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May 10, 2005

The Epistemology of Journalism

Guest: cntodd

We had some good discussion yesterday in response to the NYT’s new efforts to “regain the public’s trust.” In particular, the conversation focused on objectivity in the media – or lack there of – which then raised the following question: does adding more voices make the media more objective?

The epistemology of journalism is an incredibly fascinating topic, one over which much ink could be spilled.

To the extent that journalism is itself a kind of public discourse, we can evaluate it as a kind of truth-telling. I would argue that our attitudes towards practices of truth-telling vary depending upon the medium in which that discourse takes place. [I think that one of the most interesting discussions on the relation between truth-telling in journalism and journalistic medium is Neil Postman’s short work Amusing Ourselves to Death.]

Consider the following examples:   

  • In oral cultures, sayings and proverbs are themselves a medium for truth-telling – bits of wisdom passed down from the elders. Such bits of wisdom both guide daily life and adjudicate civil disputes.
  • In the American legal system, oral truth gets displaced by written truth – briefs, citations, law books, etc. – but in the courtroom speech itself gets privileged over print in that testimony is the medium for truth-telling. The short proverbs and sayings of an oral culture would not be accepted as a valid form of testimony or evidence.
  • In academic writing, the printed word is privileged over the spoken. Postman tells of a story in which a doctoral candidate was rebuked by his dissertation committee because of a citation that read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981.” The committee said, you are not a journalist, you are supposed to be a scholar. The academic practice of truth-telling takes the medium of print to be essential.

But why are these examples relevant? They are relevant, I would argue, because they draw attention to the way various practices of truth-telling themselves bias our attitudes towards what would count as “truth” or “objectivity” within that practice. And in journalism itself, the medium has changed dramatically over the past decades – thereby changing our attitudes as to what counts as objectivity and truth.

With the rise of television, the medium shifted from print to a combination of visual and oral. As television journalism grew, it gradually became more and more visual, relying less on reporting of the news and analysis, and more on images. The shift from the medium of language to the medium of image itself had an impact on print news as newspapers like USA Today sprang up that relied more on image than text.

As a result, our culture now privileges the visual in journalistic practices of truth-telling, perhaps far beyond any other medium. (One could have an entire discussion here on the so-called objectivity of the photographic image.)

I would argue that the privileging of the image as the bearer of truth over print is part of the reason that many in our society think objectivity comes simply by adding more voices. If you are in a place that I cannot see, you could take one picture, but that picture would be flat, it would be from one perspective, from one angle, and with a limited horizon. If you took two pictures, from different angles, I might see a bit more. Three pictures would be even better, and so on.

In short, when we associate truth-telling with the medium of image or film, more seems like more truth. (I will leave aside whether or not that is a correct assumption.)

If we adopt that standard for truth-telling in journalism, then we will assume that simply showing one more “perspective” will add to the objectivity or truthfulness of the reporting. But I would argue that this is simply false. Indeed, I would argue that such a presumption is part of the reason that serious journalism continues to degenerate.

There is no substitute for the hard work that comes with investigative reporting – speaking to sources, uncovering the facts, reading documents and records, sorting through testimony, and so on. But if objectivity and truth-telling simply involve “showing different perspectives,” then two or three sides could merely give their opinion on some issue or situation and the journalist would have done her job. Why bother then checking the facts or records because we have already been given “different snap shots” on the situation?

Unfortunately, the media corporations don’t really seem very interested in viewing their profession as part of the practice of truth-telling - or even a public good for that matter. Even discussions about credibility, like the one the NYT is having, seem more like opportunistic pandering to the public to gain a larger share of the market.

But how can we regain a serious notion of objectivity and truth in the journalistic practices of truth-telling as long as the public is barraged by the flashy images of the 24-hour cable networks?

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]


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Guest blogger cntodd has a post up over at Majikthise in which he discusses attitudes towards what he refers to as "truth-telling" and how they vary according to medium. He asks us to consider these examples: [Read More]


Interesting correlation but it seems to me that people prefer to "trust their own eyes". Image based media are held to a premium because they afford the consumer the opportunity to view the event, although through the lens of the cameraman and his visual perspective, him or herself. Of course, you don't find too many media outlets with just visual imagery. Even USA Today has related, subjective, descriptions of the events surrounding the images. It seems that we are moving ever closer to preferring as close to a "first person" perspective as possible. I feel this is a positive move towards demanding more objective evidence although the effect has been to demoralize an industry which once thought of itself as the privileged purveyor of the "truth" (This seems to be a theme in society. Any thoughts physicians?). How the mighty have fallen.

So, why do we use testimony in court rooms? I assumed that it was the most expedient mode of transmitting the relevant information, as well as soliciting and rebutting testimony, but I could be wrong. It is interesting to note that the legally binding record of the proceeding is still enshrined in "print" by the court stenographer (Although there currently is a very strange debate over whether or not voice recognition software, which would automatically translate the proceedings, should be allowed. It is a wonderful example of the debate between objectivity and fallibility).

The example of the graduate student is excellent. Academics invariably favor “hard”, or recorded data to anecdotes or first person narratives. Why? I assume because it lends a certain level of objectivity to their pursuits (No, I don’t want to get into a debate about the nature of truth or science in theory versus science in practice. I believe it is enough to say that Ayers was wrong, partially, Kuhn was correct, partially, and Feyerabend, well, I am not a fan.). Academia must be evidentiary based and, even so, it still subject to betrayal by unsavory professors. We could consider visual imagery the “data” of the journalist which is then, as in academics, open to interpretation by the analyst and the consumer. At least in this format both parties are able to view the “objective” data and draw conclusions from it on their own. Due to this change journalists have become “analysts” rather than the monk like oracles they were once held out to be. In my opinion it is a healthy change although people should still seek out as many sources as possible as even objective visual imagery of a situation can biased via perspective.

It is interesting though that it is still common to find "conversation with etc...” in the footnotes of scientific journals. Perhaps this practice persists because most additional evidence offered has been vetted and published in refereed journals thus the crux of arguments rarely depend on a subjective relation of a situation. The practice has been somewhat in decline as the frequency of fraud in scientific publishing has increased.

Interesting blog Lindsey, keep it up!

There has been plenty of kvetching about the sorry state of our mainstream media (and rightfully so), but there is an unfortunate tendency for critics of the MSM to focus on the individual writers, while ignoring the editors and owners who are the root of the problem. The crap written in the NY Times by the likes of Judith Miller, Adam Nagourney and Nick Kristoff wouldn't be happening if it didn't have the approval of an owner named A.O Sulzberger.

Always follow the money....

I would like a clarification in one particular. Are we discussing the dissemination of "truth" or "facts"?

As a veteran journalist (now semi-retired going into new career), I had long abandoned objectivity as an attainable (or even desirable) goal.

My primary focus was on a primal sense of "fairness." In that regard, getting as many voices into a story as possible was considered a good thing.

But that's part of the schizophrenic problem that a lot of journalists are now faced with. The old paradigm of "observe and report" is conflicting with notions of fairness when it comes time to sift facts and decide which voices are relevant to the discussion and which are not.

And it doesn't help that we have a reading/viewing public who are tuning in to a bunch of half-bright, self-made "media critics" who breathlessly deconstruct every utterance and every word written to look for evidence of the "liberal," or "conservative" bias in the news.

Sorry... started to catharsize there for a moment.

Relative to your point on visuals. This has been both an amazing boon/curse to journalism. The old adage that "seeing is believing" is still the organizing principle behind most broadcast news. But on the human side, there has been a tendency towards laziness. I have heard any number of television reporters, supposedly intellectually justifying a minimalist reporting style say things like "I like to let the pictures tell the story."

Well, that's all well and good, but the first thing they teach you on your first day of J-school is "Context Is King!" and without the context, or even just a little explanation for the picutres, it becomes completley meaningless.

But many of these folk have found they can make a good living wage and still get away with lazy journalism.

What does any of this have to do with my original question? If we are simply dispensing facts, then just about any level of simple regurgitation will do, and we will truly leave it up to the reader/viewer to attach any meaning to it.

However, if the role of journalist is to get at the "truth" of a matter, (not even necessarily a broad philosophical truth, but just "a" truth about a particular subject) then objectivity is going to go out the window.

And even as we complain about journalists not giving us context or gettin to "the truth" we will publicly flog any journalist who gets to close to attempting to do this, unless they do it in very strictly defined arenas, such as "The Nation" or "The New Republic" to name two extremes.

And even among media critics, the writers at those publications are treated as if they have asterisks by their names to denote that they are not "real reporters."

mojo send

I think that the move from print news to visual news has been more negative than positive. To me it goes along with the movement from fact-and-logic based journalism to intuitive, literary "new journalism", and a general tendency to make political decisions on intuitive judgements of persons -- Reagan seemed like such a nice guy, Gore seemed like such a prick, etc. (I liked the intuitive journalism when it first came out, but boy! have I change my mind).

In the early days (maybe Vietnam) the truth of the visuals may sometimes have overwhelmed the dishonest official cover story, but the flaks have learned to manipulate the visuals now too. That was just a stutter in their learning curve, and they've caught up.

I think that reporters and editors should be honest and responsible within their point of view, but the balance has to be between different points of view, not by asking that a single outlet or writer balance all points of view. I think that everyone should use their own best judgement.

A centrist bias, incidentally, can be just as bad as a left or right bias. Sometimes obne of the extremes is right.

And I can't believe I'm going to be the first person to mention Susan Sontag: she wh9 spent a life (well, among other things) wrestling with the primacy of image over idea, yet won over in part by how images (cf. women in Bosnia. the Abu Ghraib) put the lie to the lies of the powerful sometimes.

As for the "balance" meme - I think there's a central confusion between a full picture, which a journalist is always striving hard to provide, and some sort of artificial game of percentages - if Aung Sam Syu Ky gets two colimn inches. the Myanmar government has to have two for their "side." Life doesn't have sides: it's full of contradictions. It's our job to give a glimpse of what's really happening -- as far as we can tell....


Thanks for the provocative and mind-stirring post. And thanks to the folks who offered some sparkly add-ons.

At risk of going off-thread, may I say "Metaphor"?

For most of my "working career" (never felt like work), I trained people - mostly anal-retentive execs and bureaucrats - in the arcane science of writing with power, persuasiveness and conviction and speaking with an authentic voice. (A pox upon speechwriters and performance coaches, the fecal filters of honest communication).

Metaphor. Yes. We understand and find peace with our seemingly short time in the conscious cosmos through stories, allegories and wonder about the damnable complexity of "cogno ergo sum". Scientists tackle the bafflement one way; philosophers another. As their paths converge, clank together and emit sparks, we find better meaning in the ancient stories bearing truth that sustain us.

Androcles and the Lion was not written as an infomercial for PETA or the Humane Society. It is not about being nice to pissed-off lions. Similarly, most if not all books of the Bible were written as "message stories" rather than history. Did God do in Onan because he jacked off into the sand? Given lack of DNA evidence, he may have been innocent, the poor horny sod.

We make necessary sense of our existence through metaphor. Some turn to science instead and well that they do. Others embrace philosophy which is the meta-metaphor of existence. Well that they do.

Science and philosophy-challenged as I am and curious as I am, I hope, Lindsay and commenters that you continue my education.


If objectivity is impossible. let your doctor know, so he may examine, diagnose, prescribe and treat with more artistic flair, freed from objectivity, and able to substitue his different view points and sense of fairness. It would be nice to also give a signed consent to the doctor, as she won't really believe that is what you believe and want.

Razor, your doctor / journalist analogy is imbecile. Start over.

You specify the domains in which objective exists, and the criteria, and I will start over.

1. Not much in journalism.
2. Quite a lot in medicine.

One reason is that in medicine you don't have to ask yourself whether the other people involved in the case are secretly or openly pro-disease. Medicine isn't really adversarial.

A second reason (partly a result of this) is that there is a pretty large agreed-upon core of fact in medicine. Not very much in the areas which political journalism covers, and not only because of the mixed loyalties of the players.

Criteria: If adversarial, not objective

Clinic. Patient. Pain meds. Adversarial?
Surgery. Elective or not. Adversarial?
Procedure. Experimental or not. Insuerer says no. Adversarial?
Delusional person. DSM IV. Adversarial?

In each case the doctor makes the call based on the doctor's reading of the evidence. If the doctor can't make the call, the doctor is not allowed to be a doctor.

And exactly how, for example, is the press adversarial, in an election, and, what difference does it make if some people involved in the case are "secretly or openly pro"?

Seems to me the doctor/journalist analogy breaks down on this point: the doctor makes a call without regard to "secretly or openly pro". But the NYT, for example, makes a call with regard to what POWERS that be demand. Which, is consistent with the post suggestion that going visual feeds the fiction that different visuals add up to a complete account. The question could be the doctors: what is my best professional judgment of the situation, but the "journalist" invokes a different standard: How do I accomodate all with power?

But, enough of that. Some are confident reporting can't be objective, others are confident journalists and more important, editors, really have different agendas.

To continue what vanmojo wrote, you seem to be mixing capital-T Truth concepts with lowercase-t truth (meaning more akin to "facts" and "accuracy"). This seems sloppy and should be addressed more explicitly. Or perhaps I'm misreading you.

Second, the idea that "speech" is priv

To continue what vanmojo wrote, you seem to be mixing capital-T Truth concepts with lowercase-t truth (meaning more akin to "facts" and "accuracy"). This seems sloppy and should be addressed more explicitly. Or perhaps I'm misreading you.

Second, the idea that "speech" is privileged over "print" in a courtroom setting is simply wrong. Oral testimony, presumably the speech in question, is one way to introduce evidence. Written records can also be introduced. (Assuming relevance, etc.) But oral testimony isn't "privileged" over written records. That's just silly. The jury or other finder-of-fact evaluates the evidence presented and makes a determination of how credible it is. But if, for example, a defendant gives testimony in which he denies knowing the murder victim, that testimony is not somehow due greater weight than, for example, a prosecutor introducing documentary evidence of phone records showing calls placed from the defendant's cell phone to the victim.

If you want to know where you stand truthwise from a given set of postulates, become a mathematician. But in evaluating truth propositions on, for example, TV news, the video of Colin Powell saying that a smudge in a photo is a chemical weapon site does not mean that there is a chemical weapon site. It means that Colin Powel says that a smudge is a chemical weapons site. Do not extrapolate without a complete and clear understanding of your postulates.

Was there any practical point being expressed in this post? If so, I missed it.


The practical upshot is how we should think about the credibility of newspaper reporting. Many good comments came out of our discussion in response to the NYTs plan to improve their credibility. Their proposed strategy involves, in part, adding new voices from rural America as well as increasing their religion reporting.

The question that I asked at the beginning of this post that arose from our discussion was this: does simply adding more voices make the media more objective?

That is an important and practical question. Of course, I think the answer is no and what I wanted to do was to raise some epistemological issues in addressing it. [Some practical issues were already raised in the previous comments thread.]

I hope that helps.


I guess I don’t understand why you think that I am mixing up big-T truth with what you are calling the “facts.” I was very clear that what I was talking about was our practices of truth-telling. These practices take various forms and in different arenas different mediums get privileged over others.

I was trying to suggest that as the medium for journalism has changed that so has our standards for truth-telling. That is not a relativistic claim that big-T truth is something different in one medium then it is in another. I am far from a relativist in that sense – nor is it a coherent idea. But that does not exclude the fact that we use different standards to evaluate objectivity, for example, in one medium that we would not use in another.

And exactly how, for example, is the press adversarial, in an election, and, what difference does it make if some people involved in the case are "secretly or openly pro"?

Are those rhetorical questions? Are these things that need to be explained to you?

If medicine were a competitive game in which one group was pro-disease and the other group was anti-disease, the situation with medicine would be the same as with politics, and in medical journalism you'd always have to ask which side the journalist was on (pro-disease, or anti-) and who they were being paid by. Neutrality and objectivity would be impossible or very unlikely.

But medicine isn't like that. There are political controversies in medicine where these same kinds of problems with "objectivity" arise, but most of medicine is not that way, which is why we have more confidence in, and respect for, doctors than we do in and for political journalists, and why the objectivity question comes up much less often.

At this point I'm not sure whether you're arguing that journalists can and should be objective like doctors, or whether you're arguing that doctors are just as unobjective as journalists. I originally thought that you meant the first, and I think that that's an illusion.

Well the real disagreement has surfaced. I don't give a hoot about pro anti disease, nor do a think a journalist should. I believe you have unknowingly confirmed my point: you see journalism as about fairly treating the contenders for State power. I see journalists job as being unconcerned with fairly treating the contenders for State power. Once a journalist, like Bill Keller, decides his job is to fairly treat those with State power and those he considers legitimate contenders (unlike, say, Howard Dean - who I did not support - see the condescening NYT magazine cover before the media enhanced, unmiked, scream)journalism is dead by choice to worhsip power. For an example in action, see the Daily Howler on social security, or even Talking Points.

Razor: I have no idea what you're trying to say. Each further communication makes it harder to tell. I'm a big admirer of Somerby, to the point that people are tired of hearing me talk about him -- many have a latent resentment of the guy for reasons which I am capable of understanding.


Well, my last best effort:
I believe your position is about fairness to power, and this is antagonistic to objectivity for the same reason justice is blind. Apparently you don't see this persepctive.

Medical school has one purpose: to create an individual who will make her own decisions on what is relevant and then act accordingly, the world be damned. Journalism could do the same. Journalism could train individuals to make their own decisions on what is relevant, and then write accordingly. But once journalism decides its mission is to faithfully repeat what those with power say, because, there is no objectivity, journalism will no longer produce journalists who make independent, professional, judgments.

Sommerby believes facts could be but are not reported, but lazy reporters won't, or, I misunderstand his position. He is unpopular because he attacks the entire media status quo, and many in the media status quo take it personal, as they should.

The problem with journalism isn't journalism schools, and it's only derivatively the journalists themselves. It's publishers and editors. They're the bosses, and they hire and promote the people they like, and the peole who do what they want them to do.

I've tried to convince Somerby that he should move his critique to the managerial level. Maybe he will sometime.

The media bosses are pro-disease. That's the problem we're facing.

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