Biased journalism doesn’t have to mean low standard reporting

Journalism is the recording of stories and facts that people don’t want recorded. At least, that’s what it used to be.

Today, journalism has become either activism or infotainment. Online new media tends to veer towards advocacy, while the big, old fashioned media companies compete for the public’s outrage and compulsive curiosity.

Journalism is not dead, but the idea of telling stories that people want suppressed, is increasingly unsexy. The very people who don’t want certain stories recorded, tend to be the same interest groups that have a command of the media.

In the last few days a debate has sprung up online about the difference between activism and journalism. Of course, this debate presupposes a distinction between recording facts, and having a reason to record them. There is rarely such a clear distinction.

The concept of a purely ‘objective’ journalism has always been a kind of veneer for consensus reporting, whereby large interest groups maintain a limited scope for civic curiosity by commanding the boundaries of public debate. This is the very reason there is such a thing as ‘the mainstream media’.

Lauren Southern is a commentator who formerly worked for Rebel Media, a conservative, and nationalist, online media channel in Canada. She now runs her own independent channel, and is famous for a stunty kind of activism, and unapologetically advancing a nationalist, right wing view of current affairs.

She recently posted a video in which she called into question not just the existence of objectivity in the media, but the possibility of it, and even the desirability of it.

In another video published almost simultaneously, left libertarian skate-boarding reporter Tim Pool spoke about the dangers of activism creeping into journalism, and his own experiences at left-leaning companies where trendy narratives and grievances are stressed in order to drive traffic to their sites.

Pool is a new breed of journalist who appears to reclaim the old-fashioned desire for independent reporting that seeks to record the ‘best version of the truth’ (as Watergate newsman Carl Bernstein once put it), while embracing new technology and online media.

Pool has experience in Vice and similar organisations, and made his name reporting on the Occupy Wallstreet march.

Both sides of the story seem to have a point. Objectivity is a false ideal, and can have its own dangers in that helps to foster consensus, which itself helps to suppress the most pertinent stories.

However, the growing trend for activist journalism and blogging threatens to erode the standards of rigour and fastidious method that characterise the best and most revolutionary stories such as Watergate or the British expenses scandal.

Tim Pool and Lauren Southern actually met recently and recorded a short discussion about these issues, and though both take a different view, there seemed to be an agreement about the importance of this question, and a shared disdain for the Vice-type advocacy journalism that dominates online media.

However, it seems that both commentators might be missing something. There’s a conflation here between truth without a perspective, and truth without a standard.

Journalists need to have a moral conviction to drive their work, or else they become simply machines processing information. Too often the greatest threat to hard-hitting reporting is not corporate bias, but a careerist malaise whereby the rigour of method gives way to an uncritical organisation of mere facts. For this reason, Lauren Southern has more than a small point in her criticism of ‘objectivity’ as a standard.

The test of a good story is now simply what makes a good headline. Whereas the true test of a story should be the nature of the vested interests who don’t want it to break and the lengths to which they will go to suppress it. The more extreme these factors are, the better the story.

A sense of moral conviction is key to this news sense, and such stories will completely pass by jobbing reporters who hide their lazy resignation behind the excuse of remaining objective. It’s a little like refusing to denounce honour killings for fear of being ‘Islamaphobic’. They use virtue to justify moral apathy.

No reportage is without bias or perspective, but that doesn’t mean that reporting is by nature purely subjective and can’t be trusted. True journalists need their critical self-awareness and rigour not as ways to guarantee objectivity, but as tried and tested ways of offsetting their own limitations.

Moral conviction is part and parcel of good news sense. Rigorous standards of reporting are matters of how you deliver the story you are pursuing.

You can have a conviction, as long as you seek to get the best version of the facts that you possibly can. Simply having a perspective doesn’t discredit the journalism. It’s the rigour of your process that determines the credibility, not your bias.

The crime of modern advocacy media is not that they have a bias or a perspective or a moral cause to press. The crime is having sloppy methods of information gathering. In leftwing journalism especially, having the ‘right’ moral view, compensates for having a lack of rigour, and makes writers think that they don’t need it.

We depend upon journalists to spot the stories that major interests go out of their way to keep from the public eye. This requires a balance between moral conviction and critical method. It’s okay to have a bias, as long as that bias does not compromise a commitment to truth.

The mere existence of a bias, does not necessarily mean a lack of standards.

You can follow Tim Pool on @TimCast and Lauren Southern on @Lauren_Southern

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