AP's Problem Is Not What It Thinks

By David Swanson

There’s been a lot of public discussion of late of the Associated Press’s Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier’s changes in style rules. Out with “just the facts,” in with opinion and perspective. Or so the story goes. The changes that are afoot at the AP appear to be part of a broader trend, influenced – in part – by the internet, the medium itself and the competition from bloggers. Of the two biggest problems I see in American journalism, this trend could fix one of them while not necessarily having any immediate impact, pro or con, on the other.

The problem that may not be impacted directly by the sort of shift in style underway at AP is the problem of too little serious investigative reporting being done and being published. There are not enough serious reporters, they are not well enough funded, and their work is not printed, aired, and broadcast. That problem won’t be fixed by a change in style, and could be worsened if the change in style is misinterpreted as somehow fixing the problem. In the long-run, however, the change in style could result in a different awareness by readers that would create a serious demand for more research and investigation.

The other problem is addressed – albeit unintentionally and imperfectly – by the trend toward personalized journalism. This is the problem of pretended “objectivity.” What stories are covered, how they are covered, what counts as a fact, who counts as qualified to comment, which comments are included, how everything is presented: these are all matters of individual taste and judgement, of bias, of “opinion”, even in the most straightforward just-the-facts report. There is no such thing as “objectivity.” But there is a widespread belief in it among readers and among reporters themselves, and the result is usually widespread public acceptance of certain opinions and points of view as unquestionable, god-given, and beyond dissent. When totalitarian state media outlets make this sort of claim, people tend not to fall for it. But when capitalist media outlets themselves fall for it, their readers do as well.

Now, the change underway at the Associated Press is probably quite shallow. AP editors and reporters no doubt continue to believe in the old distinction between “objectivity” and “opinion” as well as the partisan pretense that every “issue” has two and only two “positions”. They’ve just decided to add some “opinion” into their “objective” articles. They see this as allowing them to do some things that I agree are important, such as reporting that a president has lied. But the fact that a president has lied is not actually any less a fact than the fact that it’s expected to rain on Tuesday or the fact that the Redskins played poor defense on Sunday. That reporting such a fact is seen as adding opinion to a story is simply an indication that what has always counted as “objectivity” has actually been a set of biases slanted very heavily and strictly in favor of those in power.

The AP (and other wire services and newspapers) can, however, be part of a process of positive change in American reporting without having any idea what they are part of. If American journalism drops the nameless from-on-high article in favor of the personalized report from someone with a name and identity, readers (and viewers) may become more questioning and aware, less lazy and accepting. And once it becomes clear to readers that they are getting their news from people they fundamentally disagree with, readers (and viewers) may insist on other sources of news. This is happening even where individuals are now permitted to wear two hats, that of “opinion” columnist and that of “objective” reporter. Readers may eventually even insist on more substantive investigative reporting. That would truly bring about what Fournier calls “accountability journalism.”

So, the change may be shallow at first. And we should remember that even if the “objectivity” pretense is eradicated there will always remain 1,001 other ways to be dishonest. But it is creative new online journalism that is driving the changes we’re seeing, and if those changes lead us finally to give serious support to independent journalism, we will then see deep and meaningful change in our public communications.

For more on what’s wrong with “objectivity,” please see:
“Why it Takes Years to Spot Fiction in the AP”

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