Transparency or objectivity? Yes.

Jay Rosen linked on Twitter to this post by Terry Heaton, a consultant and journalism professor, on new media ethics that frames the subject in a damaging manner:

There are basically two forms of ethical conduct in the press today. One espouses a traditional set of canons and exists with self-restraint as a guide. In this world, objectivity — or attempts at objectivity — are the norm, for balance and fairness are the goals. Here, truth is presented as existing between two or more “sides” to stories. In the second world, however, transparency replaces objectivity in the belief that the audience can determine bias and figure out where the writer is coming from. In this view, objectivity is a farce and truth determination is up to the reader.

I don’t have much to say about the specific example Heaton examines: a gripe against American Express by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington.

I have to object, though, to the general frame of objectivity vs. transparency.  I do take issue with the press’s misguided preoccupation with objectivity, and I do support greater transparency.  But I’d hate to see the two unnecessarily juxtaposed.

Not either or

For all the problems with today’s impartiality in journalism – and Rosen’s “Cult of Innocence” post is the place to start on that – there is real value in factually accurate reporting that aspires to a certain kind of objectivity.  (Here’s how I think that could work in the internet age.)  And transparency is aiding experiments in how a new kind of objectivity might look.

The best example I’m aware of here is Wikipedia.  Its community aspires to a certain kind of objectivity, based on a neutral point of view, and is heavily reliant on transparency.  While its process is by no means perfect, it offers some insight into the potential interaction between objectivity and transparency.

Transparency has real advantages if your goal is successfully transforming journalistic objectivity.  First, it offers outsiders a chance to help improve the process.  It’s much easier for the average reader to discover shortcomings in Wikipedia’s process, and to suggest improvements, than it is to do the same with a traditional media outlet.

Second, transparency helps build trust.  And producing accurate journalism that aspires to some version of objectivity is meaningless if no one trusts your process.

Transparency is not enough

Transparency may offer journalists the opportunity to reinvent objectivity within the press, yet transparency alone is no cure-all for journalism.  Just as we’re beginning to see innovative experiments in transparency, I hope we’ll continue to see experiments in objectivity building on successes like Wikipedia.

UPDATE: Also via Rosen, I just came across this 2009 David Weinberger post “Transparency is the new objectivity”.  He makes a good case, but I continue to think the juxtaposition will do damage in the long run, if only via those who fail to read past the subject lines.

Who will feed me my vegetables?

Here’s a snippet from a post imagining a news aggregator built into Facebook, which the author refers to as “inevitable”:

Suddenly, Facebook will funnel news to you from a variety of sources based on data it already knows about you and your friends. Whereas Google News (theoretically) knows little about you until you personalize it, Facebook knows your demographic, your interests, stories and pages you’ve liked, your friends and news they’ve read, liked and commented on.

From the perspective of the user, the potential benefits are obvious.  If Facebook can determine from your profile, your friendships and your conversations that you want to read news items about digital music, cars and technology startups it can save you the time and effort required to customize a news diet as you would through Google News or Google Reader.

But what about the negatives?

Readers won’t realize they’re consuming news from an echo chamber designed by Facebook’s feed algorithm.

This might not matter for certain types of news items, but it matters a lot for others.  Consider politics.  Facebook knows I self-designate as “liberal”.  They know I’m a “fan” of Barack Obama and the Times’ Nick Kristof.  They can see I’m more likely to “like” stories from liberal outlets.

So what kind of political news stories will they send my way?  If the algorithm’s aim is merely to feed me stories I will like then it’s not hard to imagine the feed becoming an echo chamber.

Imagine if Facebook were designing an algorithm to deliver food instead of news.  It wouldn’t be hard to determine the kind of food I enjoy, but if the goal is just to feed me what I like I’d be in trouble.  I’d eat nothing but pizza, burgers and fries.

You might argue that a sophisticated algorithm could identify what we could call “second-order desires”, like wanting eat healthy or wanting to read balanced news coverage.

Perhaps.  But human will power is weak.  Just as we’re bad at sticking to our diets, we’re bad at seeking out perspectives with which we disagree.

For the sake of the public sphere, we need news diets that insist on feeding us our vegetables.

Hierarchies and/or networks

The world really doesn’t need another response to Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Twitter and social revolutions so instead of offering my full thoughts, I’ll just make one point.  Gladwell:

Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies…

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars...

Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error.

This brought to mind a similar point from a recent National Journal piece, How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders:

Headless organizations have other problems. They are much better at mobilizing to stop a proposal or person they dislike than at agreeing on an alternative. They are bad at negotiating and compromising, because no one can speak for them, and many of their members regard compromising as selling out.

Successful open source projects clearly utilize networks effectively.  But that doesn’t mean that they are paralyzed in the face of decisions.  That’s because they employ alternative decision-making structures – including hierarchies – to tackle tasks for which networks are ill-suited.  Take Linux, for instance.  While a global network of programmers contributes to the project, the community employs a hierarchical decision-making structure to handle changes.  (For more on how that works, I recommend this book.)

When considering the implications of networked political movements, it’s worth remembering that this in no way precludes the use of hierarchies for certain tasks.  Gladwell’s own example of car companies demonstrates the viability of a blended approach.  But he somehow chooses to ignore it when criticizing the usefulness of networks in political change.  Successful political movements will increasingly utilize a blend of the two as we’ve seen in the context of open source software.

(If you’re looking for other reactions here’s Tyler Cowen, Henry Farrell, and a bunch more at Nieman Lab.)