The Next Journalism's Objective Reporting

By Meyer, Philip | Nieman Reports, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Next Journalism's Objective Reporting

Meyer, Philip, Nieman Reports

Listen up, young journalists. Here's some bad news from an old-timer: The economic basis for the detached, aloof-observer model of journalism that my generation built is crumbling fast.

The good news: You get to invent the next journalism.

The old system worked because print and broadcast journalism were naturally monopolistic. Broadcasting had a limited number of channels, and printing required expensive machines that broke easily. It wasn't efficient to have more than a very limited number of them per market. That constraint produced a system geared to sending a few messages to lots of people.

Now, because of technology, the massiveness of the mass media is disappearing. We're moving toward a system of many messages, each directed to a comparatively few people, and the new system is experimenting with different ways to do that. As markets will, it is trying the cheap ways first. Taking obvious facts and fitting them into a preconceived theory favored by the target segment is one way. It's all the explanation we need for the success of right-wing talk radio.

Competition and entrepreneurial spirit will lead to other ways to profit from media specialization. Out of experimentation will come a new journalism that is at the same time better and worse than the old. One benefit is that the motivations of senders will become more transparent as each seeks to woo and win a viable segment of the audience.

There will still be an economic need for objective reporting, but it will have to be based on true objectivity, not the fake kind that the old mass media system supported. In that system, the appearance of objectivity was maintained by a sprinkling policy. Ink and airtime were scarce goods and so owners put a little here, a little there, trying to give all sides at least a chance for exposure to the mass audience. Journalists had viewpoints, but they kept them well concealed so as not to undermine the perception of neutrality.

But it was always a false perception. Journalists have opinions. The old media economics compelled their concealment so their messages could be sold to a broader range of end users. However, the end of pseudo-objectivity does not undermine the need for true objectivity. If anything, it enhances it. As the venues for spin and advocacy multiply, there ought to be a market for a trusted, objective source in the original, scientific sense.

True objectivity is based on method, not result.

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