The Death of Objectivity

"Opinions. Ours, yours and theirs." This was the text of a Los Angeles Times advertisement touting the paper's political coverage. It ran on the back page of the California section, under the weather, which is perhaps the only truly objective pursuit of journalism today.
It used to be that journalists prided themselves on not having opinions - not having agendas or biases. It was regarded as a journalistic virtue to coolly report facts and give a detailed picture of the story while remaining objective. Today, that is not the case. Journalism has abandoned objectivity in favor of opinion reporting. You can see it on MSNBC, you can see it on Fox News, you can see it on the celebrity status reached by journalists like Anderson Cooper, and you can see it, certainly, in the "new guard" of journalism - the bloggers who take pride in flaunting their opinions across the internet.
The important question then is, does this abandoning of the journalistic virtue leave us, as a society looking to the news media for information, lacking? Or is it merely a journalistic adaptation to our world of increasing media proliferation?
I would argue the latter. The journalist's role as a keeper and disseminator of information has been made insignificant by the advent of the internet. The fact that official documents, expert opinions, and first-hand accounts are available at the click of a button means that the journalist is no longer needed to provide those things.
But it doesn't mean the journalist is no longer needed.
In fact, the role that the journalist plays today in aiding the public to understand the great tidal wave of information available on all topics is even more important than ever before. Just because statistics and quotations and video clips - all those components of a good journalism story - are available to the public doesn't mean that the public can fill in the gaps for itself. The sum of all the components of a story is not equal to that story.
There's a certain finesse to interpreting a story and making it understandable to the public, and this is the role for the journalist.
This role, believe it or not, can include articulating an opinion.
And so, as our news media turn away from the long-standing pillar of objectivity and new system which values the personal opinion of the journalist, we can understand it as more than just a selfish grappling for fame and fortune, but as a necessary adaptation to a society which has come to consume information and receive facts in a much different way than it did a decade ago. It's not necessary to talk of the abandonment of traditional journalistic values as the devolution of journalism. Rather, we can realize the changing environment in which we live and understand the factors that make it necessary to adapt. And, if we are all very understanding, we, as news consumers, can adapt too.

Wiki World: The Changing role of Knowledge and Truth in Our Postmodern World

In January of 2001, Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales launched the encyclopedia for the internet age – Wikipedia. The online-encyclopedia (which, in an ironic move has just released a CD version) contains more than 10 million articles written by contributors world-wide. It’s an encyclopedia of the people, for the people and by the people.
A quarter century earlier, Denis Diderot established the precedent for Wales’ subversive move. In 1751, he and his Enlightenment counterparts set out to write the Encyclopédie, a work that they hoped would eventually encompass all of human knowledge. The 35-volume work comprised 71,818 articles. It was not the first encyclopedia, but it was the first of its kind. This encyclopedia was subversive and novel. It encouraged a new way of looking at the world, a way that undermined conventional pathways of information. The writers of the Encyclopédie used observation and reason to challenge long-held perceptions of the world around them and they believed that through this sort of experimentation they could find the truth. Diderot professed, "All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings.”
If the Encyclopédie encouraged examination, debate and investigation “without regard for anyone’s feelings,” then Wikipedia took that notion and turned it on its head: the online encyclopedia encourages these methods of examination with regard for everyone’s feelings. It’s an ever-changing document that reflects the unique and varied knowledge of (theoretically) every person in the world, in an attempt to approach the (theoretical) truth.
Wikipedia reflects our new internet-age, postmodern economy of information, in which knowledge is a constantly changing, ever-expanding and amorphous commodity and truth is an increasingly irrelevant and unattainable entity, approached most closely with observations from multiple viewpoints.
The wiki software of Wikipedia allows for mass collaboration by contributors from all over the world. These contributors come from all walks of life. Some are experts in their fields and professors at top universities, some are students. Some are repeat contributors, editing hundreds or thousands of articles on Wikipedia; some make only small changes to a few articles. This allowance for a great number of contributors allows for a great number of subjects to be covered by a great number of people from a great number of places. The core argument here is that the sum of everyone’s knowledge will tend toward the truth over time. (Schiff)
This “sum of all knowledge” theory was outlined long before the internet and wiki software made it an achievable possibility. In 1945, Friedrich Hayek recognized the importance of the individual in recognizing knowledge within the particular circumstance of time and space. “It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made.” (Hayek) This means that a bellhop at the historic Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood may be more well-versed in its number of rooms or notable residents than a scholar of 1920’s architecture at some top East Coast university. But together, the bellhop’s specific information about the hotel and the architecture scholar’s information about the structure will get us closer to the whole truth. Hayek’s dream of collaboration in pursue of the sum of all knowledge has been made possible by Wikipedia.
But the encyclopedia’s dependence on mass collaborations has caused many critics to complain that Wikipedia gives no privilege to those who really know what they’re talking about. Among these critics is Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia who has since broken his ties with the project. He argues that “too many Wikipedians are fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of their own opinions.” (Schiff) But in our postmodern economy of information, the question is, does it really matter where the information comes from?
For Wales, the answer is no. “To me, the key thing is getting it right. I don’t care if they’re a high-school kid or a Harvard professor.” (Schiff) And Wikipedia’s process emphasizes collaboration; that is, correction, deletion, and compromise.
Some argue that this “information by many” model produces more errors in greater numbers than conventional channels of information. But we must remember that it’s not uncommon to see corrections in a newspaper or magazine, or to witness changes in the reprinting of a second edition of a book. “When confronted with the evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia are wrong!” (Schiff) In fact, the scientific journal NATURE studied scientific encyclopedia entries in 2005 and found errors in both Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (4 in Wikipedia for every 3 in Britannica). In response, Britannica ran a half-page advertisement in the Times stating, “Britannica has never claimed to be error-free.” If Britannica doesn’t claim to be error-free and Wikipedia certainly doesn’t claim to be error-free, then are these errors significant?
Or, more importantly, is the truth significant? In our economy of information, where information is a commodity, the quantity of information is often regarded more highly than its quality. Neil Postman, in a speech titled Informing Ourselves to Death, commented on this changing utility of information: “Information is now a commodity that can be bought or sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status.” (Postman) So as the Americans of the 1950s increased their status with shiny new cars or vacuum cleaners, the Americans of the 21st century are doing the same in an economy of information: equipping ourselves with the newest theories, conspiracies and political gossip as a means of increasing our prestige. We’ve moved beyond an economy of goods (even beyond an economy of services) to an economy of information.
As can be expected in Americans’ greed, this new economy has lead to an overwhelming amount of information available on radio, TV, billboards, cell phones, and most importantly the internet. We are swimming in knowledge. But is that good for us? Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian 1930s novel Brave New World, feared a time when too much information was available to the public. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much [information] that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.” (Winslow) Have we reached this numbing pointed of over-informedness that Huxley so fears?
According to Postman in the 1990s, the answer is simple: yes. “The tie between information and action has been severed.” (Postman) No longer do we inform ourselves for the sake of better preparing ourselves to live in the world. Today, we are informing ourselves as a means of adornment, a means of vanity. A veteran editor of the traditional Encyclopedia Britannica complains that “we can get the wrong answer to a question quicker than our fathers and mothers could find a pencil,” but in actuality it doesn’t matter; so long as we find an answer that suits us.
As Diderot cut out the role of the church in delivering absolute information directly from the omniscient God, Wales has cut out the traditional mediating forces of the news media, who have for the past 500 years mediated the flow of news to the public, making a profession of packaging it and editing it in a way that the public can make sense of the world around them. These media lords were once the gatekeepers of information, but today those gates have run over, and the flood of information has not created a better, more knowledgeable public. Instead, it has drowned us all in a seeming unapproachable, but constantly oppressive truth.