Juan Williams firing: Does journalism need more objectivity -- or more transparency?

NPR's Juan Williams was fired after remarks he made on Fox News about his anxiety over seeing Muslims on planes.

Fox News screengrab
NPR fired Juan Williams in part for being too candid about his personal beliefs.

Remember when journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were fired for lying? Now, in the wake of Juan Williams's firing from NPR, it seems like the bigger risk journalists take is when they tell the truth – at least about their own feelings.

Straddling two worlds

Mr. Williams, as dual analyst for both Fox News and National Public Radio, personified the increasingly divergent models of journalism in America: the "objective" one, symbolized by NPR, and the "opinionated" one, symbolized by Fox.

After Williams confessed to Bill O'Reilly that he feels "nervous" and "worried" when he sees people in Muslim garb on a plane, NPR fired him – while Fox News then gave him a new three-year, $2 million contract.

Williams is just the latest big-name reporter, after Rich Sanchez and Helen Thomas, to be fired for expressing a personal opinion about a sensitive topic.

Why was his remark considered such a threat to traditional journalistic standards? According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller: "Certainly you have opinions – all human beings have their personal opinions. But it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity so we can best present the positions of people around all parts of the debate to our public so the public can make their own decisions about these issues."

Are journalists like umpires?

Schiller's argument seems to be that NPR listeners would have a harder time making decisions about issues presented by Williams because they suspect his analysis would be biased.

That makes sense. I certainly wouldn't trust the judgment of the home-plate umpire in tonight's playoff game between the Yankees and Rangers if he tweeted that he didn't like Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes.

And yet, wouldn't such knowledge of the umpire's feelings actually empower me as a fan to better judge the quality of his calls on balls and strikes?

Loony liberal or right-wing extremist?

As the Monitor's opinion editor, I get frequent complaints from readers about the ideological balance of the pieces we publish. Some clearly think I'm a hopeless Boston liberal. Others insist I'm a right-wing extremist. I usually respond by pointing them to pieces that demonstrate our sincere commitment to present a diversity of voices and ideas.

But why leave it at that? What if readers could click on a journalist's byline and instantly call up a profile that listed age, race, religion, voting record, and even the bias scores from Harvard's Project Implicit? It sounds appealing, but there's a problem: It's much easier to reveal a bias than it is to demonstrate credibility as an objective reporter. Members of Congress earn numerical ratings from special-interest groups like the ACLU. Maybe reporters should receive similar scores that would help readers sort out their biases.

TMI? Perhaps. But in an open-source age, don't we generally favor more transparency over less? Pulling the curtain back on reporters' backgrounds and beliefs could act as an important check on one of the most widespread and subtle forms of journalistic bias: selective use of sources.

Subtle bias of selective sourcing

Reporters with strong opinions often let that bias bleed into their stories by calling on the sources they know will confirm their own point of view. I find that particularly troubling because it's biased journalism hiding in the cloth of objective reporting. In those cases, a public profile that readers could see would at least offer intellectual honesty, if not nudge the reporter to be more balanced.

If I applied that standard to this blog, I'd have to confess that I'm a Yankees fan. Does that invalidate my earlier point about baseball? No, but it makes it even harder to get along with my Boston (Red Sox-loving) colleagues.

Office tensions aside, it's that potential damage to relationships that makes me still cleave to the "keep your opinions to yourself" camp. (For a rousing debate about whether political reporters should abstain from voting, click here.)

As opinion editor, I get paid to help other people express their points of view more clearly. Doing that well takes a tremendous amount of trust. And that trust would be broken if commentary writers knew that my own beliefs diverged from theirs.

That may be a minority view. New York Times oped editor David Shipley is a former speechwriter for President Clinton. That hasn't stopped conservative writers from working with him. And speaking of Clinton staffers, George Stephanopoulos shows that it's possible to be a credible chief political correspondent for ABC News despite having served as a partisan adviser.

Objectivity vs. transparency

What's your view: Is objectivity a worthy goal in journalism or an artificial psychological straitjacket? Do you wish you knew more about the personal beliefs and backgrounds of reporters and editors? Or are you glad that most journalists keep their views to themselves?

Share your thoughts using the "Comment on this story" link below.

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