Should news organizations write editorials? Should they endorse political candidates? I think the answer to both questions is yes. Perhaps they should do it differently than newspapers have historically written editorials and endorsements, but I think both are important activities for news organizations today, and even more so for news organizations of the future.
To understand my point-of-view, I think there are three key things to consider. First, I believe the view from nowhere is harmful. Second, I believe that technology is dramatically changing the opportunities we have to seek out varied opinions and perspectives for the better. Third, I believe that news organizations need to be part of the communities they wish to inform.
The View from Nowhere is harmful
I firmly believe that the view from nowhere does more harm than good. The idea that journalists are unbiased and impartial strikes me as wrong, and the idea that keeping their biases hidden because it earns them more authority is even worse. As Jay Rosen wrote:
“In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work.”
If you’re going to do all of that work, you’re going to form an opinion. Why not share that work? Why not share the facts and an opinion? I do not think that facts and an opinion are mutually exclusive. I would much rather read an opinion from a journalist who has invested a great deal of time and effort into understanding and forming that opinion, than a so-called impartial piece that belies the journalist’s true feelings and knowledge of the story.
Increased access to varied perspectives is a good thing
The democratization of publishing ushered forth by the web has provided us with a lot of crap, but also with more intelligent, well-researched, and thoughtful perspectives than we’ve ever had access to before. Gone are the days when reading one newspaper article would provide you with everything you could possibly know about a story. These days, that article is just the tip of the iceberg. Venture below the surface, and you’ll find a myriad of voices, perspectives, facts, and other information. It can take a bit of work to avoid getting lost in the sea of sources, but in exchange for an ounce of effort you’re rewarded with a ton of insight.
Who wants to do all that work, you ask? Increasingly you don’t have to. Searching the web today is less like finding a needle in a haystack and more like asking a question and getting an answer, and search remains a focus of major investment for the key players. New software that aggregates sources together appears almost daily, and with every new tool the algorithms get better and better. Curators are blossoming alongside both search and aggregation, offering yet another way to cut through the clutter.
I reject the notion that the explosion of perspectives makes it too easy to get trapped into the so-called echo chamber. At the end of the day, I don’t think human beings are satisfied reading only things they agree with and ignoring everything else, if for no other reason than we crave connection. As strongly as you might feel about something, keeping it to yourself is nearly impossible. Nothing compares to the experience of telling another person.
News organizations need to be part of the community
I agree 100% with Edmonton Journal editor Margo Goodhand when she wrote, “I still believe editorials can inform and challenge a community.”
The Edmonton Journal’s mission remains unchanged from the early days: “to provide relevant and reliable news and information to the Edmonton community.” In order to do that, the Journal needs to be part of the community, otherwise what credibility would it have? You can talk about a community without being part of it, but you can’t talk with a community unless you’re a member.
But how can a company be a part of the community? I think the answer is through its people. Journalists are the Edmontonians that can talk with the Edmonton community, not the organization itself. It is those journalists that will have gained knowledge and insight into something that is important to the community, such as an election.
The one line in Margo’s piece that still troubles me is this: “I would hate to be the first in the Journal’s 110-year history to abandon a venerated newspaper tradition.” (How will she lead the organization into the future of media if she is unwilling to break with tradition?) Even though I think editorials and endorsements have a place in the news, I think news organizations need to be willing to make some changes.
I don’t think unsigned editorials have a place in the future of media. Margo identifies the Journal’s editorial board in her piece, so why not identify the writer of each editorial on a regular basis? Is it solely to maintain the artificial separation between the editorial board and columnists? I would like to see editorials with a byline. The journalists who wrote the editorial will of course have sought insight from others, done some research, and perhaps even consulted the archives, but that doesn’t change the fact that they wrote it.
Likewise I don’t think political endorsements should carry the name of the news organization, but rather the name of the journalist(s) making the call. Maybe an editorial board as a whole can’t agree – why does there need to be only one endorsement, or lack thereof? ‘The decision is yours’ offered absolutely nothing of value. I would much rather have seen two or more strong, opposing opinions. That would have given me additional perspectives to consider.
To the future!
From my viewpoint in 2014, the future looks a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting than it is now. I’ll need to work harder to truly understand the world around me and my place in it, and I don’t and won’t rely on any single source of information. I’ll continue to consult sources with perspectives that match my own as well as sources that offer a different point-of-view. I’ll make up my own mind.
I think editorials and endorsements, created by journalists who know enough to have formed an opinion and who are clearly identified, are a healthy and important part of that future.