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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 26, 1997

Posted to HotWired 26 Oct 97

A recurring theme in Jon Katz's most recent post centres around the "cult of objectivity". While he doesn't so so in so many words, he is arguing that one reason newspapers are in decline because they present both sides of every issue. This presentation, he argues, is too dull for the contemporary reader.

About twelve years ago, I was involved in a similar debate with other members of the Canadian University Press (CUP). The CUP Statement of Principles at the time (and, I believe, to this day) stated that newspapers ought to be 'Agents of Social Change'. Or, In Katz's words, they ought to "raise hell".

Their argument was that no paper could be objective, that in any presentation of the news a variety of decisions had to be made, decisions about which stories to cover, who to interview, which pictures to select, which facts to report, and that each of these decisions revealed to more or less a degree the bias and prejudice of those producing the newspaper.

Into this debate I weighed with an alternative proposal, that newspapers should be "Agents of Social Awareness". I agreed with CUP delegates that mainstream newspapers were biased, but argued that this was exactly the problem with them. Even Katz sees this. His other major complaint is that newspapers are controlled by stodgy conservatives afraid to take a risk.

It has been pointed out in this column and elsewhere that today's newspapers, being branches of large corporate conglomorates, reflect corporate interests and values. Their presentation of the news is one which least injures, and to a fair degree supports, the values and ideals of corporate culture.

By arguing that newspapers ought to shed their cloak of objectivity, Katz is legitimizing this stance. And although the views expressed by the corporate monolith are repugnant to a democratic society, newspapers are doing exactly what Katz wants: they're taking a stand.

The myth held by those people who oppose objectivity in the media is that, were the media to change, the point of view expressed would be progressive, uplifting, refreshing, challenging. But there is no reason to suppose this. The new, liberated media would resemble more family oriented conservatism a la Walt Disney than it would the insightful analysis of the Guardian.

Moreover, publications which shed any pretense of objectivity are boring. They are predictable. This is a major reason why I no longer read Wired News. I know what to expect, week after week. I do not expect a new point of view to be presented, because new points of view are anathema to the editorial stance.

A good newspaper agressively seeks out various points of view. It is always looking for a new argument, an new interpretation, a new twist on the facts. It presents ideas in contrast to each other, supplemented by a comprehensive review of the issue, and allows the readers to arrive at informed opinions.

Newspapers need not abandon the novel. They have several advantages over mainstream broadcast media. They have bulk: they can present much more information than a newscast. And they have parallel structure. A reader can pick and choose what to read. On radio and television, data is streamed, meaning that the viewer can only view what is currently being presented.

This allows newspapers to present a much wider spectrum of ideas and information than traditional media. It was Wired itself which recognizes the print form as an "unparalled medium" for high content thought. By no accident did this journal begin as a print publication. And in the hoary first days of the web, when nobody knew which way to go, it was a fresh, vivid publication. It is sad that the magazine has lost that edge, falling into the trap of presenting the party line month after month.

How can newspapers improve? They must, above all else, embrace diversity. They must present all points of view in a clear, unbiased format. Their opinion columns should be sharp and insightful. Their local content must be comprehensive. Rather than catering only to the mainstream, they should embrase the fringe, presenting the alternative as a sharp light across mainstream society. They should question values, presenting alternatives rather than triumphing the status quo.

Newspapers should not attempt to be the voice of society. Rather, they should be the many voices of society.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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