Before we can cogently discuss what “objectivity” can or should mean in journalism we must first define what it is we’re talking about. As I have maintained on this web log, I do not believe that human beings can know reality “as it is” independently of our sense-bound, value-laden experiences. So I approach such questions by bracketing philosophical objective idealism out of the discussion.
The problem is that too many journalists burden their working definitions of “objectivity” with the pristine, philosophical ideal. Here’s a good example from The Jewish Week:
The issue has particular resonance for those of us who have followed the media coverage of the suicide war waged in Israel the last several years, from the hesitancy of the press to call terrorists “terrorists,” preferring the more neutral term “militants,” to the endless use of the phrase “cycle of violence” to describe–and seemingly equate–Palestinian attempts to blow up Jewish women and children with the Israeli Army’s military steps to thwart the killers.
If that’s where objective journalism has led us, something is very wrong.
I feel the author’s pain and largely agree with him except for this: He’s not discussing journalistic objectivity. He seems unaware that terms like “militant” and “cycle of violence” are political choices. These terms are not “more neutral” or objective. Their use, just like the use of “terrorist,” is a choice made among all possible choices to describe not just a sense-based experience of reality, but also a value-laded experience of reality. It is not possible for humans to have a value-neutral experience with reality. And that means it’s not possible for us to relay in language–our primary tool for making sense of reality–a value-neutral experience
The author charges that journalists who use such “more neutral” terms are “misapplying a principle of objective journalism: to give each side equal coverage and representation.” Yes and no. The author has just identified the fairness bias, not objectivity. What journalists are doing is operating well within the fairness bias–one of the structural biases of journalism. And a bias, even one in which its practitioners are unaware of its political ramifications, is by definition not objective (a fact that the author does acknowledge later in the article).
Objectivity in journalism is not a position; it is a process–much like the scientific process–in which the reporter attempts to arrive at the closest approximation of truth (always bound by socio-political and historic contexts). Standing in the way of that process are the various structural biases and our value-laden, lived experiences.
What this means: Journalism is a terribly difficult profession to practice if your goal is to 1) arrive at Truth or 2) describe events in ways that all factions will recognize as “accurate” or “truthful.” Another question arises: Should journalists worry about whether “militants” or “terrorists” can recognize a portrayal of events as “accurate” or “truthful”?
UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): Bill Dennis also endorses objectivity as process, although his take and mine are slightly different. I’m intrigued by his contentions regarding newsroom culture.