Objectivity

I have been following the outpouring of political discussion and advocacy on the web. Lately, the talk has been of Jon Stewart‘s stunning appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Today I stumbled across a brief post by Dave Winer, and the fascinating comments that grew up around it.

Jon’s attack on the inadequacies of the news media was brilliant. But too often I hear bias criticized, and objectivity and fairness exalted as solutions. As someone who loves ideas and who has always turned to the editorial and opinion pages first, I am naturally skeptical.

This autumn, I returned to university to study communication. I’ve jumped into third year courses without any background, so I’ve been quite busy. That’s why I haven’t been blogging much – I probably won’t blog a lot until the end of the term. This is relevant because I’m actually studying objectivity. I would like to blog something, so I’m including my (slightly modified) comments on Dave’s post here:

In this discussion there are a number of claims that the problem with the news media is a lack of objectivity. Blogs, they say, are worse.

Objectivity, while it may be a worthy goal, is unattainable. Every story is biased one way or another – it is biased by its headline, by the sources it quotes from, by the facts it includes and the facts it excludes. When it is “balanced” – e.g. by representing Democrats and Republicans – it frames the debate, and excludes those who fall outside it. If it sticks to facts and fairness, it excludes ideas and analysis, which in a complex world require an even greater commitment to a point of view.

Objectivity can still be a worthy goal. But if we forget, and believe we have achieved it, then we are blind to the imperfections of our news. We forget that every story inevitably represents a point of view.

Subjectivity has its advantages. An objective story may hide its opinion behind quotes and sources and selective facts. A subjective story shouts its opinion aloud. A dozen blogs with different personal points of view make readers think; better still, they can inspire readers participate. They echo the complexity of a complex world. What is an objective summary of the comments in this discussion? Is there only one, or are there many possible ones with different narratives and angles?

Subjectivity is one of the greatest strength of blogs. If we devote ourselves to objectivity, then we aspire to be nothing more than decent newspapers. Blogs – and the participatory culture of the web in general – can capture much more: diversity, debate, participation, and a dialog of ideas.

2004-10-19

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