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Journalistic objectivity 2.0: Politico’s experience

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Journalistic objectivity 2.0: Politico’s experience

As the USA enters yet another presidential campaign, with 12 politicians having already announced their candidacy and with media managers backing their chosen contenders, journalists must stay objective and hide their own political views.

But is that even possible? Many now say that there is no such thing as unbiased journalism and we should stop pretending it exists. Readers themselves seem to align with publications that are skewed towards their political preferences.

As research conducted by the Pew Research Center shows, when it comes to choosing a media outlet for political news, conservatives gravitate strongly towards Fox News. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to prefer political coverage from NPR, MSNBC and The New York Times.

Bill Nichols (in photo), editor-at-large of Politico, a Washington-based publication launched in 2007 with a focus on American politics, explains their own success in producing non-partisan content.

“What is integral for the Politico brand is that we are non-partisan. When we started a few years ago, that was viewed as idiotic, old-fashioned, and archived. No one wanted non-partisan journalism,” he said Tuesday at the 22nd World Editors Forum and 25th World Advertising Forum in Washington, D.C.

Nichols emphasized that that was possible “partly because of our age, partly because of our inclinations,” and partly because of Politico owner Robert Allbritton’s personal stance.

“Robert is not identified with any particular political causes. I push the buttons on thousands of political stories and I’ve never heard from him once,” Nichols confessed.

Objectivity 2.0

At the same time, Nichols admits that unbiased journalism is a challenging task even for experienced journalists and editors.

“I sometimes refer to ‘Objectivity 2.0’. I don’t believe in the notion that was prevalent 20 years ago that journalists are somehow different from other human beings, that we don’t have personal or political views, and that we are able to shield ourselves from those. That’s ridiculous,” he said.

However, objective journalism does exist; you just need to work hard at it. Media managers have to challenge reporters and editors to meet that standard every day.

“My job is to construct a newsroom in which the end product doesn’t reflect that [personal biases]. I think this is doable. It’s not perfect, but I think you can produce a consistently objective product,” he said.

“And — just as importantly — when you don’t meet that standard, you have to be honest about it,” Nichols added. He admitted that at Politico, he has to teach young journalists that corrections aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“You establish trust with your readers when you are willing to say: ‘I got this wrong’ or ‘This piece was imbalanced in this way’,” he said.

Other things Politico does differently

Nichols emphasised that “a few basic things” done differently have helped Politico become special since its launch eight years ago. First, the early realisation that the web, not print, comes first, that speed can be your friend, and that you have to break stories.

“Finally, we were one of the first niche publications. We do not and did not cover everything. In the beginning, we were covering politics, lobbying and Congress. Our feeling was that if you want sports news, entertainment, or fashion, go somewhere else. But on those topics we tried to intensely use our resources and tried to be the authoritative source for people who were interested in these topics,” he said.

As a result, Politico became profitable on the second year of its existence.

Things, however, have changed radically since 2007, and Politico is learning how to adapt to them.

“It’s hard to be first today. It’s Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit which are usually first. So we have diversified our journalism and made it deeper, and smarter, and more issue-based,” said Nichols.

Secondly, in 2011, Politico launched a paywall, PoliticoPro, having realised that readers had passed “a huge psychological barrier” and were willing to pay for previously free content. “That has become a significant part of our overall revenue. It also made our website much deeper,” Nichols explained.

In addition, in recent months the publication has announced major expansion plans to other U.S. states’ capitals and even to capitals internationally. Six weeks ago Politico-Europe (politico.eu) was launched in partnership with Axel Springer.

“We have very ambitious plans to try to become a dominant news organization in Europe. We think we can do this because we understand digital journalism better than our competitors do,” Nichols concluded.

Ekaterina Zabrovskaya

 

Author

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

Date

2015-06-03 22:02

Author information

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