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

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.)

But for those who were not already involved in conversations about the issue, those who, it can be assumed, did not already have a hard and fast opinion of the protest, the “reinforcing” article made them far more likely to have a positive impression of the protest and want to take part.

What does all this mean for journalism?

It seems that if your goal is actually motivating people to participate in politics, journalism written by those who push participation is good. Mendelson noted that there has been a lot of research that has focused on how to get readers involved in political or civic life. “Just telling people how you get involved moves them from passive to active. Focusing on solutions rather than just problems moves an issue from 'Something that I just need to take in' versus 'Something that actually can be solved.' Looking at issues thematically rather than episodically, moving from an individual crime to the trends, the issues around a topic rather than just focusing on an individual event in isolation. A lot of studies have shown that those moves will engage audiences.”

The journalism that is calculated to appeal to the largest swath of the population-- “objective” reporting, which Kim noted originally became popular because publishers thought it would help them sell more papers and provide more eyeballs to advertisers—is ironically more likely to disengage people than engage them in the political system. For reporters determined to appear neutral, giving readers information on how to get involved would spoil that carefully cultivated neutrality.

But, Mendelson pointed out, there are problems with this research. “I'm less impressed with this specific study than I am with the concept it was trying to examine,” he said. Because the report doesn't show what specific articles were given as “objective” and “reinforcing” stories, it is hard to judge what Kim meant by an “objective” news piece—or whether we can translate that type of reporting from Korea to other countries. Cultural differences and differences between the way the media practice their craft could mean that the results of this report wouldn't hold up in the US.

Kim argued that “objectivity needs to be distinguished from social detachment, and it is the latter rather than the former that a journalist needs to overcome.” The problem so often, though, is that reporting of the facts and pushing to find the truth is replaced with false balance in the name of objectivity—which leads to a kind of detachment, the unwillingness to point out that one side or the other could be, objectively, wrong. And that breeds the cynicism about politics and civic life that Mendelson mentioned. News outlets such as NPR have been turning away from this ideal of balance toward a more nuanced ideal of reporting the truth, and it would be interesting to see more research on the impact that change has on political engagement.

“We need to do more research,” Mendelson said, “but we have done a lot of research on the topic. The best way to engage audience in a genuine way about their community is to give them context and not set up false dichotomies that really don't go on beyond the predictable positions that a party would have. To understand complicated issues you really have to step outside of partisan positions.”


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