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Jul-06-2010 19:11printcomments

Journalism: Objective or Subjective?

As a journalist, I am sharing my subjective perspective, with the intent that it may be of some value to the reader. What value may be derived from my subjective perspective is ultimately up to the reader.

Tools of journalism

(EUGENE, Ore.) - Journalism as a profession is defined institutionally as being devoted to objective truth. Facts. Events. Names, dates, and places. The classical definition of journalism assumes that there is some observable truth that can be related in an objective fashion from the observer to the reader.

This conception of journalism has been criticized extensively since its inception.

The crux of the complaint found amongst the critics of objective journalism is that the personal, or the subjective, is inseparable from the observer, the observation, and the objective. In other words, the observer cannot help but to color their observations with their own personal bias, which is inherently subjective.

Consequently, the critics of objective journalism assert that objectivity is always a façade, and that subjective journalism, which openly declares the subjective bias of the author, is in fact the more truthful form of journalism.

Subjective journalism not only relates the same facts as those found in objective journalism, but includes information about the author’s own subjective biases, which may shed light on the author’s process and intentions in composing a piece of work that assembles a set of otherwise unconnected facts into a cohesive and persuasive narrative.

I make no secret of my personal belief that the subjective form of journalism is the truer and more informative of the two.

I recently wrote an article, Matthew Knight Arena?, which calls into question a particular land and development deal negotiated between the University of Oregon, Phil Knight, and several other entities.

In response to this article, “Oregon Reader” asks: “Ersun, Should you decide if you are going to be a news reporter or a commentator?”

To which I would respond: there is not, as I see it, any separation between the two.

If I write an article on a particular subject, limited in length by both my own abilities as a writer and the patience of my readers, I necessarily must forego a great deal of documentation, explanation, and exposition on the more subtle points involved.

Where it is not reasonable to provide long proofs based on documentation of certain assertions, I simply state them as my opinion. In all cases, there is a body of supporting documentation that can be accessed, but it is not practical to lay out this body in its entirety every time I would like to share my own personal assessment of some fact in a story.

I insert subjective commentary into my work in order to shed light onto my purpose in writing a story.

The act of composing disparate facts into a linear story is subjective in and of itself. The fact that I include a commentary on my reasons for composing a particular story does not make my work any more subjective than any other form of journalism.

In fact, the revealing of my own personal judgments in my work serves to make the end result more informative for the reader, who can judge my work in the light of my own subjective biases, which I make no secret of.

In a story like Matthew Knight Arena? I share my conclusions on the interrelation of various facts that I have ascertained from a variety of sources.

In relation to that story in particular, I draw upon years of State budgeting documents, information on the processes of budget formation, information regarding various facets of corporate and tax law, and information regarding the principals involved, and their business interests and affiliations.

I cannot possibly, in a reasonable amount of time, lay out the reason and rationale behind every conclusion I draw. In the place of that, I gladly share my opinions so that they may shed light on my reasons for drawing to the reader’s attention a particular set of facts, which in turn may aid them in further exploration if they would like to dig into the broader context that informs my opinion.

In order to demonstrate that there is a basis for my commentaries, I will happily answer the questions posited by “Oregon Reader” in response to the Matthew Knight Arena? article.

“1. Could you please share from where you calculate the assertion that "Nike gets millions upon millions of dollars in free advertising in perpetuity."

Nike has their emblem on the University of Oregon’s jerseys already, and there is a strong connection between the Nike brand and University of Oregon sports. An increase in the stature of the Oregon team automatically translates into increased effectiveness for existing advertisement/endorsement by Nike of Oregon basketball.

The personal aggrandizement of Phil Knight through deals such as this helps to elevate his status within the State, which includes getting preferential tax treatment on several fronts, as well as the ability to ink deals such as this on the public tab.

A corporation and a cult of personality around its CEO feed on each other. What is good for Phil Knight is good for Nike, and vice-versa, because a cult of personality has been built up around Knight as a CEO and Nike as a company. The two things feed on each other.

Placing a value upon these intangible benefits is naturally a subjective matter. The easiest way to value intangible benefits, such as naming rights for a building, is to auction them on the open market.

The naming rights for a stadium that will get widespread national television coverage range from hundreds-of-thousands to millions of dollars per year, depending on the amount of coverage yielded.

If the new arena lasts as long as the old, eighty years or more, the value of naming rights over that course of time could easily be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The trickle down effect of increased value for the Nike brand, as it is attached to Oregon sports, is far more difficult to precisely quantify, but it is certainly significant.

2. Could you please further define what you mean when you write, "The “investors” who buy the State bonds issued for the project get $200 million in tax free income."?

Interest income from State bonds is typically tax free. The $200 million figure for interest is a rough estimate based on typical 30 year bond issues. I have not reviewed the details of this particular bond issue.

I have read some reports that say this particular bond issue was classified as taxable, but I have not been able to confirm the details one way or the other.

3. When you talk about fair wages, are you comparing American workers' wages to those in far-away countries with the differing costs of living? Or are you saying that Nike's employees in Oregon are not being fairly compensated? Could you please expound?

I am comparing local minimum wages to the wages reportedly paid by Nike for production in foreign countries.

“Cost of Living” is a phrase with no meaning invented by economists to justify treating human employees like slaves and animals.

Naturally, workers who eat a subsistence diet and live in dormitories or shanties next to their factories can be kept alive for far less than workers who live in suburban homes and drive SUVs.

The absence of health care, work schedules that preclude any free time for personal endeavors, the ability to ignore the long term effects of worker and environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, forced abortions for pregnant female workers, and a plethora of other factors all contribute to the so-called “Cost of Living.”

The “Cost of Living” is obviously far less in countries where the Standard of Living is one that would be considered in Oregon to be unconscionable.

4. You indicated that $400 million dollars of taxpayer money has already been committed to this project. Could you please indicate who and how these taxpayer funds will be allocated?

$400 million is a rough estimate of the total cost of issuing $200 million in bonds. According to some sources, the actual number is $495 million.

Here, I include the cost of interest, which is often glossed over in debt funded deals.

The actual financial details of this deal have been obfuscated by running it through private non-profit entities, which serve to remove the details of the deal from the public record, despite the fact that public funds are being used to pay for it.

If you care to dig into the details of any of these matters, the same tools are at your disposal as are at mine.

I do not presume to be the final word in any of these matters. I share facts, which you may accept or dispute, and my own conclusions, which you may agree or disagree with.

As a journalist, I am sharing my subjective perspective, with the intent that it may be of some value to the reader. What value may be derived from my subjective perspective is ultimately up to the reader.

=================================== Business/Economy Reporter Ersun Warncke is a native Oregonian. He has a degree in Economics from Portland State University and studied Law at University of Oregon. At a young age, his career spans a wide variety of fields, from fast food, to union labor, to computer programming. He has published works concerning economics, business, government, and media on blogs for several years. He currently works as an independent software designer specializing in web based applications, open source software, and peer-to-peer (P2P) applications.

Ersun describes his writing as being "in the language of the boardroom from the perspective of the shop floor." He adds that "he has no education in journalism other than reading Hunter S. Thompson." But along with life comes the real experience that indeed creates quality writers. Right now, every detail that can help the general public get ahead in life financially, is of paramount importance.

You can write to Ersun at:

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Hank Ruark July 14, 2010 3:55 pm (Pacific time)

  Fyi, WPost has fine report on
"inescapably subjective" nature of their work...which seemed to me not only ironic, but also very supportive of the inescapable human nature involved even in Supreme Court level...!!
  "Supreme immodesty: Why the justices play politics" is by Stuart Taylor, appears in WP for Wed. July 14, 2010.
  (Added here for any serious reader researching topic...)

Hank Ruark July 9, 2010 7:14 pm (Pacific time)

Roger, Ersun et al: Tickles hell outa me to find that Roger wrote: "...but if someone disagrees with your writing then let them experiment (write) their own account, write about THEIR reality. This is part of what makes the 1st Amendment and America special." Esp. with emphasis-in-his via capped-THEIR !! THAT is other-side of the "golden coin" of our First Amendment, reflecting the responsibility which MAKES its true value...reflected in the S-N open, honest, democratic dialog/model made possible here.

Ersun Warncke July 8, 2010 7:52 am (Pacific time)

Oregon Reader, you are correct about the borrowing cost of taxable/non-taxable bonds. Presumably taxable bonds will have a higher effective interest rate for the borrower. Oregon taxpayers are on the hook because the bonds are issued by the State. If everything goes according to plan, then the people who attend games will end up paying the cost through higher ticket prices, etc. As to the cost of living questions: you are approaching these through a framework that is specifically designed to obfuscate the truth of the matter. The numbers related to currency valuations are only an abstraction, the salient questions are: what are employees working hours? What are their working conditions? What guarantees of treatment for work caused injuries do they have? What are the living conditions afforded by their employment? Are they sufficient for basic healthy living? Are they sufficient for raising a family?

Roger von Bütow July 7, 2010 3:24 pm (Pacific time)

Ersun: Personally, I find ALL journalism subjective to some extent, and the topic of an op-ed, column, article, whatever, is affected by the observers who provide info, even affected by the aggregator (writer) of info. The New Journalism that began in the 60's with our mutual hero, Hunter (Gonzo) Thompson, plus Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Carl Hiaasen et al reflects the science of Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Bohr: Paradoxes exist, the observer affects that which he observes by simply participating in the systematic gathering of data, by his/her interaction. A journalist gathers data, his/her pre-disposed bias shouldn't be ignored but embraced. Yes, this can lead to relativism, moral or physical, but if someone disagrees with your writing then let them experiment (write) their own account, write about THEIR reality. This is part of what makes the 1st Amendment and America special. I think that I am in accord with whomever ANONYMOUS is in this daisy chain. We, as physical electromagnetic entities, affect other energy fields....Whether it's the effect of gravity on light (bending it as it were), or the viewpoint of a reporter while interviewing resources, doesn't matter. Subjective (New Journalism) is in my humble opinion just being honest, claiming 100% objectivity is a nebulous and slippery slope. You affect AND are affected in return by the stories you investigate. My motivation to assume a position and describe it, either embracing or rejecting it, supporting or opposing, whatever, are not embarrassing. I have come home from certain bureaucratic meetings or hearing, ones that were extremely frustrating because my locale (So Cal) continues to exhibit eco-entropy and politicos do nothing. So I write about my exasperation, how disturbed I am by nothing changing for the better as therapy, I try to educate others and encourage them to use the web and discover or collect their own database, their own facts, leading to hopefully an opinion that is based on more than CNN, FOX or Manichean fluff. If it resonates with my readers, great. If not, it doesn't halt my head dropping to my desk at times and yes, actually weeping about the wasting away of a beautiful planet. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm glad I've still got feelings left, living in a self-destructive world gone mad. In the land of the psychotic, the neurotic man is king. I might be neurotic, damaged, but at least I'm partially in touch with myself and my surroundings......That's better than being the beige automatons I see in power.

Hank Ruark July 7, 2010 11:47 am (Pacific time)

VERRRY satisfying personal "subjective perspective",sir ! ONLY Molly Ivins said it more plainly, in quote unfound but coming, making precisely the same now-undeniable image of what, how, why any writer, any reader is unconsciously affected in relation to any communication whatsoever. Cognitive science now has succeeded in showing by actual changes within mind-tissue, in relation to both origination and receipt of messages, how varying impacts from surround and circumstance can create MIS-understandings, and strong IN-appropriate behavioral action. (As in political pandering !) That's now seen as major, if not main, cause of intensive, invasive, fundamental meaning distortion and response, so widely affecting society for so long. By results of research on 500,000 individual responses, it is now reliably estimated that nearly FORTY PERCENT of persons cannot make demanded adjustments via "know thyself" information/techniqures --- thus presenting extremely dangerous territory for anyone trying to communicate without fear of "failure" of basic understandings. "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.": Anonymous

Oregon Reader July 7, 2010 5:01 am (Pacific time)

Ersun, Thank you for your response to my query. I was asking the questions because I was confused by what I was reading and was hoping that the reporter in you was interested in delving deeper into the facts. You did a reasonable job of answering, except when you directed me to do my own research. I think that it is the job of the news to inform and research.

Regardless, you say "I have read some reports that say this particular bond issue was classified as taxable, but I have not been able to confirm the details one way or the other." Doesn't this make a heck of a lot of importance to your claims?

Further, even if it were non-taxable income, is it not true that the interest rate that investors in nontaxable bonds typically earns an interest rate that is somewhat less than that on taxable bonds, and that this is the opportunity cost for the nontaxable investment? There is no free lunch in finance.

As far as the cost of living issue, is it your assertion that the prevailing wage in Oregon should be used to compensate all Nike employees, regardless of where they live? What about those who live in New Your City or Honolulu, Hawaii, where a house payment alone can run into the $3,000 to $5,000 per month range for a modest home? Should they be able to argue for higher wages than those employees who work in a very low cost of living city, such as in Northern Washington state? Would compensating a Honolulu resident more be "slave wages"? If not, then why is it appropriate to pay someone, say in central Mexico, a wage rate higher than the prevailing rates? If the "best paid" worker is getting $1.00 per hour, you still think that they should pay Oregon's prevailing wage rate? What about adjustments for what benefits governments pay? Wouldn't your argument limit international trade vis-à-vis? What about the hypothetical Chinese company that would offer lower payments than "demanded" for those of us in the U.S. who are working for Chinese firms?

Almost Finally, I am still completely unclear how taxpayers are on the hook for any of the funds. I thought that Nike was providing guarantees in case of default, and if so, doesn't this fact actually deserve some remuneration?

Finally, I understand from your writing that you do not agree with this business relationship. My initial comment was directed at the fact that your reporting style is biased and you might better call your stories, written in such a style, op eds or commentary.

I am not trying to "bust your chops" but am simply trying to share my own subjective viewpoint on your news story.

Anonymous July 6, 2010 7:33 pm (Pacific time)

"If you care to dig into the details of any of these matters, the same tools are at your disposal as are at mine."-Ersun I love open source information! Also, Objective Journalism is a scam. Those who claim to be objective are really just ignorant of their own 'footprint' in their articles.

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