July 22, 2003
Objectivity, take III

Columbia Journalism Review Re-thinking Objectivity

['Objectivity'] exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the "he said" and the "she said," and, thus, "balance." According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth. More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president - or the governor, or the ceo - and risk losing our access. Jonathan Weisman, an economics reporter for The Washington Post, says this about the fear of losing access: "If you are perceived as having a political bias, or a slant, you're screwed."
What frustrates me is the baffling yet prevalent belief that questions can be objective. Not only is it nonsensical to say that a question is objective, the question is necessary before objectivity is even possible.

If I say "blue", that statement is not objective, it's just a word. But if I say "blue" in response to "what colour does the sky appear to be, right now?", then it's an answer. Subsequently, I can decide whether the answer is objective or not by examining how I came upon the answer.

The only way that the question "what colour is the sky?" can be objective is if it is the answer to another question, like "what is the most pressing question, according to my peers?" But that question isn't objective either unless it is an answer to another question ("what criterion should I use to decide what question to ask?"). This leads to both an infinite loop-back and answers that are impossible to call objective without a philosophical apparatus that is very complex indeed.

This is not to say that examining where questions come from isn't important, but that we should be clear that it has very little to do with "objectivity".

I suspect the main problem is that journalists equate the word "objectivity" with "balance". This is to suck any remaining meaning from the word "objective", though, or at least make it extremely narrow.

Since balance doesn't have anything to do with describing reality, but rather has to do with describing opinions about reality, balanced reporting can be considered somewhat objective as an answer to the question "what do certain people think about X?"

The problem, described in the article linked above, is that reporters only want to answer that question. This probably has to do with the need to crank out a large number of stories consistantly as much as anything. Repeating other people's opinions is much more likely to render an interesting result than in the short term than doing research to answer a specific question (e.g. "did Bush lie?").

Objectivity in the conventional sense of isolating an object and making accurate, documented, or repeatable observations about it, isn't something that is relevant to journalism, except as a tool or guideline in specific instances.

One of the questions raised in "Re-thinking Objectivity" is: if objectivity isn't achieveable, then what will replace it [as an overarching principle followed by journalists]? The short answer is: nothing.

People who do really great journalism don't follow anything like objectivity. They follow up leads, ask questions, get answers, ask new questions, and so on. Eventually, a coherent picture emerges, which they describe as accurately as they can, guiding the reader to their own place of clarity and understanding about a topic. This isn't objectivity; the simplest way to describe it is "open-mindedness"; being open to what presents itself in the course of investigation or exploration. "Induction," even.

Nor is the process of portraying this understanding, of guiding the reader closer to it, objective. When it's at its best, it's literary. A world is set up, and the reader can enter it as she pleases. This portrayal of understanding is often set up in opposition to, or at least in response to, what is commonly understood by the body public.

The objection that will be raised is that without objectivity, there is no check on blatant political partisanship in reporting. But it's already the case that objectivity provides no such check; if anything, it keeps reporting more in line with the status quo.

"What are some of the really bad things that George W. Bush did while in office?" A report that set out to answer this question could be completely objective in its answers. But would it be good journalism?

This kind of journalism may be partisan, but it is not a lack of objectivity that makes it so. Rather, it is the narrowness of its approach that makes it partisan. But even this isn't necessarily bad journalism; provided the kind of narrowness is made explicit, or is clearly presented in the context of an existing body of reporting.

What is (or should be) the key for journalists is a concern for the whole. The whole story, the whole situation, the whole of relevant facts. This means having a lot of different questions, and places to ask questions from. The article highlights some problems in this area:

Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia's journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, "It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It's a little harder to do that now, and you don't get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike." That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.
But perhaps what is needed even more is time. The obsession with daily news updates, in combination with the needs of the market, keeps the vast majority of journalists churning out short bits and briefs, as many as two per day. The nebulous concept of "objectivity", as well as "balance", provide a crutch that allows overhurried journalism to go on existing without confronting its many obvious problems. It's easy enough to call up a bunch of people, ask what they think, and string some quotes together.

I'd venture, though, that that's something other than journalism. Let's call it text-repurposing. That, or "good journalism" needs to be called something other than "journalism".

posted by dru in journalism