Is it Fairness and Balance or Honesty and Bias that users need?

“Anytime judgment is involved, unbiased opinion is not possible,” is the opening sentence of a blog entry on journalism published at Under the Same Sun here. This fed into an article at Politico.com about new and highly controversial ways the AP (Associated Press) now promotes, mostly in writing analysis but increasingly in writing stories.

News agencies, and AP is the oldest among them still in operation, are traditionally “just the facts” type of media. Of course we who write for them have our biases, experience, judgments. But we valiantly, even though sometime less successfully than in other times, try to fight them and try to bring stories as “objective” as humanly possible, knowing well, that there is no such thing as a fully objective piece written by a human.

Maybe Mr. Spock at USS Enterprise would be able to do it every time. We are not. We do have our methods, we have our journalistic checks and balances, we always have someone else editing our stories, in order to cancel our bias by someone else’s, we know we cannot have just one side in the story, even though there is still, to my astonishment, some debate whether each story has just two sides or more. Even a soccer match does not have only two sides (there are also referees, fans, owners, player agents, bookmakers…).

We also have our arguments about the space we give to each side. Should it be equal? Except for party political broadcasts in weeks before elections, I do not think it should. All depends very much on context, issues. Should Mohamed Al Fayed still get the same level of exposure as those people who spent thousands of hours analysing the evidence about Diana, Princess of Wales’ death?

But these are arguments that clearly have merit and will, in my humble opinion, be repeated many times over in the future as they were in the past.

What the AP is now doing, is slaughtering some really holly cows.

Such as first person accounts by correspondents. We, at the news agencies, go to great and sometimes a silly extents to keep “I” out of our copy. It is not acceptable to write “I saw”, you need to say “CTK correspondent saw”. You cannot describe your own feelings – if you are shocked, you cannot put it in a story even if you are writing about Pol Pot’s mass murder campaign. You need to find someone who will tell you that she is shocked.

And here comes the AP with a dispatch: “I miss Hillary.”

Boom.

There goes the myth that editors publish whatever gets more readers and thus brings money for their media. A news agency copy is for all the media in a country or in the case of AP, Reuters or AFP of the world. One can safely presume, that there are media supporting Hillary Clinton that are also sorry to see her drop out of the Democratic presidential campaign, but there are probably more media outlets that either do not care (somewhere like Laos or the Czech Republic) or that do not miss her at all (many on AP’s main market in the USA). So the AP just sent out an item that is of no use to probably majority of their customers despite how well it might have been written.

This is completely different from stating an opinion based on published facts, which is what even news agencies do in their analysis pieces. If your facts and named sources from different sides of the argument support it, you can write whatever that data supports even if you are a news agency. But to write “Tony Blair, why I am sorry to see him go” is, clearly, out of bounds.

At the same time this AP experiment is a part of the process where news agencies are trying hard to establish their new role in this new world that breaks all conventions and questions their usefulness.

Some may argue that straight news in the age of Facebook and Twitter are no longer even a commodity. When millions of people basically constantly report news to each other, what is there for a couple of hundred (at best) news agency reporters to do?

But when millions of people constantly express their opinion on everything under the sun – restaurants, books, software, new mobile phones, politicians, do you really need one more reporter waxing lyrical about why he or she misses anyone or anything?