26 Jan The myth of objectivity
I was going to write today’s column about a toilet seat. Seriously. The Brondell Swash 600. But then controversy swirled around the fact that I—and 99 others—even had this toilet seat in the first place.
Last fall I was asked to become part of the “Silicon Valley 100.” This group, organized by networker extraordinaire and Stonebrick Group founder Auren Hoffman, is a group of 100 individuals who, by virtue of their work or their own networking prowess, presumably have influence on the opinions and buying habits of others. Periodically, members of the Silicon Valley 100 are sent products to try. No strings attached. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. Keep ‘em or toss ‘em. Talk about ‘em or not.
I’ve done technology product evaluation and reviews for 20 years, so this request didn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary. I’ve also seen the effectiveness—and unexpected failures—of so-called “influencer” programs that place products from emerging and established brands with celebrities or other highly visible individuals (It’s no accident that many Hollywood types use a Sidekick, for example). With assurances that my selection to the Silicon Valley 100 would, in no way, carry an expectation of anything but honest feedback, I agreed to join the group.
Now, it seems, the Silicon Valley 100 is taking flack for being—well, flacks.
Newsweek’s Brad Stone broke the story of the Silicon Valley 100 as if it was a secret group meeting in the catacombs deep beneath the Stanford Linear Accelerator. In commenting on the group’s charter, Stone asks, “Does it dilute these bigwigs’ influence when companies are, in effect, buying the chance to get worked into their cocktail chatter?”
Dan Gillmor, who without question is the most agonizingly honest journalist I know, called the program “oddly creepy,” and wondered, “Will the people getting this stuff routinely tell people they’ve gotten it for free?”
My answer to both questions is yes. But allow me to elaborate.
First, let’s bet clear: the Silicon Valley 100 is not technology’s equivalent of a million-dollar sporting goods endorsement. Nobody is being paid to test these products, nor is anyone obligated to use—let alone be positive about—a product offered through the program. If it was true that we were paid shills, of course our influence would be diluted. Reputation is all anyone really has to trade on in Silicon Valley, and I sincerely doubt that any of us would risk reputation capital on a toilet seat, or any other product, for that matter.
Second, and more important, is Dan’s question, which is about disclosure and at the very heart of the Grass Roots Journalism he so actively encourages. Old-school journalists pride themselves on objectivity. They look at every side of the story. They never accept a free ride, a free lunch or a free product. They are uninfluenced by greed or an ulterior motive. They write what they see, how they see it.
I counted myself among these folks for a very long time, until I realized that true objectivity is one of the great myths of journalism, because it is impossible to achieve. Daily life is a series of influences. Journalists are human. They interact with other humans. They like some things, dislike others. They have political points of view and favorite sports teams. They have a favorite place to eat lunch. They care passionately about their families. They love dogs, or cats, or neither.
No matter how hard they try, hundreds of tiny things influence their world view and creep into their stories. That’s why objectivity is a myth. We can strive to be fair, and we can be bone-deep honest, but journalists can never be truly objective.
More important, then, is transparency. Full disclosure about our relevant business, political, social and maybe even personal perspectives enables intelligent consumers of information to filter and interpret what we say and write. As consumers of information online, in print and any other media—whether that information comes from a veteran network newsman or a relatively unknown blogger—we must demand transparency.
Transparency gives context to content. It lets us interpret, accept or reject ideas. Transparency provides richness and meaning beyond the words themselves.
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