Does transparency trump objectivity?

Food for thought from Jeff Jarvis (writing from the We Media gathering in London):

A man from the room says one cannot edit without an agenda and he asks what is the BBC’s agenda other than ‘you are right and we are wrong.’ The BBC is caught in the same bind as old American papers — believing in objectivity and impartiality. That doesn’t mesh with transparency, I’m afraid; that, too, needs reexamination.

Whew! I had to catch my breath. Is transparency incompatible with objectivity and impartiality?

Concepts did battle in my brain: Accuracy. Truth. Bias. Impartiality. Objectivity. Existentialism! Selective perception. “The Visible and the Invisible”!

What we call “transparency” (in government as well as in journalism) usually means we can see how things work. We are let in on how the decisions get made, and why one course of action is rejected and another is approved.

In government, a simplistic example would be that a congressman or MP would publicly acknowledge that he is voting in favor of a particular bill because he received a bribe. (As if that would ever happen!) In journalism, we would see American reporters saying straight up whether they support the war in Iraq or not.

The reason journalists don’t do that is because we operate on the principle that we are able to set aside, or bracket, our personal feelings and beliefs. So this is what Jarvis was hitting on — is that reasonable? Can human beings really detach themselves from what they believe?

The dream of objectivity says we can try to do that. But we can only try. (There’s a very good book about objectivity in journalism, by the way: Just the Facts.)

The dream of transparency says we can reveal our biases and let others judge whether we have fairly set them them aside.

So I have to conclude that Jarvis is right: If we insist on cloaking journalism in an ideal of objectivity, transparency is not possible. My mind is still reeling, though. I just had not thought about it on exactly those terms before.

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