Is Subjectivity The Enemy of Journalism?
These days, more people are getting their news from blogs and other forms of online reporting, leading to some raised eyebrows in newsrooms across the nation. In the era when “everyone’s a critic,” are blogs jeopardizing journalistic integrity?
There has been mud-slinging in both directions, creating a polarized scholarly debate that tends to revolve around the following two assumptions:
Bloggers are often deemed ill-informed amateurs with no credibility or nothing substantial to contribute.
Professional journalists are too slow, “old-school,” or represent elites and establishment.
Debates crystallize around objectivity vs. subjectivity, with objectivity held up as the golden standard in journalism. But in this study, Chong challenges the central phrasing of this scholarly debate, showing that it is fundamentally misleading. Instead, she discusses the growth of blogging and its relation to professional journalism as different genres of writing, or “epistemic styles.”
Chong’s study makes a more nuanced contribution to the field by:
Taking objectivity vs. subjectivity off the table and avoiding overly simplistic judgements about one forum being “better” than the other.
Examining how different platforms complement each other, rather than act as rivals in two separate spheres.
Offering a fuller picture of where the public goes for sources of information.
The study draws on interviews with book reviewers who contribute to major American newspapers (The New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, and so forth) as well as popular blogs. The study is part of a larger book project on book critics.
To summarize a few key points from this study:
Book reviewers double-dipped their pens into both worlds: respondents contributed to both blogs and prominent outlets and adjusted their professional practices to fit each medium.
Blogs have become a new space for professional reporters.
With the introduction of blogs as a new medium, the norms of the profession are gradually changing with it.
With overlapping spheres, there is widespread “fluidity in identity” among book reviewers as a profession.
Chong examined three “modes of subjectivity” and analyzed how each contributed to knowledge-making within the blogosphere and mainstream media.
Bias: Refers to reporting based on individual prejudices and opinions rather than facts and/or realities of the situation. Keeping bias at bay is considered fundamental to ensuring fairness and representation in journalism, as it can lead to distortions if journalists inject their individual opinions when interpreting and reporting on issues.
Emotionality: Emotionality tends to be treated as a problem child in the journalism world – a disruptive force to the gold standard of objective reporting and stereotypically associated with tabloids and pundits. Nonetheless, emotionality played a role across genres.
Self-Interest: Refers to the perceived competition between commitments to the self and an external audience. In essence, credible journalists are expected to put the interests of their readership first; however, balancing self-interest and public interest is an ongoing negotiation for this new generation of journalists.
Objectivity is an imperfect ideal: No reporter is immune to personal bias, and this study reveals the importance of shifting the focus of the scholarly debate. There’s more merit to recognizing the legitimacy of both blogs and traditional media in the journalism world.
Subjectivity manifested differently according to the genre and whether this was perceived as a positive or negative effect varied by the platform. Within the blogosphere, bias was considered a virtue: book bloggers selected books based on their “personal taste” and profiled “smaller,” “indie,” and “neglected” books that were perceived as unfairly “denied” coverage in traditional newspapers and magazines. In contrast, book reviewers discussed the enormous emphasis put on finding a “good match” for book reviews in order to minimize a critic’s prejudice towards a work.
The concept of self-interest is constantly influx: Writing for highly prestigious publications offered book reviewers legitimacy and the opportunity to promote their own published works. However, this was deemed “expertise,” not a conflict of interest, demonstrating how self-interest is a construct within the profession – one that evolves to fit different genres.
All respondents demonstrated commitment to serving their audience first. How they accomplished this goal depended on the genre, with respondents adjusting their practices and catering to the informational needs of each audience.
To read the full study, click here.