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July 30, 2014

For the Economist: Beyond "Objectivity," the Web's Transparency Opens a New Window for Journalists

The Economist is running a major series on the global news industry, well-worth checking into, excerpts available for non-subscribers. As part of that effort, I’ve been asked to contribute, among a half-dozen others (among them, Dan Gillmor, David Levy, Ying Chan, Larry Kilman), weekly thoughts. For week 4, the question, “Is transparency the new objectivity?”

Here’s my take, below, and a link to others’ takes:

LET us think of news reporting like a window. If a journalist is inside the window, creating news, she should always have a few core principles firmly fixed. Getting it right. Making it clear. Providing understanding. Doing the right thing, without fear or favour. These are boring concepts, and ones we have not been able to communicate well to our readers. Civics are not sexy.

Those kinds of qualities, the complex of them, are far more essential than simplistic objectivity. Objectivity did not make sense when it was taught to me in an otherwise fine University of Oregon School of Journalism graduate program in the 1970s, and it does not make sense now.

Werner Heisenberg proved scientifically what has nagged at most of us as endless arguments of objectivity and “subjectivity” erupted in newsrooms, public forums and now in the blogosphere: an observer watching an event necessarily changes the “objective” reality of the event. In other words, there is no single objective truth waiting to be discovered, like a chunk of real estate such as The New World. There are many interwoven truths that need to be pulled apart, examined and rewoven endlessly. That’s what we do as journalists—unknot and re-weave.

Now, let’s look at the view from outside the window. Some windows are opaque; many need cleaning from time to time. The newsroom windows that many of us have inherited come from a milky tradition; the public can kind of see through them, but only with great effort.

Transparency—aided and abetted by openness, interactivity and ability to instantly respond, correct and make better—is a gift (which sometimes seems like a curse) from the innovation of the web.

For journalists today it is a two-way window. On the creation end, no matter how much they crowdsource, use Twitter and engage with communities, core journalistic principles of fairness remain fundamental. On the viewing end, the new transparency helps us get it more correct, we would hope. Window washing, then, becomes the new order of the day

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