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Perspective on Objectivity

On any summer Wednesday afternoon in the late 1970’s in my home town, chances are there would be a white 10-speed bike parked outside the library.

Honestly, it was there often on other days, but on Wednesdays the new issues of Time and Newsweek hit the periodical racks. How it started, or why, is unknown, but it became a ritual to read each magazine from cover to cover comparing the coverage of one publication to the other regarding the major world events.

At home we had the Star Tribune and ABC News with Peter Jennings after dinner. My world view was shaped by “objective” journalism. Certainly inherent biases shaped what stories were reported, with a generally Western/First world perspective, but no one would have been confused about the basic facts – especially coverage regarding science – advancements, exploration and new understanding of our world.

People had a handful of choices for information, and not nearly enough time to gather and wade through data independently, so we were kept close to this relatively objective center.

Today, “news” gets generated by countless sources of often unknown origins. “Objective” journalism, and frankly objective science, is still quite near that center – where hard facts and scientific inquiry preside.

However, the perspectives of the audiences have been moving steadily away from that center, in all directions, since the Internet made it possible for anyone to tap a few keys and generate an audience. To examine this briefly from two opposing angles, consider those on the furthest left and right ends of the political spectrum.

The right accuses media (and academia) of being “liberal.” If absolutely objective reporting remains near the center of the spectrum, all media would be decidedly somewhere to the left for those furthest to the ideological right.

Meanwhile, the ultra-left accuses traditional media of being conservative or even fascist. Again, from this position on the spectrum, the center seems very far to the right.

In both cases, there becomes more need to see alignment of beliefs in order to see something identified from that perspective as truth. For decades, perhaps a century, journalism students have been taught to sequester our “beliefs” and pursue facts. To attempt to remain objective and gather information from both sides of an argument was respected.

One can safely say that the vast majority of “news” on social media does not come from classically trained journalists.

Even objective measures of bastions of broadcast journalism, like ABC News, would quickly reveal how far each broadcast lies from “hard news” journalism. In any 30 minute broadcast today, after 6-7 minutes of commercials, 3-4 minutes of teases for stories, at least 2 minutes of rehash to “contextualize” today’s news, and solid 4 minutes of “feel good” snapshots of human interest, on average only about 12 minutes remain for actual news. Half of that is weather.

So what? Why do business communicators need to care? Most of us are not selling consumer products anyway.

The unfortunate reality for the professional communicator becomes the challenge of persuading audiences, within business channels, that the messages of the organization you serve are “true.” The problem goes beyond convincing those folks that your facts are accurate and that you have the credibility to have those messages respected.

The issue has more to do with facing the necessities of taking an audience through the persuasion process: from awareness to opinion, allowing for only minimal belief regarding the issue we wish to address and generate action. Now people seem saturated with beliefs, not to mention contempt for other world views, that the blinders of personal life are more likely to interfere with consumption of information at work.

Whether a communication person needs to influence employees, customers or members of another stakeholder group, many of the audience members will have had their biases magnified by social media. So, now, in addition to everything else we need to know about those audiences, it would help to understand their views on what constitutes “fact,” or other necessities of validation. Without this knowledge, we will be lucky to get very far past generating awareness, much less shaping opinion, belief or action.

The reality, unfortunately, is that audiences are also beyond the point of saturation on surveys and other market research tactics which could provide that insight, even if budget and time allowed for the gathering of this important data.

Perhaps it will be enough to at least bear this challenge in mind when developing communication. At least until we have a better understanding of the subject.

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