostly done for the benefit of the public — they get the information out quickly and uncensored (Broersma, 2010, pp. 22-23). Even with the rise of citizen journalism, professional journalists are not threatened by it. The most recent years citizen journalists have become a bit more accepted, however they are still viewed with some scepticism from professional journalists (Örnebring, 2013, p. 36).
Citizen journalists are often not viewed as professionals by those studying and working in the field of journalism. Usually due to the often lack of professionalism from citizen journalists. This is mostly due to a higher expectation of those whom are trained to be journalists, rather than those whom are accidental journalists, such as citizen journalists (Blaagaard, 2013, pp. 6-7). Citizen journalists might often be first to report something, which some professional journalists have decided to adopt and has resulted in criticism, forgoing the important task of vetting and fact checking sources (King, 2012). Citizen journalism is still admired in the way it has more freedom when publishing via a blog. However, if a journalist is publishing via their own blog, it is not considered citizen journalism (Blaagaard, 2013, p. 9).
In a study by Örnebring (2013, p. 43), the journalists interviewed pointed out one of the biggest differences between citizen journalists and professional journalists is expertise. As a professional journalist you are expected to filter information, because it is imperative to provide factual and accurate reporting to the public. Providing information, especially now with the ease of the Internet, can be done by anyone, but that does not mean the information provided is correct. It is not enough to have news sense — professional
journalists must follow a code of ethics (Örnebring, 2013, pp. 44-46). Using a citizen journalist as a source is also contested because of the fear of them being too biased, too subjective and too concerned to get something online quick — fearing that what they claim might be incorrect and difficult to verify. This is important for professional journalists, to be able to be absolutely sure the information they relay is factual and accurate (Blaagaard, 2013, pp. 8-9). Which is why Filloux (2013) argues that online news are ripe to adopt new journalism. A more subjective form of journalism that Tom Wolfe was part of creating. In addition, that should also mean gonzo journalism— created by Hunter S. Thompson —is a worthy candidate to again challenge conventional journalism. Where the journalist, in both styles, becomes part of the story to add a more interesting narrative and in-depth reporting.
“I don’t get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist’s view — ‘I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view.’ Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.”
— Hunter S. Thompson (Hahn, 1997).
Objectivity in journalism is often treated as the be-all-end-all approach to provide factual and accurate reporting, the only way for a journalist to provide balance to a story. Viewing subjective journalism as biased and often one-sided, unable to provide balance to a news story. Ignoring that absolute objectivity is often difficult and confused with scientific objectivity (Blaagaard, 2013, p. 5). The weakness of balance through objectivity, especially the belief that there are always at least two sides to a story, is that it not only adds a side for the sake of fair reporting, but it can often withhold information for the sake of balance. Also, objective reporting does not mean what is reported is accurate, it only means that its technique was accurate and objective. In contrast, subjective reporting believes there is sometimes only one side to the story, and therefore has no hesitation on reporting everything that is witnessed — because it is the only right thing to do. Which is why activist journalism and citizen journalism is very subjective (Jackson, 2011, pp. 1-2). In addition, He-said-she-said reporting is the best example regarding the weakness of objective journalism and how it uses false-balance to provide both sides to show they have provided a right to respond. It often adds nothing more than good quotes and the ability for the journalist to tick the boxes regarding; right to respond, balance and two sides to a story. With these boxes ticked, the journalist can happily attach the label objective to his or her write-up (Rosen, 2009).
“I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.” — Hunter S. Thompson (Hahn, 1997).
The obsession with objectivity in journalism has resulted in discarding any news story where the journalist might become too personal, such us being part of the story, almost leaving no room for analysis of a situation that is being reported on (Blaagaard, 2013, pp. 4-5). Objective reporting brings with it the issue of detachment from the story. The result of this, especially in war reporting, is that journalists retreat to the Green Zone and focus on positive and distant reporting. Making a news report seem appealing to the greater public with little conflict. Whereas subjective reporting would make war reporting more engaging and personal, to humanise the conflict instead of politicising it — reporting what is really happening on the ground, through the eyes and ears of the journalist (Busch, 2012, p. 60). The last few years journalism has come under attack and scrutiny when the reporting has been revealed to be far from objective. The reporting has even gone beyond being subjective, as it has flat-out lied to the readers, all for the sake of harvesting more readers, by adopting what is called churnalism. That however was allowed to happen because it was seen as objective, on the surface (Blaagaard, 2013, p. 22).
Scholars have noticed that recently some journalists are shifting from objective journalism towards advocate journalism, or to use another term, activist journalism. Where they admit to take a side to have an impact on society they feel is important to highlight. Sometimes ignoring the possible other side of the story, as it might undermine their cause and even be irrelevant (Ashuri, 2012, p. 40). There is no secret that every journalist has their own point of view. It only becomes a problem if they try to or a forced to hide it (Busch, 2012, p. 65). Often the choice of being subjective, yet still factual and accurate, is a technique to strengthen the balance in a journalist’s reporting. The ability to better understand what is truly factual and with more ease sift out what is not factual and accurate (Ashuri, 2012, pp. 45-46). A freedom often more freely granted to journalists writing for magazines, where it is expected of the journalist to write more than a very brief account with a few often meaningless direct quotes from talking heads. A magazine journalist is expected to be detailed in his or her reporting, capture the reader with a good story and still be factual and accurate, adhering to professional journalistic principles (Filloux, 2013).
Objective journalism has earlier been challenged by new journalism and is now again challenged by citizen journalism. Styles of journalism where the journalist often becomes part of the news story and narrative. Whereas objective journalism object to the journalist being part of the story, instead acting more like a narrator. By only narrating it is perceived such reporting is more objective, factual and accurate (Blaagaard, 2013, p. 4). In 1695 a guidebook for journalists by Kaspar Stieler wrote, “publishers will earn their reputation via the truthfulness of their reports.” Which should be the most important code to live by for journalists. It should not matter if you are objective or subjective — truthful reporting, that is what should only matter (Broersma, 2010, pp. 24-25). Another weakness in what is considered objective journalism is highlighted by what Theodore Glasser said, “objectivity requires only that journalists be accountable for how they report, not what they report.” This illustrates how objectivity is a perfect tool to present the unknowing reader with the hidden false-balance. Masquerade a news report as balanced because on the surface it seems to have been done right, but what is reported is incomplete. Which is why subjective reporting can be considered to be more balanced than what is considered objective reporting (Broersma, 2010, pp. 27-28).
“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”
— Hunter S. Thompson (1994)
An often used criticism of subjective journalism is that it is too opinionated, and that the true and only form of journalism is objective journalism, where the journalist is completely detached from the story. Such criticism paints all journalists that might be a bit subjective as bad journalists, enforcing the idea that as long as your story gets the objective label attached to it, it has no errors in it. It also makes the mistake by often treating analysis as opinion, which further treats any analysis and opinions as bias. Viewing any journalist that might actually be an expert on a topic as an amateur that knows nothing (Bushnell, 2008, pp. 33-34). By being more personal with the reader, the journalist has more room to better explain what is going on and, if possible, why. It is of course important to be clear with what is facts and what is analysis, but that is no obstacle for being ethical when writing subjectively (Jeppesen & Hansen, 2011, pp. 111-113).
Subjective reporting still tries to attain objectivity via balance in its reporting. Even if gonzo journalism that is subjective, often fully rejects the idea of being objective. What is reported is what the journalist experience. In gonzo journalism fiction is often, but not a necessity, blended with the non-fiction, not for the sake of vilifying the reader, but more as a narrative device — a different way of incorporating analogies if you will (Hoover, 2009, pp. 326-327). Subjective journalism, such as new journalism and gonzo journalism, challenges conventional journalism in the way it approaches a story. Conventional journalism, such as objective journalism, is dead-set on grabbing some great quotes quickly, gather them and write them down. This often depraves the story of emotion and subjectivity, because it is not seen as the task of a journalist to write in such a way. In addition, the time spent writing new journalism and gonzo journalism is often time consuming, due to the time spent with the subject. Something Tom Wolfe saw as dedication (Jacobson, 1975, pp. 85-86).
New journalism and gonzo journalism is not only about being subjective, nor exclusively allowing the journalist to be part of the story. It is about letting the reader experience vicariously what the journalist experienced. This can only be done if the journalist is allowed to be descriptive, emotional and subjective in his or her reporting (Jacobson, 1975, pp. 87-88). The uniqueness with new journalism, as Tom Wolfe called it, is style. It has very little to do with semantics and sociology. What is important is not just what your story is about, but how you tell it (Fishwick, 1975, pp. 3-5). Another key ingredient of new journalism is what Tom Wolfe discussed in his essay about the style, its realism. Because the journalist is more involved in the story, the story itself becomes more real (Jacobson, 1975, p. 85).
Narrative journalism is another style that is in favour of more subjective reporting — similar to activist journalism. Where the journalist acts almost as an anthropologist. Highlighting the importance of being transparent as a reporter. Furthermore it argues how important it can be for the reader to become more involved with a story when it offers more details and analysis (Jeppesen & Hansen, 2011, pp. 98-102). Keeping in mind that transparency does not mean revealing every tiny detail, and of course not revealing whom your anonymous sources are, but the ability to be honest with possible shortcomings in a news report. Whereas objective journalism will exclude shortcomings without a mention of them (Broersma, 2010, pp. 30-31). Gonzo journalism can be described as activist journalism how Hunter S. Thompson approached it. He took on stories no-one else would with an angle others would not dare, because it was not considered to be objective (Jirón-King, 2008, pp. 7-10). By allowing the journalist to be more subjective it can also provide the luxury to get an insight in the journalist’s process of covering a story. This in turn provides more transparency and authenticity. Suddenly the reader is not only reading a brief report of what is going on somewhere else in the world, but how it was reported by the journalist. Again, allowing the reader to vicariously experience what the journalist experienced (Thompson, 2003, pp. 201-217). New journalism and gonzo journalism provides the reader with human reality, something objective journalism can not as the journalist has been detached from the reporting (Jacobson, 1975, p. 90).
How subjective you can be as a journalist can however be troublesome, as it depends on in which country you are working as a journalist. In Norway, under special circumstances a journalist is allowed to not divulge their identity as a journalist if to uncover what might be important for society to know about. In addition Norwegian journalists has 42 codes they need to adhere to (Norsk Journalist lag, n.d.). In contrast, Australian journalists are expected to always reveal their identity as a journalist and has only 12 codes to follow, which has a limiting effect (Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, n.d.). This clearly shows that a limited set of guidelines creates a limited scope which a journalist in Australia can work within. Which might also explain the lack of diversity in news reporting and style, where the default and safe approach to news reporting becomes objective, in how it is reported, not what is reported.
In conclusion, what is considered objective journalism has only provided journalists with tools on how to report objectively. That is to say, it only guarantees an objective ‘how’, not an objective ‘what.’ Instead, subjective journalism has a greater guarantee a news report is truthful because a subjective journalist intends and is expected to report everything seen, heard and experienced. As their intent and expectation is the to tell the whole story to the reader. In addition, with objective journalism the journalist is expected to detach themselves from the news story, which makes the ‘how’ far more important than the ‘what’. A subjective journalist is often attached to the news story, being part of it, making the ‘what’ more important and the ‘how’ naturally part of the story. This strong attachment to the news story holds the journalist more accountable for what has been written.
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