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Thursday, 9 April 2015

We need journalists to be like fair witnesses

"View from nowhere" refers to journalists pretending to be unbiased when in fact everyone has a political bias in them. It is an idea initiated by Jay Rosen from New York University. According to Rosen, a journalist rather than pretending to be completely unbiased, might start a story by explaining exactly where they sit on the political fence relevant to the topic at hand, the subject being treated in the story.

But if they do that why should I read the story? The biased journalist is just going to cherry pick evidence to support whatever view they already have. In fact, you don't want to read a story like that because it won't deliver the kind of information you want, which is information that is completely objective. We know that people want journalists to be objective because if you take a position either on the left or the right on social media as a journalist you are almost certainly going to be accused of bias, as though being unbiased were more suitable to your role. You are excoriated severely by the public, especially in heated conversations.

This type of engagement tells us that what we want from the media is unbiased information so that we can make up out own minds about any issue being dealt with. We don't want the journalist's view clouding our judgement.

What journalists have to do is to be something very complex: like a fair witness in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, they have to hold both pro and con in sight at the same time and actually SUSPEND JUDGEMENT until the end of the debate that the story encapsulates. Only then can we be sure they are not only not being hypocritical but they are actually being fair. This is a lot to ask, but we should also keep in mind that we do ask journalists to be better than the rest of us. We do follow them on social media because we think they are a breed apart. We do hold high hopes for them, and for the information they are responsible for.

The weakness here is that this kind of story is likely to be labelled "progressive" because it encapsulates complexity. We know that the ability to hold more than one idea in the mind at one time is typical of people who sit on the political left. People on the political right in society are more likely to want simple, clear messages that are unambiguous. So intelligent people - like scientists, for example - who are able to cope with complexity, are traditionally progressive politically. A news story that actually can bring together both points of view because it is written by a completely objective journalist is likely therefore to be called biased. Which is the rub.

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