Editorial: Notes on Objectivity and News

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(APN) ATLANTA — From time to time, Atlanta Progressive News has received questions from readers and other interested parties questioning the “objectivity” of our reporting.

To be sure, we published several statements on our Frequently Asked Questions page over four years ago making it very clear that (1) we believe objectivity in news reporting does not exist, and that (2) we report news from a progressive perspective.

In addition, we have made a number of statements responding to various blog posts and commenters on other websites as well.

In anticipation of APN’s major website redesign–currently in progress–Atlanta Progressive News has released the following Editorial to readers refining and expanding upon our position in reference to issues of objectivity, inter-subjectivity, and the news media.

This programmatic statement will likely be the first of several essays on these subjects, and will serve as a more detailed reference point for our readers and others with related questions.

BASIC STATEMENTS FROM OUR FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS PAGE

The following statements appear on APN’s original Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Page:

“Our goal is providing news of concern to the working people and working families of Atlanta.”

“Progressive news is news that brings us closer to universal health care, living wages, affordable housing, peace, a healthy environment, and voting systems we can trust.”

“We provide news of concern to working families, and therefore, our writing is geared toward a specific audience. Fortunately, our audience–working families–comprises a majority of people in the United States who are largely ignored by corporate media sources.”

“We believe there is no such thing as objective news. Typically, mainstream media presents itself as objective but is actually skewed towards promoting the corporate agenda of the ultra-wealthy. APN, on the other hand, does not pretend to be objective. We believe that our news coverage is fair and that our progressive principles are fair. We aim when possible to give voice to all sides, but aim to provide something different than what is already provided by corporate sources.”

NO SUCH THING AS OBJECTIVITY IN NEWS

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” – Howard Zinn

So, the first point is, as already stated on our FAQs page, there’s no such thing as objectivity in news.

The premise of objectivity is literally to remove the observer from what it is that is being observed and simply to report what “is.” However, that is an impossibility. It cannot be done. In fact, there is nothing that “is,” separate from the observer or multiple observers who construct and interpret what that reality is.

One could argue that the only one who’s really objective is God, and that’s because God is omniscient or all-knowing (that is, if you believe in God).

This talk of the observer and the observed may sound philosophical and abstract, but it will become much clearer as we consider examples.

Now, the first way we know that there is no such thing as objective media is that we have no evidence, no examples, of objective media outlets. (if you find one, let us know right away!)

Every publication has an editorial perspective which shapes and constrains the way its reporters cover the news, which in turn affects the way its readers view reality.

However, the difference between APN and most publications is that most publications pretend to be objective–and maybe even convince themselves that they are–while we have never pretended to be objective.

Take the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, for example. AJC reporters might consider themselves objective, and there may be some readers whose worldviews are so much in line with that of the AJC that the publication seems objective to them. But take note- many Atlantans on the left consider the AJC to be the newsletter of corporate and real estate interests, while many Atlantans on the right consider the AJC to be a liberal rag.

How can that be if there’s an objective reality and the AJC is objective? And who is correct? Who gets to decide who is correct?

We could create a panel called the Committee on Objectivity to judge who is objective and who isn’t, but undoubtedly there would be disagreement with their decisions (and who gets to sit on the panel, who gets to vote for who sits on the panel, etc.)!

Nor is Creative Loafing objective. Even less, they are constantly mixing facts and opinions in the same articles. For example: “What is Michael Bond smoking these days? Since he rejoined the Atlanta City Council last month after an eight-year hiatus, Bond has seemingly been trying to make up for lost time by churning out attention-getting resolutions – to create a penny sales tax for public safety, to apologize to the victims of the Atlanta Eagle raid, etc.”

How is that objective? Again, objective means removing the observer. So you mean to tell me that anybody looking at Michael Julian Bond’s legislative record would also inevitably question whether the Councilman was smoking? No, that is a clear opinion.

Most publications–including APN–do not regularly mix facts and opinions in the same articles.

However, the perspectives of APN and other publications come through in other ways: (1) the choices of what stories to cover and what not to cover, (2) defining what a story is or is not in the first place, (3) deciding how to cover the story, (4) assessing what the “sides” are to be balanced, (5) deciding how the “sides” should be balanced, (6) deciding what facts to include and what not facts to include, etc.

At Atlanta Progressive News, we have a transparent editorial perspective that shapes which facts get included and which facts are given priority over others. Most other publications–on the other hand–have a hidden, sometimes insidious editorial perspective that shapes the same.

My point regarding the non-existence of objectivity in news has to do with which facts get included and which don’t- which “sides” get included and which don’t. Every publication has to make choices about this, which are unique to each publication and to each situation being written about.

Now most people’s basic understanding of objectivity is: balancing the sides. Okay, let’s talk about the sides for a minute. How many sides are there?

Well, there are approximately six billion people in the world, and to the extent that everyone’s perspective is slightly different, there could be potentially six billion sides.

So what journalists do is construct what they see as key themes or narratives that seem to define the major sides. Well, again, how many sides are there? What if paper A includes two sides, but paper B includes three? What if paper C includes five, but doesn’t include one of the sides paper A included?

What it means is, again, that there is no such thing as objective reality or objective news, and all news stories are constructed.

Here’s an example: the Grady Hospital dialysis treatment scandal. As APN has reported, several patients were left without life-essential treatment options after Grady closed its dialysis clinic. You could do a content analysis and you will find that APN gave much higher priority to the views of the patients and their advocates than we did to Grady officials, while the AJC did just the opposite. In part, our mission is shaped by the void left by other media outlets.

Some publications did not even cover the Grady dialysis scandal. Well, if there’s an objective reality and the Grady situation is part of it, surely all news agencies would see it as newsworthy?

Now, if we at APN wanted to, we could have sought out some activists in Marietta who believe that immigrants do not have a right to dialysis care in the US and deserve to die. But that’s not a view that we would validate at APN. It’s a view they might include at the AJC, but to us it is so inhumane that is outside the realm of what we would consider reasonable or even worth mentioning.

Before I get to other examples, I want to clarify- this is not the same as saying there are not facts. Everyone can look at the Grady situation and see that there are dialysis patients, that they are undocumented, that the clinic has closed, etc. (Yes, there are facts within a socially constructed, inter-subjective reality; not quite objective facts.)

However, beyond those basic facts, people have very different opinions. Some look at the Grady situation and see a human rights crisis, others see an economic question. But that doesn’t mean one view is objective and the other is not, or that one is true and one is false. It means there are different perspectives. And each publication has to decide which perspectives to include or exclude, and those decisions are based on the editorial perspectives and priorities of that publication.

Okay, another example: nuclear power. Atlanta Progressive News conducted extensive research on nuclear power, including literally weeks of reading the US government’s environmental impact statement on proposed Plants Vogtle 3 and 4, in addition to conducting interviews and reviewing secondary data, to determine that (a) nuclear power plants appear to be correlated with increased cancer rates in nearby areas, and (b) nuclear power plants are draining our water supplies at extreme rates, contributing to drought.

Now, once we came to those conclusions, that influenced everything we reported about nuclear power ever since.

So, again, back to the sides- what are the sides? Read AJC articles on Plant Vogtle and you’ll barely, if at all, see any concerns about health, the environment, and water usage. If you read the AJC you would think nuclear power is simply an economic issue that affects our electric bills.

However, at APN, we found many activists who see nuclear power very differently- they see it as a grave threat to our health and safety.

So, if reality is so objective–and if reality will always be seen the same way no matter who the observer is–then why didn’t the AJC interview any of those people? Oh, that’s right: there is no such thing as objectivity.

But even more than that, after all our reporting and research on nuclear power, our editorial position at APN is: nuclear power is bad, there’s too many questions about it, and we shouldn’t continue to take these risks. We don’t take stands on every issue we cover, but this has certainly been one of them. (more on this in the next section)

Why shouldn’t all the facts and research add up to a conclusion? We, the APN Staff and Board, live on this Earth too. We want clean air and water too.

So, we’re supposed to just say, well, some people say nuclear power is good, others say it’s bad; the jury’s still out? Well, no, the jury is not still out!

Another example: public housing demolitions in Atlanta. At APN, we brought you the residents’ perspectives, updates on residents and advocates’ efforts to prevent the demolitions, and again, did extensive research including FOIA requests and struggles for public documents–where very little or none of this was available in any other media outlet.

Does it mean the residents didn’t have perspectives? No, just that they were largely ignored by most other publications. Does it mean the residents didn’t undertake advocacy efforts? No, just that we were the only ones who cared enough about them to report about it.

But, again, that doesn’t mean the other news agencies were objective. What it really means is that the reporters and editors were so convinced that the demolitions were a good thing that they didn’t see the need to include very much of the other sides.

And if you don’t think other news outlets had an opinion on the demolitions, take our word for it. Some of them were quite open about it.

Also, the majority of Atlanta publications make very different decisions about which facts or positions to include based on the readership they serve. Atlanta has several Black papers, Hispanic papers, and GLBT papers. The business community has a paper; the legal community has a paper. Creative Loafing is an “alternative” paper, which implies some perspective.

Each makes very different decisions about what to include, because they’re each operating under the notion that they’re serving an under-served community. For example, the Black papers will include Black people’s perspectives and discuss Black community issues more, because they believe they are being under-represented elsewhere.

Many of these publications continue to believe that they’re objective, though; and that’s the mistake. We can strive for balance and inclusion but we all have different audiences and priorities, and values that shape what “sides” are included or even recognized.

So, to review, there is no such thing as objectivity. Some publications pretend to be objective, but they’re not.

Moreover, in our experience, objective reporting has really been used as a synonym for being sure to give priority to the corporate, bourgeois ideology and making sure not to offend the powers that be.

Seriously: most reporters seem to think the best way to show they’re objective is to marginalize the populist view and, again, give priority to the view of the power elite.

The subjective slant of the vast majority of media outlets in Atlanta tends to be so inline with the bourgeois, corporate ideology, that all of these media outlets–from the AJC, to corporate TV news, to Creative Loafing–kind of reinforce and reify each other to the point where one can easily become deluded that this corporate ideology they propagate is somehow an objective truth. But it’s not.

Who knows why media outlets gravitate to the right? Some of it may be a capitalist conspiracy- and if you don’t believe in conspiracies, please revisit your US history. A lot of it has to do with the belief that progressive news content will sit poorly with advertisers. A lot of it has to do with these same outlets wanting journalistic access to the powers that be; often that means not publishing negative information about someone in power to ensure access to them later.

So most corporate media outlets are in a tenuous position. They have to low the line the majority of the time, and in return they get to occasionally dish the dirt.

Also, many people, when they think of objective reporting in their mind, conjure up the notion that there is a “left” and a “right” and that objective reality must be somewhere in between. Well, most issues that are covered are more complicated than left and right, but let’s address it for a minute.

The “left” and the “right” don’t exist in objective reality either. These are socially constructed, historical context-specific “viewpoints” that seem to make a lot of sense but in fact condense many, many issues into two sides.

Even so, even if the goal of objective reporting was to balance left and right, each publication has to determine what the left and right positions are in relation to the issue they’re covering.

Well, while many in the US have come to believe that the Democratic and Republican parties are the respective representatives of left and right, that is only a small part of the spectrum of ideas.

APN, for example, frequently finds itself to the left of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. And in most of the world, the mainstream US notion of left and right is, again, a small part of the spectrum, particularly a center-right part of that spectrum. Think about how CNN reports the news quite differently to its US and international audiences.

What has happened is that the “balance” has drifted further and further to the right to the point where the progressive point of view has become almost completely left out of the majority of corporate news outlets. This trend may give the impression that progressive thought exists outside the realm of objective reality, but that’s only because so many journalists see their job as balancing the two sides, left and right, which when seen from a wider perspective, are really just center-right and right.

In the next section, we will discuss more thoroughly APN’s mission.

ATLANTA PROGRESSIVE NEWS OPENLY REPORTS FROM A PROGRESSIVE, WORKING FAMILIES PERSPECTIVE

“We exist because we want to make society better, not because we want to ‘objectively’ document it all as society goes to hell in a hand-basket.” – Atlanta Progressive News

So the second part of this is, we take a progressive perspective. Sometimes that means taking stands on issues.

One cluster of issues we take stands on frequently are issues involving democracy, free speech, open records, open meetings, open government, public input, public consultation, and public comment. We previously challenged the Atlanta Housing Authority on open meetings issues, and we may soon be doing the same with another entity.

Many of you know about the impromptu rap song performed recently by APN’s News Editor before the City Council of Atlanta in opposition to public comment restrictions. To be sure, the rap format was a bit out-of-the-box and that was the intention.

But some have raised the question, why should a reporter or editor be testifying before City Council anyway?

Well, that’s how we’re doing things. As to why, the short answer is, life’s too short to be boxed in by a socially constructed role and be silent, when issues are at stake that affect people’s lives and our communities.

Make no mistake: we exist because we want to make society better, not because we want to ‘objectively’ document it all as society goes to hell in a hand-basket.

We’ve tried to be as transparent and consistent about this as possible since our founding, but I just want to make sure that people don’t misunderstand our mission. When we said we report news that brings us closer to “universal health care, living wages, affordable housing, peace, a healthy environment, and voting systems we can trust,” we really mean it.

These are goals we have as a publication and we think they are not progressive, but basic, reasonable foundations for humanity. And we want to achieve them in our lifetime, not later. And we worry that if we keep messing around with nuclear power and unrenewable fuels and an unsustainable economic system, there may not be a later.

The issues that come across our pages are serious, much more serious than objectivity.

When APN’s Editor made public presentations to City Council on the public housing demolitions, it was because our publication had done so much research, why shouldn’t we share it with concerned elected officials?

We also shared our research with residents, involved residents in our coverage, and worked with residents to come up with constructive ways to address their concerns. We made presentations to resident association meetings and very much helped shape their effort to preserve their communities.

And we also had an opinion. We had so many concerns about the lack of housing opportunities, and the apparent fraud and fabrication by AHA, that we definitely believed the demolitions were wrong, and we told people this.

How can we get closer to having affordable housing while demolishing public housing? It’s inconsistent with our stated principles.

Now, it’s fine to report on AHA’s side, but not as if their side is unproblematic. AHA continues to mislead people when they say 97% of residents want to move. That is based on a misleading one question survey to residents asking if they want a voucher–after telling them they plan to demolish the buildings. What were they supposed to say, no, I don’t want a voucher?

So we reported their side but also reported that their side was misleading. No other publication in Atlanta examined their claims that deeply, and of course we had a public records struggle to even review the evidence.

It’s fine to balance one side with another. But you don’t balance the truth with lies. And part of what we do is ask difficult questions about the assertions made by those in power. Objectivity doesn’t exist, but even if you accept that balancing sides is a worthy goal, too many corporate media reporters present one side and then another as if both are equally valid; sometimes, they’re not.

And there is a larger point. There is a connection between media on one hand and society and social institutions on the other. The difference between APN and most other publications is that we acknowledge and embrace that difference.

When a media outlet–any media outlet–reports on something, it has an effect. That effect influences the next article written, which also has an effect. Some of the tell-tale signs of good journalism are policy and practice changes as a result of an article.

My point is that we at APN are a part of the community we serve.

We may not fit people’s preconceived notions of what news agencies are or should be, but what we are is what we are. We will continue to fill a void that was left by the corporate media, and we will do it as an active, subjective part of Atlanta’s progressive community.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

Revised syndication policy:

Our syndication policy was updated June 2007. For more information on how to syndicate Atlanta Progressive News content, please visit: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/extras/syndicate.html

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