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Why scoops and objectivity matter less and less — because context is everything

Mathew Ingram

We’ve argued before that the life-span of a breaking-news alert or scoop is declining rapidly, thanks in part to the rise of social-news platforms like Twitter and Facebook — and also that a ruthless commitment to objectivity is becoming less of a strength and more of a hindrance for news outlets of all kinds. In a recent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, journalist and data scientist Jonathan Stray says this is more than just a point of view: research shows that, for better or worse, journalism as we know it is becoming less about the simple recitation of facts, and more about context.

This trend isn’t specifically a result of the growth of social media or even the rise of the web in general, Stray says. In fact, the research he describes — a study published earlier this year (PDF link) by two researchers at Columbia University — shows that it has been going on more or less continuously since the beginning of what we call the mass-media era in the 1950s (an era that itself may just have been an accident of history, as I discussed in a recent post). “Contextual” journalism of various kinds has been climbing steadily and conventional fact-based reporting has been declining.

As Stray puts it: “Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.” He notes that no one really needs a news organization whose sole job is to tell us what the White House is saying when all of their press briefings are posted online — an extension of the principle that now “sources can go direct,” an idea proposed by media theorists like blogging pioneer Dave Winer. As a result, Stray says, journalism has to figure out how to “move up the information food chain” and provide more than just facts.

If context is all, what happens to objectivity?

Interestingly enough, both Stray and the authors of the study note that this kind of journalism doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name. Some call it in-depth reporting, some call it longform journalism, some refer to it as analytical or explanatory, but it has no established terminology. As the study’s authors note:

“Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.”

Stray, who runs a data-visualization project for Associated Press and also teaches computational journalism at Columbia University, says that he believes one reason for the lack of discussion about this change in the media is that it conflicts with the view that journalists have to be scrupulously objective — in other words, that they provide “just the facts, ma’am.” If everything requires context and interpretation, then that means an end to the rigid version of objectivity that many journalists were trained to accept and the rise of other values such as transparency and engagement.

“This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground.”

It may be messy and complex, but I think Stray is right when he says that the shift must be made — and that the desire for context helps explain the rise of unbalanced outlets like Fox News, but also of commentary-based journalism of the kind practiced by publishers like Gawker Media and even individuals like Andrew Sullivan. Where the trend ultimately takes us remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn

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