when is a journalist like a librarian? (part 1)

Two stories on NPR recently got me thinking about parallels between journalism (something with which, I should note, I have no experience) and libraries. This post got long, so I’ll treat one of them here, the other later.

First, in re the recent blogoversy on the Juan Williams firing. Tell Me More, the NPR show on which I have the biggest crush ever (sorry, Carl Kasell; my fling with you notwithstanding), addressed it, and the following quotes from Richard Prince struck me:

And as John pointed out, we have distinctions between news analysts and opinion people. And as Vivian Schiller, the CEO, said, Juan is not supposed to be giving opinions even – well, not on NPR – and when he does it on other networks, it reflects on us.

And later:

Well, your show is not – you’re not in the same category as a reporter would be for NPR, who has to go out and, you know, and give the illusion of objectivity.

Now, again, I’m not from a journalistic background. My thinking on objectivity comes from my background in classics, classical history in particular, where the understanding I got is: there is no such thing as objectivity; we’re all biased; and part of the effort of writing history is the attempt to understand and filter through our own biases, to see how they impact the history we write, and to understand how other writers’ reports of history are influenced by their stance. Truths are out there, but you have to triangulate them as close as you can through clouds of bias and error and incomplete corpora.

It seems to me — and again, I’m not a journalist — that journalism is much like history only realtime, the triangulating of truth through clouds of bias, without the benefit of emotional separation but with far better corpora. And thus it is strange to me that we should expect our news reporters — be they “analysts” or “opinion people” or what-have-you — to be tabulae rasae, without any sort of bias. It seems better to me that we have their opinions on the table, so we know what those are and can adjust our understandings of what they say accordingly. Having those biases hidden for me doesn’t create more trust — it creates less trust, because it’s just an illusion that they don’t have bias (or, at least: bias distinguishing them from the social mainstream), and obscures important evidence. It’s a safe and comforting mirage of trust that holds up only if you don’t think about it.

I put this here because there’s an information literacy tie-in — because questions of audience and bias and context are important for how we evaluate information — and I am wondering how people teaching information literacy are handling this. And, for that matter, how people from other disciplinary backgrounds theorize this whole issue. What say you?

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9 thoughts on “when is a journalist like a librarian? (part 1)

  1. There was a prominent physics prof at Case who had a similar philosophy. He put his politics on the table, he said, so that his students would know where he was coming from and could adjust their take-home messages accordingly. I’m not sure how this becomes necessary when teaching physics, exactly.

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    1. Yeah, one hopes it does not come up with physics, but I appreciate it. One of my management profs at Simmons did that — both her political and her managerial-philosophy biases — and that’s a subject where it really can come up, and I appreciated it a lot. (Or, rather: I appreciated it a lot given that she went on to be clearly open to other voices in the classroom. You do have to be careful to put them on the table in a way that makes it clear to students of other persuasions that they’re welcome. But as long as that hurdle’s cleared, win.)

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    2. I had a math professor who did the same thing, though in her case it was to announce that her belief in a young Earth led her to believe it was inappropriate to discuss exponential decay without mentioning that she felt it was misapplied to the geological sciences.

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      1. *snerk* Now there’s a pedagogical philosophy that doesn’t scale up: “never teach about a model without listing all the things to which it doesn’t apply.”

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  2. There are two senses of objectivity you seem to be using. On the one hand, there is objectivity in the sense of a mind-independent reality. Objective truths surely exist, and I think you hint at that when you say that “truths are out there”.
    On the other hand, there is objectivity in the sense of neutrality with respect to reporting the truth. This, too, exists. Sure, bias colors a great many of our beliefs and our decisions about what should be communicated. But that doesn’t mean we can deny the possibility of objectivity categorically.

    I’d say that a significant percentage (even a majority?) of the claims made in news reports or historical discussions are free from bias. What if Carl Kassell says, ‘The Giants won the World Series’, ‘Caesar crossed the Rubicon’, ‘today is Monday’…I don’t see how bias necessarily colors objective reports of factual information like these. Moreover, professional standards of practice are intentionally developed to avoid bias. For example, as a reference librarian, I don’t worry about bias when someone asks me “when was the Battle of Hastings?” But, how could I avoid bias when I responded to today’s request for help researching the moral aspects of Oregon’s right-to-die law? Simple. Professional standards (e.g., the reference interview), a commitment to the principle of charity, and common sense. NPR, like a library or history department, has professional standards that can and do eliminate bias (use only descriptive statements, honor the principle of charity, equal time for dissenting opinions, etc.). I think that these professional standards make the distinction between reporters and analysts clear-cut. In the case of classical history, it’s clear that Suetonius was biased in his depiction of Nero. But Tacitus correctly called shenanigans, and it is the work of Tacitus that has (mostly) avoided allegations of bias…because he played by the rules. In sum, bias permeates our lives. But mechanisms exist to keep bias in check and ensure objectivity.

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    1. In the first sense, I agree that truths are often out there. I say “often” because it depends on what kind of thing you’re talking about. There is totally a truth out there about whether the real numbers are a closed set (they’re not), or when exactly the Battle of Hastings happened. On the other hand, there may not be quite a truth about why the Battle of Hastings happened — at best there are a lot of overlapping and intersecting and maybe sometimes contradictory truths. When you get into matters of motivations and perceptions and, dare I say it, the subjective aspects of human experience, I am no longer convinced there is (are) objective truth(s).

      And, of course, there’s a whole swath of in-betweens. I think, for instance, there are objective truths about the nature of gravity, but our ability to discern them is imperfect; while we have ways of disconfirming our models, we wouldn’t necessarily know if we’d hit on a perfect or complete one. (Really, I think most of reality resides in the in-betweens; it’s one of the reasons I was a math major.)

      As for the second — I absolutely disagree. I think there are tools to enable us to be more objective in our reporting: disciplinary tools, mental stances. I think there are reports that are clearly not objective. But I think that what we call “objectivity” or “neutrality” in reporting is all too often merely that which does not run afoul of any of our dominant cultural paradigms.

      For example, it might be widely considered “neutral”, when interviewing a Democrat on some issue, to invite a Republican to discuss it as well. Two sides of every story, right? “Equal time for dissenting opinions”? But in fact that is only “neutral” from within a paradigm that takes Democrat and Republican to thoroughly stake out the political space. If you’re a Green or libertarian or socialist or fascist or Christian Democrat or what-have-you, you would not find this reporting neutral at all. If you believe that the entire democratic project is flawed and the system needs to be destroyed, then even a panel with representatives from every party in existence would not be neutral to you.

      And even in factual reporting, I have concerns. Yes, our hero Carl is likely to be right (or, at least, can be demonstrated conclusively wrong) in his statements on those matters. But somewhere there was a choice made that the Giants, or Caesar, or Mondays were the facts worthy of discussion, and that choice has its own slant.

      I am deeply concerned about the idea of “objectivity” being used as a mask for, and confirmation of, our ingrained, invisible biases.

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  3. Political interviews, by definition, are biased events, so I don’t know that the example works. In any event, I am very familiar with the ‘dominant cultural paradigm’ approach, though I find it deterministic and a bit cynical. Deterministic because of the implication that we are unable to escape the circumstances of our cultural milieu; cynical because it implies that we can’t communicate across cultural divides. Yet, we can grow through education, we can communicate with the “other’, and we can remain objective about a great many things. Not every issue, mind you, but certainly enough to make categorical denouncements of neutral epistemic states untenable.

    As to factual reporting, I agree: in every case, news organizations selectively pick and choose which facts to report. But there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, because most of our biases are benign. My local paper reports NFL scores, yet ignores the Malaysian Badminton Association. I suppose I *could* point to the hegemony of Western attitudes towards Southeast Asians as the problem with this biased coverage, but a more plausible account would be that the newspaper is of finite length, and local stories are more relevant. Then again, when the Fox News website has a bright red alert about terrorist activities all day long on Election Day, even though their report was factual, the slant is obvious (no other major news source hyped the Greek mail bombs the same way). Sure, some factual reporting exhibits bias through the sin of omission. Sometimes that omission is benign, sometimes it is harmful.

    You should be concerned about false objectivity…we all should be. But, a major part of our intellectual, social, and moral development consists in identifying, understanding, and removing these ingrained cognitive biases.

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  4. What I’d like is for all of my news sources to honestly disclose their biases but then to do the best they possibly can at presenting the facts in an unbiased manner anyway.

    The trouble with news organizations that are openly biased (and let it color their reporting) is that I can’t for the life of me distinguish what they’re doing from propaganda: they’re intentionally giving me a warped view of the facts so I’ll be more likely to agree with them. I feel like I could have a sliver of a chance of accounting for subconscious effects of bias in reporting by people doing their best to be fair. I have no confidence in my ability to outwit someone who is deliberately trying to mislead me (especially when they’re my source of facts to begin with).

    That’s why I can’t stomach Fox News, and why I avoid MSNBC, too. Everyone else is biased, too, but at least they try, and they’ll feel ethically compelled to fess up if they say something particularly slanted and get called out on it.

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