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Why we want our journalists to take a stance at The Correspondent — and ask them to keep a public notebook

A majority of Americans cannot name a news source they consider to be “objective”.

No surprise there, I thought, as I don’t believe there’s such thing as objectivity in the first place.

But the 2018 Gallup poll gave me pause nevertheless, because it tells us something about the appeal of “objectivity” that still very much permeates American culture. Even though this society has been declared “postmodern” in the 20th century, and some argue it even became completely “post truth” in the 21st, there still seems to be this longing for “neutrality” in American public discourse, and in journalism circles in particular.

Even if you’re known around the world for your blatant political favoritism, “Fair & Balanced” for some reason is still a good slogan to advertise yourself with.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe concern over “media bias” has become so great, and the longing for something more “neutral” and “objective” has grown with it, precisely because times are so polarized. With fuss over “fake news” flooding our timelines and Thanksgiving dinners ripped apart along party lines, it’s enough to make you nostalgic: “Remember when the news just gave us the facts?” It never did, of course, but we surely would have loved it if it did.

Objectivity, like sex, still sells.

We can do better than strive for objectivity

But if that’s the case, people often ask me, why would you explicitly renounce the ideal of objectivity in the founding principles of De Correspondent — the Dutch journalism platform I founded five years ago. And why would you tell your future correspondents at The Correspondent, the English version we hope to launch soon, not to strive for “objectivity”, contrary to what they were probably taught in journalism school?

The reasons are threefold:

1.) I think “objectivity” has been misinterpreted as an ideal, and evolved into the exact opposite of what it was originally intended to be;

2) I think the idea of “objectivity” is making it harder and harder for journalists to do their jobs, particularly in a time when powerful elites declare the media to be “the enemy of the people”;

3) I think we have an alternative to objectivity that is much better.

The unfortunate evolution of objectivity as an admirable ideal

Objectivity in journalism, like many Western articles of faith, began as a late 19th-century ideal with very different aims than those we attach to it today. Originally, most journalism merely served as a megaphone for whoever was in charge. The king dictated, and the reporters wrote it down. Newspapers were filled with pronouncements from on high: declarations of war, changes in navigation routes, calls to prayer, that kind of thing.

The philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment ushered in the idea of journalism as a critical counterpower. It should act as a watchdog, not a messenger. This conviction was rooted in a new idea known as objectivity, which was linked to truth-telling and independence. We, the press, would decide what to report on, and what’s true or not.

But over the past several decades, objectivity morphed into something very different. Influenced by the professionalization of journalism, the idea of “non-partisan” expertise in politics, and the advertising-driven economy in newspapers and broadcasting, journalists came to believe that the way to be an independent, reliable, and truth-telling force was to advertise to everyone that you have no point of view at all.

An unfortunate evolution of an admirable ideal.

The Correspondent’s approach to this troublesome concept

Because the term ‘objectivity’ is still so often hailed as praiseworthy by both journalists and big parts of their audiences, it’s good to remind ourselves once more: there is no such thing as “just sticking to the facts” or “separating facts from opinions”, since all facts are the result of human interpretation.

Behind every report, every feature, every news item, inevitably lies a worldview rooted in a whole range of assumptions: ontological (what’s real?), epistemological (what’s true?), methodological (how do we find out?), and moral (why does it matter?). There is, in short, no such thing as “no point of view”.

But now suppose that there was such a thing as objectivity, we at The Correspondent try to steer clear of it. Not because we are political activists, disguised as journalists. Not because we think facts don’t exist or that they don’t matter. And not because we want to tell you how to think.

No, we steer clear of it, because “objectivity” is usually understood in terms of its moral dimension. Journalists are expected to suspend “moral judgment”: that’s up to the people on the “opinion side”, the “pundits”, the “columnists”, or for that matter, the readers, listeners, and viewers themselves.

But journalism has never been and should not be an amoral business. On the contrary, journalism is moral through and through, and it’s supposed to be. It’s about what we as human beings, as citizens, as a society consider important, valuable, and relevant — or should consider as such. All good journalism, then, begins and ends with a set of deeply held ideas and beliefs — beliefs about good and evil, about what is just and unjust, about what is relevant and trivial, and about what is true and false.

If you order journalists to check their moral judgments at the door, one of two things will happen. Either they’ll have no clue what to report on and go home without a story, or they’ll figure it out in the only other way possible: by adhering to a silent consensus of what the news should be, determined by others who set the news agenda.

In practice, this means: engaging in groupthink and becoming a mouthpiece for the establishment — the people with the power to decide what’s important, trivial, good, or bad. You see this happening every day, when the news media fall upon Trump’s latest tweet, rally, or press briefing. Nothing new is reported, nothing fundamental is learned, yet everybody thinks it’s news because…it’s in the news.

‘Objective journalism’, then, becomes precisely the opposite of what it was originally intended to be: it equates to repeating the opinions of the powerful with astonishing excess and servitude. By adhering to a “view from nowhere”, journalists are reduced to messengers of the very elites they are supposed to hold accountable.

And it shows. Just look at what has been the most talked about news topic on social media in 2017. Only in North Korea, the most unfree and totalitarian dictatorship in the world, would you expect a similar result:

Source: Echelon Insights

This is why news for so many Americans, and others around the world, feels like an ‘infinite loop’ of the same thing over and over again. Journalists are covering whatever everybody else is covering, in fear of being accused of having “an agenda” of their own. But denying you have an agenda, doesn’t mean you’re not serving one.

The result is a weird media tautology, where newsworthiness often is determined by how much media attention the subject is attracting — ad infinitum. For similar reasons, Vox founder Ezra Klein recently argued on CNN that journalists should stop covering Trump rallies as if they were newsworthy by definition, drowning out other, more important issues. I wholeheartedly agree.

Especially because news — the product journalists serve the public every day — has become one of the most influential sources of information in society. To a large extent, it shapes what we know, understand, and think about the world. It influences how we see other people, cultures, and countries. It even impacts the image we have of ourselves.

Luckily, there is a better way.

How our correspondents practice transparent subjectivity

At De Correspondent, we adhere to what we call ‘transparent subjectivity’, or in simpler terms: we tell you where we’re coming from. In our principles, our commitment to this idea is explained as follows:

We don’t think journalists should pretend to be ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’. Instead, our correspondents level with you about where they’re coming from, in the belief that transparency about point-of-view is better than claiming to have none. We are not on anyone’s team. We’re not the voice of a party. And we believe facts matter. But we also know facts need interpretation to have meaning. That’s why we are open about the worldview and moral convictions that inform our storytelling, and we will change our minds if the facts tell us to.

There are many ways we bring this principle into practice, starting with the way we hire correspondents and determine our beats. Correspondents aren’t sought after to fulfill a predefined editorial role, nor are they assigned a beat from on high. And they’re certainly not expected to cover traditional news categories like ‘domestic politics’ or ‘foreign affairs’.

Instead, correspondents are hired because of what they know and care deeply about. They can choose their own beats, allowing them to follow their most deeply felt interests and fascinations. Most beats are not just ‘topical’ either: they often convey a moral aptitude or sincerely felt worry.

Our Prejudice correspondent Vera Mulder, for example, writes about the many harmful stereotypes people espouse about others on the basis of wrong assumptions — and her writing is not just meant to merely describe these stereotypes, but to fight them as well.

Just as our Climate Change correspondent not only reports on the effects of global warming because they’re facts, but because he openly considers it the biggest problem we face today — and therefore actively advocates ways to battle it too.

To be open about these moral stances, every correspondent writes a mission statement, both short and long, that clearly outlines what she intends to do and hopes to achieve as a journalist for the platform. And no one has a mission statement that says ‘report the news’, because news is not itself a mission — it’s a mode of information.

Instead, correspondents’ mission statements are the starting point of their storytelling, giving readers a sense of purpose and direction. They show why a correspondent thinks her beat is important and what she hopes to investigate and share with readers.

The mission statement of our Privacy correspondent Maurits Martijn, for example, openly communicates to our readers that he considers privacy to be one of the most endangered human rights of our time, and that he will investigate the most acute risks to our privacy and how to protect ourselves against them.

Likewise, the mission statement of our correspondent for Non-Human Life reads: “99 percent of the news is about the smallest minority in the world: human beings. But you cannot understand anything in the world without knowing about 99 percent of life on earth, which is non-human life. My mission is to fix that misperception.”

As a De Correspondent member, you can find these mission statements on the extensive profile page that every correspondent has. Here you’ll find more about what inspired her to do this particular reporting: the books she has read, the movies she loves, and the people — thinkers, scientists, activists — she finds inspiring. It also includes a brief description of the story she is currently working on.

The latter may seem like a small feat, but actually it is part of something big and important. Because of our “transparent & subjective” philosophy, we tell correspondents to keep a public notebook. Instead of hiding all their research from the public eye until a story is finished, and leaving all their questions unwritten until they are answered, correspondents share their work every step of the way — from first story ideas to revelatory conclusions.

They do this because at The Correspondent we see journalism as an ongoing conversation with our readers. Or, to put it differently: we see journalism as a process, not a product. Correspondents are expected and required to spend at least 30 to 40 percent of their working time on interacting with readers — through personal newsletters, on social media, and in the contribution section on our platform.

By sharing the questions correspondents have, the sources they are using, and the stories they are working on upfront, readers get a greater understanding of how our stories are made, including the judgments that are inevitably a part of the work. And even better: it allows and encourages members to share what they know, improving our journalism as it is made.

This also means correspondents regularly change their mind on the topic they’re working on, and they will tell their readers how and why. This is what “objectivity” means to us: changing your mind when the facts convince you to and sharing this with the people who follow your work (instead of pretending you knew the Truth all along).

All of this, eventually, contributes to re-establishing something that “the view from nowhere” seemingly and unintentionally eroded: a bond of trust between journalists and the public. Because, trust is not established by just “giving the facts” or “letting you decide” what to think of it all. On the contrary, research shows the opposite: if the facts you present do not coincide with the worldview of the reader, viewer, or listener, he will trust you less, not more.

No, trust is forged by getting to know the sources that are informing us about the world we live in — and by reducing the distance between “them” and “us”. By being open and transparent about what fascinates, motivates, and worries us, and by showing our work while we’re doing it, our members not only get a deeper understanding of the beats we’re covering. They also get a better sense of who we are: the flawed but sincere, fallible yet meticulous, relatable as well as disagreeable human beings known as journalists.

And then they see: these are not the enemies of the people, these are just people. Trying to make sense of it all. Like all of us.

This article is the second in a four-piece Unbreaking News series in which I share the philosophy behind The Correspondent’s journalism:

Part 1: 
Forget fake news. Here’s why real news is the bigger problem — and what we can do about it

Part 2: 
Why we want our journalists to take a stance at The Correspondent — and ask them to keep a public notebook

Part 3: 
Why The Correspondent is founded on the idea of progress — and how journalism can contribute to it

Part 4: 
Here’s how our correspondents work

Follow me on Twitter (@robwijnberg) or subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll let you know when I publish the next installment!

Rob Wijnberg (1982) is the founder of De Correspondent, an ad free journalism platform in The Netherlands with more than 60,000 paying members. Rob, who’s both American and Dutch, moved to the United States in 2017 to prepare the launch of The Correspondent, the English language platform for Unbreaking News.

Let’s build a movement for radically different news, together!
Check out thecorrespondent.com to learn more.