Putting People at the Center of Journalism

I saw a tweet last night that went something like: “People must love biased news because CNN is doing so poorly while the other networks are doing great.” This was inspired by new reports of CNN’s second quarter ratings, which New York Times reports, “plunged by 40 percent from a year ago,” for its prime-time shows. We can all debate about definitions of doing well and doing poorly, but in general I think a lot of people agree with this sentiment that bias drives views.

I don’t.

CNN isn’t plummeting in the rankings because people love “biased news.” However, what MSNBC and FOX News understand, that I think CNN doesn’t, is that people want to see themselves in the stories they consume. This is as true of novels they choose as it is of the news they decide to watch.

This aspect of the debate over objectivity has received too little attention, but it is fundamental to how stories function. For a long time objectivity was a source of trust – (i.e. “You can trust me because I don’t have a dog in this race”) – but it also had a cost. The cost was journalists’ relationship with their audience and their communities. 

What this idea of objectivity misses is that the people journalists are writing for (or should be writing for) do absolutely have a dog in the race. The issues journalists cover have huge bearing on people’s lives and the health of communities and if reporters employ what Jay Rosen has aptly called “the view from nowhere” then they leave their communities behind. Because their communities are somewhere, they are rooted in place, and they have a stake in the stories journalists tell.

I’ve argued before that to rebuild trust we’ll need to rebuild journalism with communities at the center. If this is true, and objectivity has driven a wedge between journalists and communities, then there are a few ways we can respond:

  • False Balance: One is to try to appeal to the stakeholders in any given issue by including their side of the story. The easiest way to do this without upsetting the idea of objectivity is to boil all issues down to two sides and include both sides uncritically in your reporting. This becomes false balance. False because the two sides are rarely both equally true, and because issues always have more than two competing sides. However, this tactic still erodes trust because people understand the false dichotomies this kind of storytelling produces.
  • Choose a Side: MSNBC and Fox News have chosen sides in our national debates and those sides shape the stations programming. People can turn on either station and see their point of view mirrored back to them, they see themselves in the stories being told, and audiences are growing. But those same audiences also understand that they are only getting part of the picture, because even while audiences grow, trust in the media continues to hover around all time lows. If people don’t trust the news they are watching, but they watch anyway, then that news is closer to entertainment than journalism.
  • Putting People Back at the Center of Journalism: Finally, we can begin telling stories in a new way that remembers that people and communities are at the heart of the work we do and the issues we cover. We can tell stories where people, not a point of view, play a central role. Similarly, we can tell stories that empower people to act on the information within them. Too much of journalism is disempowering and disenfranchising to a huge majority of people.

For example, debates about Internet policy are almost always reported in the business section and framed as a battle between big companies – the entertainment industry versus the web community, or incumbents versus start-ups. Save for the occasional quote from a public interest group, these articles almost entirely ignore the implications of these debates on real people who are struggling to connect to the web so their kids can do homework, or trying to runs small business with dial-up access only. The clash-of-titans narrative misses the deeply personal ways policy shapes people’s lives (not too mention the democratic implications of these policies) and when people read these stories they don’t see their concerns reflected there. Why should they trust it or support it financially?

We need journalism that is prepared to work side by side with communities, to do the hard labor of rebuilding our public square for the digital age. In this case I’m taking my inspiration from Jonathan Stray’s vision of the public square – especially his focus on empathy and collective action, which he describes thusly:

  • Empathy. “The vast majority of people in the world, we will only know through media. We must strive to represent the ‘other’ to each-other with compassion and reality. We can’t forget that there are people on the other end of the wire.”
  • Collective action. “What good is public deliberation if we can’t eventually come to a decision and act? But truly enabling the formation of broad agreement also requires that our information systems support conflict resolution.”

If journalism is going to rebuild its relationship to communities a key part of that is going to be rethinking how we tell stories start to finish and I think the emerging (and admittedly, contested) ideas of open journalism and solutions journalism are key. Here is Stray again, from another post:

“I find the idea of total journalistic detachment to be nonsensical; if journalism has no effect, then it simply does not work. But neither do I think that journalists have any particular legitimacy to decide for everyone else… I don’t want the journalist to offer solutions. The solution journalist ought to be well informed, certainly, and perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I don’t think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future.”

There are some great examples of this kind of people-oriented narrative. Look at California Watch, ProPublica, Frontline, Oakland Local and others. Indeed, in its new ethics guidelines NPR takes direct aim at eliminating false balance and the mission statements of many nonprofit journalism organizations discuss their place in the community explicitly. It is no surprise that these organizations are also leading great experiments in how to deeply engage with communities on and offline.

We should embrace Jay Rosen’s notion of the view from somewhere and embrace where we are coming from, but first we have to remember that we come from the communities we serve.


Updated: Fixed a few typos and tweaked for clarity.


  1. This explores a great taboo topic in journalism and I find it very refreshing. However I don’t think I agree with your analysis in this statement: “But those same audiences also understand that they are only getting part of the picture, because even while audiences grow trust in the media continues to hover around all time lows.” I (a journalist) have a hard time believing that audiences understand the holes in the picture they get. I remember trying to explain to my in-laws, steadfast MSNBC fans, that Keith Olbermann was a commentator and not a reporter. They did not get the difference. And maybe they didn’t care. Here’s the scenario more likely to me: My mother-in-law watches MSNBC, and watches it more often as it tells her story, as you say. Her trust of ALL OTHER NEWS SOURCES is what’s low. We cling to what reinforces our existing beliefs and turn a distrustful eye toward that which does not.

    More storytelling? Definitely. Keep tooting that horn, please.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      You make a good point Erin. While I have a bit more faith that people understand that they aren’t seeing all sides to a story, your point about people’s over-allegiance to one brand may also erode trust in the larger media landscape. This may be a case where there is room for both truths to exist. And it is worth noting that another key to storytelling is selecting certain details and that narratives are necessarily composed and incomplete. Thus, I don’t want to appear to say that any one story can capture the full range of human experience. Stories can illuminate as much as they hide.

  2. Josh Stearns says:

    Recommended Reading – also published today: Jonathan Stray on Bias. “How do you tell when the news is biased? It depends on how you see yourself”

    Here’s the excerpt that resonates most with the discussion above: “Because perceptions of bias depend on how we are thinking about our identity in that moment, if we can find a way to tell our stories outside of partisan frames, we might also reduce feelings of unfairness. The trick would be to shy away from invoking divisive identities, preferring frames that allow members of a polarized audience to see themselves as part of the same group. (In this regard, the classic “balanced” article that quotes starkly opposing sides might be a particularly bad choice.)”

    But be sure to go read the full post: http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/06/how-do-you-tell-when-the-news-is-biased/

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