In communications today, objectivity should no longer be the goal for traditional journalists. Traditional journalists – those who write for newspapers and major online news organizations – have largely abandoned that notion when they migrated to social media.
In the sports world, it is even more pronounced. It should not come as a surprise; for years, many beat reporters have rationalized their objectivity even as they voted for MVPs, Hall of Fame candidates and participated in college and high school polls.
A few papers did not participate in this charade. The New York Times does not allow its reporters to cast such votes and I banned the practice at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I became sports editor there.
But the objectivity discussion has become obsolete in this social media age.
This topic generated several discussions this week during my visit to Wichita State University for its annual Comm Week. Professors and students wanted to know if today’s reporters are not objective, then what should their goal be?
Before we answer that question, lets look at what has happened to objectivity in sports reporting.
When sports reporters crossed over (apologies to John Edwards) to the online world, they discovered they needed to engage readers. And what many readers wanted was inside information and access.
And many readers started asking reporters what they thought about this player, or that call, or that draft choice. In the spirit of engagement, they started answering those questions.
And along the way, they developed different standards for different platforms. Reporters will tweet something they would never post to a blog. And they will blog about stuff that would never make it into print.
I’m not arguing this is a bad thing, just that it is. The problem is that reporters do not see how this erodes objectivity as surely as voting in this week’s football poll. The problem is compounded by reporters and editors who cling to the notion that they are being objective and do not have different standards for online vs. print.
I wrote about how the Cleveland Plain Dealer removed a long-time beat writer from covering the team after a tweet he posted by mistake revealed his opinion about the team’s owner. But that same paper had no problem when he tweeted who he voted for the NFC Defensive Player of the Year – weeks before the offending tweet cost him his beat.
Reporters shouldn’t be objective.
To answer the question of what the goal should be – if its not to be objective – I suggest getting to the truth.
As every player, team and league has joined the journalism ranks by producing content and engaging its fans on its platforms (full disclosure: this includes my employer, the NCAA), there remains a need for traditional journalists to sift through all that content and provide perspective, analysis and, yes, their version of the truth.
But not objectivity. They do not possess it, so why try to pretend to embrace it on some platforms, some of the time.
In this age, where literally everyone thinks he or she is a journalist, the need for strong reporting, thoughtful perspectives and watchdog investigative stories will become more valuable as readers search for unique content they can’t get anywhere else. These kind of stories all strive to get at the truth, which in most cases requires more work than merely quoting two sides of an issue and labeling it an objective story.
Digging into how the legal system failed the victims in the Jerry Sandusky case requires significant – and very different – journalistic skills than pulling together an objective piece that quotes people disagreeing on the severity of the penalties levied against the school.
One article strives for the truth. The other is objective. Both should be written, that is not the point.
Which would you rather read? Which one moves the public dialogue forward and could lead to substantive change?
As the students at Wichita State study how journalism works today, which approach should be their goal?
Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.