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Is Opinionated Journalism Actually Better at Getting People Involved in Politics?

A new study finds that opinionated reporting might be better at motivating the politically unengaged.

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The ideal of “objective” journalism has come under fire recently, as critics point out the failures of the mass media that led to the Iraq war and to an economic crisis in which warning signs went largely unnoticed until it was too late. Now, a new study highlights another downside of so-called objective reporting: it may actually be bad for civic participation.

Media critics like Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University, note that “objectivity” is a style with biases of its own, a system of persuading the reader not of a specific political position, but that its writer has none.  Rosen wrote in 2010: “[E]very act of journalism is saturated with judgment. By not disclosing such acts, 'just the facts' sows the seeds of mistrust.” Readers know that reporters are people with opinions, but the process of objectivity requires the reporter to obscure her own judgment in order to appear “ balanced,” often giving equal weight to two sides of a story even when one side is demonstrably wrong.

“If you look at the trends of audiences for newspapers, for TV, local, national, cable, they've been declining because the form of the news is not helping people make decisions about their own lives,” Andrew Mendelson, chair of the Department of Journalism at Temple University, told AlterNet. “It's not enough to just give people the same form of the news over and over again and assume that people can come to an understanding. It's making people bored with the system and cynical about the system.”

Opinion reporting doesn't hold its fire—you know which side the reporter is on, what she believes, whom she supports. And according to a study by Minha Kim of Korea's Sungkyunkwan University, [PDF] such opinionated journalism is more likely to motivate people who don't already have an opinion on an issue to take action.

Kim took two groups of students and gave each group an article to read on a protest against the Korean government's decision to import beef from the United States—beef that Koreans feared had been exposed to Mad Cow disease. One of the articles was a traditional “objective” article, the other took the position that the protest was good and that readers should get involved.

The intent of the study was to “gauge the limitations of objective journalism and the potential of alternative journalism, which overtly expresses views and opinions and utilizes the technological benefit of interactive communication.” It specifically focused on the Internet, noting that traditional media—newspapers and television—did not seem to have much of an impact on whether people chose to engage in political action. “It was the Internet and interpersonal communication that resulted in the subjects’ criticism of the Korean government policy to import U.S. beef,” Kim noted. “The more frequently subjects used the Internet, the more positive they were toward the protest.”

Interestingly, Kim found that readers who did not regularly discuss politics with their friends and did not have an opinion about the protest were moved more to take part in the protest by the “reinforcing” article—the one with opinion. Participants who spent a lot of time talking about politics with their friends and colleagues were less likely to be moved by the “reinforcing” article and more likely to be moved by the “objective” article.

Participants who talked to others about the issue more often, Kim noted, may have been likely to be more politically informed and thus more likely to be immune to the opinionated article—either they already agreed with it, or they were unlikely to be swayed by its difference from their opinion. (Imagine reading an anti-abortion blog post as a pro-choice reader; you're unlikely to be converted by one article into a protester outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.)

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