I once said that writing political articles is a “gratifyingly thankless” task. That expression, although it is certainly self-contradictory, is not an oxymoron because it reflects the truth.
Many writers, including myself, have found themselves being accused of being both pro and anti Jewish or Islam, of being a left or right wing hack or of talking either rubbish or real turkey. In fact that sometimes happens on the same comment thread. It’s a curious experience and although I have been secretly almost proud of it on occasions because it seemed to show that I “must have something right” to elicit such divergent reactions, I have also been questioning that logic more and more.
After all, it could also indicate that I am trying to be objective, or fair, whereas maybe I should have the courage to actually come down on one side or the other. Maybe it means I am subconsciously trying to be “objective” there where a healthy dose of brutal honesty would have been more honest. Let’s be honest, is it really objective to write that “The guerrillas say they regret the deaths of 57 civilians in the restaurant bombing” and move on without challenging it when I, the world and its dog know full well that they put that bomb there with the deliberate intention of slaughtering them all?
And it’s not as if readers are happy with that kind of objectivity even though they seem on the surface to be demanding it. As an Englishman who was brought up to read the British papers and their proudly proclaimed left of center (like the Guardian) or right of center (like The Times) editorial lines, I have often seen both and others accused of “selling out to the other side” and compromising their beliefs by readers who complain furiously about articles on political topics.
Also, and tellingly, it’s not because North American papers adopt a self-professed commitment to a non-partisan stance that they avoid being accused of biased reporting. Most major papers in America have been the object of virulent campaigns designed to paint them either red or blue despite their alleged neutrality.
If you add to that the many instances of real or imagined press collusion with political and business interests or government policy decisions you begin to understand how it has come to pass that the public are wary of the mainstream press. Some of the reasons for this skepticism are justified and some aren’t, but that it exists and is damaging to the press in general cannot be disputed.
Citizen Journalism sites and journalists also find themselves the target of allegations of bias and for the same reasons, but whereas that is almost inevitable in the mainstream papers as things stand, it should not be the case for Citizen Journalism, which claims that its objectives are to do things differently.
It seems to me that it may be time to reevaluate the criteria that are used in political reporting and the press in general should be thinking about being more open about their editorial lines and less “objective.” That doesn’t mean that a paper should never change its policies, and it is only normal that the press – and the British press in particular – has in the past supported election candidates of various political colors depending on electoral circumstances and issues.
Journalists themselves should also be considering other ways of working. Media critic and journalist Jay Rosen, who specializes in issues to do with technology and innovation in journalism has identified several major schools of thought concerning political coverage, most of which have failed to convince the reading public or himself.
Those schools of thought
include those writers who consider that their job is to be dispassionate and knowledgeable, closer to realities than the reader and without ideology, those who use enormous amounts of logic and argumentative technique to show that both sides of the ideological fence may be wrong in order to propose alternatives, and those who consider that they should give both sides of the argument.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions however, and all of those methods have come in for some major criticism from not only press analysts like Rosen but also from readers. Latter-day readers are critical of the press and the reasons for that are many and varied. Prominent among them though are readers who consider the press to be controlled by big business and-or government despite the desire of the press to remain independent, those who consider that journalists slant their articles in subtle ways to reflect what they want people to believe is unbiased coverage, and those who believe that what they read is almost if not entirely a pack of lies.
So where do we go from here? We go the Rosen way
. He wants journalists to reveal more about their backgrounds, why they write about politics, what they think the real issues are, and what their convictions are. In other words, he wants them to put their cards on the table and play the game in a transparent manner, that which according to him would greatly reduce reader wariness about where writers are coming from and why. And he is absolutely right.
He says that by being more transparent “We can tell where the person is coming from and apply whatever discount rate we want to what they're saying” in the belief that that is more likely to generate trust.
Newspaper, owners, editors and journalists all want their point of view to prevail, but the journalist is given the job of dressing it up in what can hopefully get away with being called “objective” reporting. In other words, he’s the one left carrying the can. That is why journalists need to ‘come out’ in order that readers can situate themselves with respect to what they are reading in terms of the writer’s clearly stated objectives.
This will not be easy given ingrained methods of writing articles and reader approaches to how they see them but it is possible, albeit in a progressive manner. British journalists are already a small way down the road and North America is thinking about it. It will be harder in Continental Europe however, and in Latin countries in particular, where lofty and patriarchal conceptions of who and what a journalist is are still prevalent and where direct criticism of a journalist is all but forbidden to both press critics (because of a self-imposed deference to journalists) and the public (who find their negative and direct criticism of a journalist deleted or refused.)
But it is possible and efforts should be made to promote a more frank and open relationship between journalists and the public, who can now get ‘nearer’ them thanks to the Internet.
Finally, this is where Citizen Journalism should start playing its self-designated role as an innovative force in journalism but it hasn't done so. At least not yet. Although Citizen journalism is genuinely different to the mainstream press in that it offers people local news as well as international developments, much of its political coverage still follows the formats it inherited and vowed to change, despite the possibilities for change that the Internet and an international readership offer. At the same time however - and how ironically - the lack of a defined editorial line on many Citizen Journalist sites means that journalists should be able to adapt relatively easily to the principles of openness but that is not happening. In fact they should welcome this possibility because they finally have the chance to ‘edit’ themselves more freely than they would be able to if they worked for the mainstream press.
They should seize the opportunity to do so with both hands.
Because then, and only then, will political coverage by Citizen Journalist sites be in a position to claim that it offers a tangible alternative to the mainstream press.