September 12, 2003

Objective schizophrenia…

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.

6 Responses

  1. Joshua 

    The word picture of “value-laden” is quite fitting considering that laden would infer weight, a byproduct of gravity, therefore carrying deeper meaning by casting the vision of a person held down to and being involuntarily pulled toward a predetermined ideology. Although I concur with your final conclusion, I find it interesting that you seemingling displayed non-biased and objective journalism on this subject, even arriving at the point of what could easily be argued the Truth. If you did this on purpose (which I imagine you did) then I also find it ironically humorous.

  2. Here’s what I mean vy “culture”: Are reporters praised for reports that “zing” people liberal journalists don’t like? Or, do editors hand back for revisions report than do not fairly represent all sides? Do reporters write their stories, then when they have their ducks in a row, call the target of their stories for an obligatory comment. Or, do editors insist that reporters spend equal time (within reason) talking to all sides so all positions are respresented?

    I won’t lie. I liked to dig up dirt as much as anyone else. But I’d like to think I was fair and that I encouraged reporters I supervised to be fair and complete as well. I know there were times I had to insist.

  3. Objectivity? We don’t need no steenkin’ objectivity

    Here we go again. Another call for an end to objectivity. The argument is the same as it always is: Because all human beings make value judgements when decision what and how to report, true and perfect objectivity is unattainable. Therefore, lets aband…

  4. Bill…I’ve been thinking a lot about your culture idea. It seems to me that it needs to be added to the structural biases somehow. If you have any ideas about how to articulate that, I’d love to hear them.

  5. BBC: biase or blasé?

    [note that this is a long, relatively boring, and in-progress article. Tread lightly, as the verbiage is deep and messy.] Inherent bias makes the media go round Much print and electronic press has been devoted to discussions of whether news…

  6. BBC: biase or blasé?

    [note that this is a long, relatively boring, and in-progress article. Tread lightly, as the verbiage is deep and messy.] Inherent bias makes the media go round Much print and electronic press has been devoted to discussions of whether news…