Accuracy, impartiality and the public interest

September 7, 2007 at 2:29 am | Posted in Climate change, Media, Newspapers | Leave a comment

When I checked the Editor and Publisher Letters, it seemed to me that many writers who complained about Steve Outing’s stance seem to miss the point that objectivity has been redefined by the American media and is actually subjectivity masquerading under another name.

Furthermore, objectivity means different things to scientists and journalists: in science objectivity is understood worldwide. By contrast, in journalism, objectivity is defined according to cultural situations, which sets America apart from the rest of the world. Perhaps this explains why non-Americans find U.S. media so subjective?!

I think it is unfortunate that Mr. Outing chose (as I presume he did, though maybe the title was chosen by the editor of Editor and Publisher?) to call upon newspapers to ‘Get Over Objectivity’ in his title, as it sounds like he is commanding people to be subjective, which he is not. Many of the comments assume that angle, and criticise Outing for suggesting something he did not say (i.e. he did not order “Be Subjective!”), but they read that as implied in the title. The word ‘Objectivity’ is too loaded—at the same time as being “definitionally vague”—to be useful in this situation.

There is a parallel discourse affecting the BBC, and I shall quote from a comment I made last week on that topic:

The BBC operates under a Royal Charter and Agreement.  The Royal Charter states on page 4, under item 3 The BBC’s public nature and its objects:

(1) The BBC exists to serve the public interest.

It is not in the public interest to have one day in which climate change is the sole topic of the day. Nor is it in the public interest to have a debate about the weight of scientific evidence, though a debate about what actions each of us can take might help some people.

Our climate challenge is a long-term project requiring changes of our attitude to the environment and to our lifestyles. As with all such projects, accurate information needs to be integrated within all programming—not just one-day campaign which people can ignore—to have any long-lasting effect.

Anyone who argues impartiality without giving equal weight to accuracy is cherry-picking from another document that specifies the BBC’s role. The document I refer to is the Agreement that accompanies the Charter. On page 20, under the section titled REGULATORY OBLIGATIONS ON THE UK PUBLIC SERVICES, item 44 states:

44. Accuracy and impartiality
(1) The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output.
(2) In applying paragraph (1), a series of programmes may be considered as a whole.

The reason sceptics WORK SO HARD to make climate change a controversial subject is that they can then take advantage of the impartiality requirement while ignoring the requirement for accuracy.

Accuracy goes hand-in-hand with impartiality, the way responsibilities are tied to rights.

How does this relate to the commotion over at Editor and Publisher?  Well, if, for example, Steve Outing had emphasised accuracy and impartiality in the title of his opinion piece, and had called on newspapers to serve the public interest, he would have launched the discussion on a completely different footing.

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