What is newsroom objectivity?

(This is an expansion of this thread)

When is a news organization being fair to a range of good-faith perspectives, and when is that newsroom retreating from a moral responsibility? When is a reporter taking a partisan stance and when is it a stance for justice?

With the rise of the social web in the last 20 years, this reevaluation of journalistic principle has been frequently described through the lens of newsroom objectivity. It reached a fever pitch in 2020, resulting in an important dialogue on objectivity and “moral clarity” in newsrooms.

This concept was the topic of a session in November 2020 during the virtual 12th annual Klein News Innovation Camp unconference I help organize. I’ve revisited the conversation, and I want to share what I took away.

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Newsroom objectivity and “moral clarity” are not in opposition

(This is adapted from a Twitter thread)

No, newsrooms don’t need to throw out “objectivity’ as a principle. Yes “moral clarity” should mean something for news organizations.

This thread comes from my own experiences, plus this helpful conversation I had during Klein News Innovation Camp with Alexis Johnson, Tom Rosenstiel and Wes Lowery.

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What is my news, media or content business worth?

As the web has brought down the upfront costs of launching a publishing business, there are plenty of them. This means I’ve been asked to join several conversations about how to decide how much one of these are worth.

I’ve been involved in several conversations over the last few years in which publishers (those with no full-time employees to those with several dozen) have sought advice or discussed the topic. I suspect I’ll have other conversations like them in the future, so I thought I’d just share some of the advice I most commonly give and have seen take place.

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Notes on ‘Stuff of Thought’ by Steven Pinker

Language is a manifestation of human thought. So it’s an effective tool to understanding how we perceive the world.

That’s the premise of the 2007 bestselling book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. His prodigious collection of popular books blending linguistics, thought and human nature have made him both a celebrity academic and a frequent source of scorn.

I appreciate his contributions and regardless of popular perception, I’ve enjoyed working through his catalogue. Below I capture some notes from finally getting through this one. Find 2007 reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian.

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White authors writing non-white characters

American fiction writing is over-indexed for straight white male voices, considering our rapidly diversifying country. A consequence of this has been painful examples of white authors doing a crummy job conveying the voice and experience of non-white characters.

This has been no better demonstrated than in Young Adult fiction. The deserved backlash has gone to a logical extreme: should white authors write non-white characters at all?

If you believe like me that there, indeed, will continue to be white authors and that we do not want all stories told by white authors to be exclusively populated by white characters, then the more productive question is how can white authors effectively and ethically write non-white characters?

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Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

This is adapted from a Twitter thread.

There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.

Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.

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News organizations: how do you get throughout feedback from your community?

I assume that the idea of ‘letters to the editor’ was once a representative and effective means for news organizations to receive feedback from their community.

I’m not certain it remains so. For one, those can of course only be sent in for what has already been announced. I also get the sense not many reporters really listened or could gauge the preponderance of feedback.

The rise of quantitative surveying helps, though of course surveys are also not necessarily representative. We at Technically Media do our fair bit of surveying, after events and annually too. We also host regular curated groups of readers and (importantly) those we aspire to be readers of ours.

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Three emerging approaches to local journalism

It’s no longer quite right to say journalism as a whole is imperiled by the internet-age. In the last decade, powerhouse national outlets have made the business model leaps. Other important and influential national and global organizations gather and produce valuable information for the civic good. Their concerns are now with truth and partisanship and objectivity. These are heady issues but they’re not directly revenue problems.

This is different from publishers with a geographic focus; previous business models don’t comport simply with web-powered scale. Local journalism is very much in crisis. I know this personally and professionally, so I follow trends closely with an applied viewpoint

I’ve long thought that we at the news organization I cofounded a decade ago are something of an outlier, trying to approach local reporting through a for-profit, multi-local strategy. (I wrote here about why Technically Media is not a nonprofit). Recently though I’ve noticed that we may fit into one of three broad approaches I see tackling local news.

This is made clear by the strengthening of the country’s superstar national commercial journalism providers as the collapse of the dominant local forms continues apace. Web-powered scale has laid bare that national and local outlets are in entirely different categories. 

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Advice for journalists graduating into a recession

New journalists, I graduated May 2008, and though I actually think this moment is even more challenging than then, let me share a few thoughts I wish someone told me then.

It’s ok to consider a job outside journalism. Your skills (writing, analysis, research) are portable. We do want people to shuffle to growth industries. You can bring journalism thinking and support elsewhere.

But the economy is presently stalled and many of you are true believers, so let’s talk.

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Journalists as a ‘community directory of last resort’

Journalists fill such a unique role in communities. As a mirror, we show the best and the worst. We also often serve as a kind of directory of last resort.

I want to tell you something incredible, yet familiar, that happened recently.

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