August 6, 2004

Three cheers for objectivity…

Journalists live in towns and cities and rural areas. They pay taxes and medical bills and bar tabs. They drive on roads and fly on planes and walk on municipal sidewalks. Journalists are citizens, too.

I’ve always found this a rather odd little quirk–journalists who avoid voting or displaying other civic virtues, as if these things somehow sully their objectivity. But I suppose the effort, misguided and unnecessary as it is, speaks well of journalistic ethics in general. Journalists are nothing if not a professional class of ethical hand-wringers. (That’s not to suggest they always reach the ethical heights they set for themselves.)

Those few who eschew overt displays of citizenship have a point: How can one credibly argue objectivity when one plays the civic game–a game with partisan opponents and winners and losers (assuming for the moment a zero-sum game)?

I have two answers to that question, neither of which is adequate to dispell the partisan game of ranting about news media bias. But before I give you those answers, I think we must consider what happened yesterday at the Unity 2004 convention–a gathering of minority journalists:

Sen. John Kerry got an enthusiastic response Thursday from delegates to the Unity 2004 convention for minority journalists.

There was applause nearly 50 times during his address. There was laughter when he took a shot at the Bush administration by noting that “just saying there are weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq) doesn’t make it so.” He got a standing ovation at the end.

This is one of those moments that brings to mind an important question: What were they thinking?

Here’s one possible answer from Akilah Johnson, a “night cops” reporter at the Sun-Sentinel in Delray Beach, Fla.: “I guess a lot of people were acting like citizens, not reporters.”

Should we be worried about this display of citizenship? Ernest Sotomayor, president of Unity: Journalists of Color and Long Island editor of Newsday.com, said the reception “surprised me a little, but should not be viewed as an endorsement of him or his policies.”

Uh-huh.

Without a doubt, journalists are citizens who enjoy–and should exercise with proper discretion–every right of citizenship. To argue otherwise may suggest something I find quite troubling: That journalists stand above citizenship. And if they stand above that, what else might they think themselves to be standing above?

But, at the same time, journalists are connected to politics as players as a normal course of professional practice. A journalist attending a professional convention is not off the job because they are attending as professionals. And they must comport themselves as professionals (at least until the evening parties begin). If I were an editor whose reporter cheered Kerry’s speech, I’d be planning to have a hard talk with that person upon his/her return to the newsroom. I would defend his/her right to express themselves politically, but not as a journalist at a professional event covered by other news media during an election year.

A legitimate question is: Does political ideology affect news coverage? My answer is complicated and well-known by now. I contend that the structural biases of the profession are far more predictive of journalistic behavior than the ideology of individual journalists.

That said, let me be clear at this point: I find the collective behavior of these journalists quite troubling.

Now, let’s revisit the original question: How can one credibly argue objectivity when one plays the civic game–a game with partisan opponents and winners and losers?

My two answers: (Note: I realize that all ideologies have political consequences. I’m writing a blog entry, not a book. So I must necessarily make some big leaps across some difficult terrain.)

1) First, journalists must scrub from their thinking the philosophical ideal of objectivity because it simply does not exist. We cannot know the world in and of itself. We can only know the world as humans are supposed to know it. And culture, with its attendant values, constitutes one of the important ways we know the world. We may certainly understand the world in ways that accurately describe it for the purpose of effective human interaction and manipulation, e.g. the sciences. Accepting any part of the philosophical ideal makes it impossible for journalists to act ethically because they can never reach the standard–not because of personal failure, but because the standard does not exist. What journalists do for the most part, however, is emulate the objectivity of the sciences by adopting procedures for accurately measuring and describing the world in human terms. As long as these procedures are scrupulously followed, reporters and editors may be thought of as “objective.”

2) Every human being has a political ideology of some sort. But this ideology isn’t necessarily the most important one, i.e. the ideology that an individual calls upon most (consciously or not) to understand the world. For example, religious ideology is most important for some people. For others, professional ideology trumps political ideology. The postmodernists were right about (at least) one thing: The self is a multiplicity of ideologies–some of them conflicting. For the most part, journalists who write for the news sections operate with a strong professional ideology (what I have called the structural biases). As long as this professional ideology remains stronger than political ideology in the course of professional practice, reporters and editors may be thought of as “objective.”

10 Responses

  1. objectivity at the unity conference?

    Andrew Cline discusses the reception for Presidential Candidate John Kerry at the Unity Conference. He finds the cheering troubling. I agree. I have worked at newspapers where there were policies about what form of citizen action journalists could part…

  2. Great little essay and pretty much on target.

    As a journalist of 40 years as well as a political and business news junky, I’ve given up on the word “objective.” Since I received my first issue of the Columbia Journalism Review back in 1962, I’ve been reading about journalistic objectivity, and I’ve decided that I’m more concerned about journalistic integrity, accuracy and fairness than objectivity.

    By integrity, I mean that in the space and time available, report as much of the story straight as possible and leave your personal views and ego out of it. Put writing a story that readers will appreciate and respect above your personal goals of making page one or pushing your political opinions. Most of your readers are smarter and better informed than you think you are.

    By fairness, I mean tell as much about the viewpoints and facts presented by news sources as possible.

    Objectivity implies that a reporter’s view of the world won’t be reflected in a story, regardless. Impossible for all but a special few, and they aren’t always the ones writing and editing the stories.

    Back to integrity. The word turns most people off. But it’s critical, especially in opinion writing. In Denver, columnists have written in favor of the illegal downloading of music files, illegal immigration and winking at illegal immigrants seeking scholarships. Nationally, Paul Krugman shows no intellectual integrity, and he has made himself and his paper the laughingstock of most of the economic academics and the business world. But this isn’t surprising, because the Times’ editorial page is almost as shrill and unfair as he is, and this has cost it respect credibility.

    So, I guess the question is, why is it that some journalists are willling to sacrifice their reputations and credibility with dishonest, unfair reporting and commentary? Are they so secure in their jobs that they don’t care? Are they so dishonest that they don’t know right from wrong.

    Have they no supervisors, and why not?

    As for the journalists at the Unity meeting, I can only hope that most of them are entertainment writers, real estate section writers, sports writers, obit writers and local crime reporters and editors, not political reporters, editors nor columnists. Their views of the world and our profession obviously are quite different from mine. And that’s ok. It’s good that they show their beliefs and feelings so that consumers who are paying attention know what kind of journalists they are dealing with.

    What’s sad, as you imply, is that the convention’s behavior reflects on all journalists, fair or not. Not to smear with a broad brush, or anything, but it may be a fair reflection.

  3. While I think political bias does exist in political reporting and that this is also structural–it is impossible for me to swallow the notion that if 80-90% of Washington correspondents vote one way, this does not affect the language and tone of their overall reporting or which stories they consider important and which note–I would quite agree that it tends to be exaggerated, ranted on excessively, harped on too much. Especially because, in the end, I believe that most people are smarter than they’re given credit for, and are able to apply filters to what they read.

    All that said, I think you’re quite on the money with the notion of objectivity. It doesn’t exist in reporting. I have long thought what we should be striving for instead of objectivity is transparency: you, as a reporter, would want to give as much information about yourself as you can. Who you work for, who your advertisers are, what your basic political biases are, how old are you, where were you born, etc. Basic background info, really, but up front about it.

    Just admit it, in other words. And if you have a point of view, try to do your best to be fair, to acknowledge when you may be not being fair.

    In other words, common sense that most thoughtful individuals would use when relating any story while trying not to be simply a gossip.

  4. Oops:

    …which stories they consider important and which note…

    Which stores they consider important and which not.

    Must. Use. Preview!

  5. Objectivity In Reporting

    I’ve long believed that objectivity in journalism is both impossible and a foolish goal. Honesty and transparency are the real keys to good reporting. If such things interest you, you may enjoy

    We can all take a bit of hypocrisy in life – after all, we pretend that judges are neutral referees of the law, don’t we? The best of judges approximate this ideal (without ever actually realising it), and the best of our journalists make a sustained effort to report the facts even if they don’t like them – but we are all to a greater or lessor degree biased.

    What is annoying about the media and what has, in my view, caused its steady errosion in public respect has been its absurd assertion that its completely unbiased – when NPR leads its report about the long-term effects of 9/11 with a story about how a mosque has suffered a decline in donations, we can easily spot the bias and get enraged that NPR doesn’t just admit its left-wing bias and get on with the job of doing a really excellent job of reporting the news from a left of center perspective. If they’d drop their pretension to lack of bias, they’d get a lot more respect – and a lot more listeners (and, as a result, they’d have a greater effect on the public debate – and it flabbergasts me that they don’t see this).

    You’d think that the major media would catch on about the blogosphere and Fox News and realise that if you want to have the most massively successful news organisation in history you’d desperately seek to staff your organisation with really good writers of all political shadings and let them have at it getting at the news – the friction of the reporters would generate excellence in writing, while the need to not look like a fool would actually mute the biases of the reporters (don’t want to be caught out writing a puff piece on a favored conservative pol who’s just about to be exposed as a crook by one of your liberal colleagues and vice versa, for instance); a properly run major news organisation would have seen both Dean and Kerry politically destroyed by early January, with the field then left to winnowed to those who really have something worthwhile to ad to the debate.

    Its a shame, in a lot of ways, because it means that independents (ie, bloggers) have to pick up the slack – I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most people who hang about the web get more and more variety in their news than people who just watch TV news and/or read the morning paper. Hopefully some media types will start to figure this out (Fox is almost there to figuring it out).

  6. Mr. E. 

    I have been out of professional journalism for a while now, but I do occasionally do stringer work if I happen to be on the scene of something significant (when it isn’t classified). When I was in the editor’s seat, though, I did take some heat now and then because I let it be known that I valued accuracy over objectivity.

    By that, I meant that a story should be laid out as it falls. If you have to dig too many layers for the other side of the story, then you run into the danger of creating a side that isn’t really there. If, for example, someone was covering a lecture by Jesse Jackson, or Jesse Helms, for that matter, and there were protesters outside, then go ahead and get some quotes. If they weren’t, then digging up opposition where there wasn’t enough to go to the trouble of showing up would actually be skewing the story.

    Having said that, I have always felt that market forces were the answer to the question of objectivity. If there is a bias to one media source, people (being rather less stupid than many would assume) will look to another source that is biased in another direction, and keep doing so until they get enough information to draw a conclusion. Is it a perfect system for informing the public? No, but It seems to be about the best we can do.

  7. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most people who hang about the web get more and more variety in their news than people who just watch TV news and/or read the morning paper. -Mark Noonan.
    Well, for the last six months, I’ve stopped taking a daily paper, after ten years or more of reading the newspaper every day. I read my news on-line, and I get much less news, and much much less news that stretches my world view. I am far less likely to read stories I was not already following. I am far more likely to know details about stories of interest to people of my particular political stripe. I’m looking forward to taking a daily newspaper again, and knowing more about the world.

    To go back to the main point, though, I’ve always found it odd that objectivity became a focus. As I remember it from high school journalism class, the point of objectivity is to safeguard accuracy, that is, I need to make sure I’m not letting my biases distract me from what is actually happening. The problem of accuracy is far worse now than the problem of bias–the absurd events surrounding this supposed hoax beheading, where so-called reporters couldn’t be bothered to do a lexis/nexis search (much less a web search) on the name of the person involved, to me says that journalists have much more to worry about than political bias.

  8. ” rel=”nofollow”>Post Apologizes For Pre-War Coverage

    Interesting Washington Post article on their pre-war coverage of U.S. assertions that Iraq had WMD. The article (free registration), by Post reporter Howard Kurtz, acknowledges that the newspaper should have been more assertive in warning readers that …

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