AP’s Twitter Policy Raises Question of Reporter Objectivity

Journalists should focus on truth, not impartiality

Earlier this month the Associated Press amended its seven pages of social media guidelines to include a  warning to its reporters and editors against retweeting third-party tweets without clearly identifying the source of the original message. It read, in part:

“Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.”

The policy elicited a wave of vitriol from journos in the blogosphere, much of which was, incidentally, retweeted. One of my personal favorites is from New York Times media reporter David Carr, who tweeted, simply: “Good luck with that.”

While the AP’s instruction is hardly sinister in itself, its message is indicative of the American media’s inscrutable obsession with maintaining the illusion of complete impartiality—what Bill Maher called “balance for balance’s sake”—even when it comes at the expense of the truth.

This enduring conflict was perhaps most redolent one year ago this month, during the lead up to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington D.C., when a number of news organizations—including Fourth-Estate stalwarts NPR and the Times—prohibited their journalists from so much as spectating the event if they were not covering it, given its implicit political tenor.

Sadly, in a response to the inevitable kerfuffle that followed, NPR president Vivian Schiller (who, in a twist of irony, was forced to resign in March amid fallout from a bogus bias scandal involving commentator Juan Williams), seemed to concede that the asinine admonition was motivated by fear of a potential backlash rather than any true ethical conundrum:

“The rationale for this policy is pretty simple. We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation.”

Schiller wouldn’t have known it at the time, but by defending NPR’s policy on the Rally to Restore Sanity, she was lending credence to the very mindset she was warning against, and aiding and abetting the “trolls” who would eventually do her in.

Though they no doubt come from a place of genuine integrity, policies like these devalue the role of the press in a representative democracy, negating the responsibility of the journalist as an interpreter of events and an advocate for civil justice.

Bill Moyers once described a free press as “one where it is OK to state the conclusions you’re led to by the evidence.”

Moyers says lots of sensible things. Unfortunately, the obsessive adherence to blind impartiality practiced by many of our leading news outlets precludes them from coming to conclusions of any kind. That might (I stress might) be acceptable if it had any tangible benefits; but polls show that more than half of Americans in 2011 distrust the press, and 60 percent think we’re biased despite our best efforts to convince them of the contrary.

That’s not necessarily surprising since history has shown that—when it comes to the media—objectivity is not a prerequisite for trust, but detached, unabridged honesty certainly is. On February 27, 1968, CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite went before the American people and offered his observations on the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. In one of his most famous newscasts,  the “most trusted man in America”  threw objectivity out the window and wrapped himself in the ethos so succinctly articulated by Moyers:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

In calling it like he saw it, Cronkite was not being impartial, but that doesn’t mean he was being biased. He was stating the conclusion he was led to by the evidence; and Americans—at least those sensible enough to listen—respected him for it. Among the many lessons modern journalists can learn from Cronkite, this is perhaps the most important.

According to media critic Denis McQuail, the three most essential qualities of information in news are factualness, accuracy and completeness. Blind impartiality obscures all three. Bowing at the false idol of objectivity leads journalists to counter factual information with innuendo in the name of equal time while treating “truth” as relative and equating “fairness” with getting all possible versions of a story no matter how mundane or misinformed.

In his essay, “News Media in the United States and Europe,” Time magazine’s Donald Morrison explains:

“By focusing on presenting “both sides” of a story even when one side’s case is far less substantial, the U.S. press creates the impression that truth cannot be ascertained even when it can … Too often American objectivity means simply quoting somebody with an opposing view, regardless of its validity.”

This conflicts with the expectations of European consumers, who view their journalists not just as reporters of news, but as intellectuals capable of bringing the kind of insight to an issue that doesn’t come from a mere restatement of the who, what, where and when.

By contrast, here in America we have created a journalism devoid of historical context that is obsessed with fact, finds little use for sociopolitical trends, and leaves analysis—a critical component for understanding why things happen as they do—to pundits and partisan wonks. In short, blind objectivity focuses on the what, at the expense of the why, leaving Americans woefully uninformed about even the most recent world history and how it has impacted American foreign and economic policy.

To the extent that it is a journalist’s task to educate and inform, policies that disrupt the interpretive function of the press are an injustice to us all.