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October 06, 2005

Journalism and objectivity

Paul McLeary posted an interesting article about journalism and objectivity at the Columbia Journalism Review. His article got me thinking about the role of objectivity in journalism. Skepticism about objectivity seems to have become more fashionable in some circles. This is both heartening and troubling. It's encouraging that more journalists and consumers are becoming aware of their own biases and looking for novel ways to overcome them. Skepticism towards objectivity becomes troubling when people get so upset about the fact that their perspective is limited that they give up on the search for better epistemic standards.

Part of the problem is that objectivity as a professional ideal in journalism doesn't necessarily match our ordinary or philosophical understandings of the term. Objectivity and disinterest are often conflated in discussions of journalistic ethics. The journalistic ideal of objectivity stresses what laymen would call disinterest. According to the dominant professional norms, a reporter's duty is to observe, not to advocate. This model construes moral and political beliefs as extraneous noise that a reporter must strive to overcome in order to cover the news as objectively. In some ways, this ideal is worthwhile. We want reporters to be our eyes and ears. If we can't witness an event first hand, we want someone to document it with as little distortion as possible so that we can consume the information and make up our own minds as if we had been able to see for ourselves.

In the early 20th century people often made analogies between good journalism and good science. When a scientist is doing an experiment, we want her to be as objective as possible. The scientist may have a strong preference for one result over the other, but we don't want her feelings to influence her observations. Scientific methodology is designed to compensate for the universal human tendency to see what we want to see. Independent replication, control groups, double blinds, and peer review are supposed to provide some measure of insurance against individual bias. Journalism has some analogous mechanisms for helping journalists get the facts--editorial oversight, reader input, ombudsmen, professional codes of conduct, and so on.

The problem with the traditional ideal of journalistic objectivity is that it also demands dispassion. Dispassion is a reasonable ideal for some types of reporting (the shipping news, for example). Some journalists are apolitical and their non-partisanship is one potential asset that they bring to their work. However, dispassion shouldn't be a professional requirement of journalism.

Why are we worried about journalists whose perspective on the news is shaped by strong social and political beliefs? First off, we don't want propaganda. There is a legitimate concern that partisan journalists will use the news to advance their agenda. We don't want people making stuff up. We want to avoid the sins of omission, too. There's concern that engaged journalists will self-censor and tell only the stories that advance their agenda. Engaged journalists might also be unfair if their desire to advance their agenda conflicts with their duty to inform the public about opposing views. Finally, we don't want our journalists to become blinded by ideology and lose their critical edge.

The traditional journalistic ideal of objectivity ignores the potential truth-seeking advantages of a well-disciplined ideological orientation. There are situations in which the dispassionate ideal is not as conducive to uncovering the truth. Journalists are supposed to ask tough questions. Sometimes the best questions are the ones that nobody thinks to ask.

A sophisticated ideological orientation isn't like rooting for a sports team. For example, being a feminist isn't just cheering on women or supporting pro-woman legislation. Feminism is a perspective based on both factual beliefs and values. Feminists tend to be aware of the historical and contemporary condition of women and motivated to redress inequality. Feminism can help one be more attuned to the subtle ways in which our society reinforces male privilege. It can enables an observer to notice things that non-feminists don't necessarily recognize.

Class consciousness is another ideological orientation that can generate insights that are often missed by the mainstream media. Class consciousness is a combination of factual beliefs about social science and economics coupled with normative beliefs about what a just society would look like.

In the wake of Katrina many journalists failed to understand why people didn't evacuate. That was a factual question to which the public deserved an accurate answer. Most members of the media took it for granted that everyone in America had enough resources to get out of town when a hurricane was coming. It never occurred to them that a tank of gas or a night in a hotel might be prohibitively expensive for many New Orleanians. A more class-conscious press corps might have gotten that important story faster.

Furthermore, striving for the traditional ideal of journalistic objectivity may actually create serious biases. A science reporter who knows perfectly well that Intelligent Design is bunk but who still gives equal time to the ID crowd is not reporting objectively. Instead of writing to convey the truth as he understands it, he's writing to conform to an arbitrary standard of balance measured in column inches.

It bothers me when people say that political bloggers are inherently less objective than political journalists. Political bloggers are more openly partisan than members of the mainstream media. It's true that self-professed political bloggers don't meet the stilted journalistic definition of objectivity. However, partisans don't necessarily have lower moral or intellectual standards than their non-partisan counterparts. We care just as much about the truth. We just happen to approach the search for truth from a slightly different set of background beliefs and values.


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» Journalism and Science from Thoughts from Kansas
I want to take that analysis in a slightly different direction, but make a similar point, using the analogy she draws between science and journalism. A point that I like to make is that science isn't an encyclopedia, it's a process, a scientific m... [Read More]

» Philosophers' Carnival XX from
Roll up! Roll up! It's the 20th Philosophers' Carnival... Welcome, one and all, to the Philosophers' Carnival - a fortnightly compilation of all that is good and true, or at least moderately amusing, in the philosophical blogosphere. This week... [Read More]

» Philosophers' Carnival XX from
Roll up! Roll up! It's the 20th Philosophers' Carnival... Welcome, one and all, to the Philosophers' Carnival - a fortnightly compilation of all that is good and true, or at least moderately amusing, in the philosophical blogosphere. This week... [Read More]

» Journalists Are My Eyes and Ears from Sago Boulevard
Lindsay's post (featured in Philosophers' Carnival XX) on journalism and objectivity is quite sensible. In particular, she correctly points out what the consumer of news should want from journalists. We want reporters to be our eyes and ears. ... [Read More]


The ID example highlights the most annoying trend in US journalism - giving equal time to both sides of a debate without any interpretation or fact checking. It creates an illusion of balance by complete abdication of the journalist's duty first and foremost to report the truth as best he can discover it.

A major complicating factor in achieving objectivity is that our biases are integrated into our perceptions at a subconscious level. Cognitive psychology has pretty clearly demonstrated that people with different biases can have completely different perceptions of the same event. Not interpretations, mind you, but perceptions of what they saw or heard. The classic example is a brief viewing of a lineup of people. The viewer is then asked which person is holding a knife. In fact there is a knife in the hand of a respectable looking white guy, but the viewers tend to report that the black guy is the one with the knife. What we believe affects what we see to a degree that makes pretty much all eyewitness accounts suspect.

It's ok to cover both sides of the ID debate because the news story is about the conflict between two different groups of people, not really what they are arguing about.

Either way, it's all over. May as well go out in a flash of glory. Support atomic war with these great looking tshirts.

Support nuclear war tshirts

"How can you be objective about Nixon?!"

Hunter S. Thompson.

And I quote that, not only as an individual, but as someone with a degree in Journalism, and someone with many many years of experience working in the field.

Clarity, growing right up out of the basic definitions! How do you do that? BTW, on Steven Jay Gould's website, I found this:
"Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny — and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do)." — Stephen Jay Gould

Stretches the parallel to apply to journalistic objectivity a sentiment that SJG probably only meant to describe scientific objectivity. But spotty objectivity comes of blankness, as you made clear.

I find the qualification of the presented facts by invocation of expert opinions has fallen into a disgraceful state. Credentials of persons whose comment, approving or otherwise, on the "facts" accompanies the reporting seem to be handled increasingly slopily in electronic media at all levels of "professionalism". I don't know if there is a media-specific effect that makes print journalists at NYTimes or Science News, for instance, get a properly qualified second opinion when a result is reported in medicine or science. Who complained when a science fiction writer was presented at a congressional hearing as a rebutter of the "theory" that there might be some impact of our polluting on climate? It could be conceited to suppose that "interesting" or "popular" commentators would be valued more by a for-profit news organization than those who were "specialist", "PhD" or "puplished widely cited research". But I have my suspicions that ad revenue encourages a phony populism that slants the news away from the rigorous assembly of complete pictures for the issues or the bare facts.

Anyway, if you leave out News Corporation and assorted propaganda rags we don't read, journalism has a long way to slide before it is as blind to the facts as many of the people who presumably read the news.

On objectivity in the press, I always think of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. At the time, I subscribed to Liberal Opinion Weekly and Conservative Chronicles, which together collected most nationally syndicated opinion columns.

I remember how surprised I was. Every conservative who commented thought Anita Hill was obviously lying; and every liberal who commented thought Thomas was obviously lying. I already knew we were really good at believing what we want to believe, but I didn't know we were that good.

Interestingly enough, my coach at Columbia, Dale Maharidge, emphasizes the importance of not being a blank slate -- even when you go reporting -- and of using your intellect and passions to create a working analysis, colored by your own obsessions (his is class; mine is class + creeping militarism + trauma). Having those kind of intellectual tools helps you ask deeper questions and collect more of what you need.

Journalists who just go in and collect data, any data - there's your New Orleans example for you, folks who've never thought about how the world is put together. So rather than report enough to fill their pieces with enough tones, enough reality to make them three-dimensional, they do he said-she said and phone in the result.

I've been thinking a lot recently about objectivity in three fields: science, jurisprudence, and journalism. I've been tempted for a long time simply to rank them. Science has the best model of objectivity, followed by the law, then journalism.

But really what distinguishes the three is only the amount of time they have. Scientific results are always tentative, because we have the rest of the history of the human race to correct them. This also means that we can develop elaborate systems of peer review and cross checking. The law has some time pressure: people are entitled to a speedy trial. There are fewer appeals. Journalists have to have the story in the next day. There are really no checks whatsoever, so the journalist has to make due with the trappings of objectivity, like never using the first person pronoun.

So what do scientists do with their time that lets them be more objective? At least part of what they do is develop a loyalty not just to ethical values but to epistemic values. They feel duty bound to be skeptics, and question others beliefs; to be epistemically humble, and question their own beliefs; to be curious; and to be diligent. It turns out that the cure for the bias brought by values is simply to have other values.

New interns that come to work for me are often hamstrung by the fetish of superficial objectivity. I have this discussion in the workplace in earnest probably 24 times a year.

What I tend to tell them is that every journalist, whether mainstream or alternative or advocacy-based, has to challenge her biases on a regular basis to be ethical. And for better or worse, those of us in advocacy journalism have more of our biases right out in plain sight where we can keep an eye on them.

We also save time, ink, and trees by not having to seek out ways to say things like "'On the plus side,' says alleged atmospheric scientist Fred Singer, 'a longer Arctic barbecue season will boost the flagging charcoal briquette industry.'"

They'll alway be some bias, and the only way to counter-act its ill effects on public debate is to maximize the number of voices speaking in the public space. We can easily imagine how much more intelligent American debate regarding the Mideast might become if Al Jazeera had a 24 hour English language news cable network in America. Al Jazeera would then have a chance to present all of its biases to the American public, and the American public would then have the chance to check what Fox News was saying against what Al Jazeera was saying, and perhaps see a truth more complex than either news network was willing to admit to.

Americans should also consider whether an adversarial system, such as they have in Europe, might not better serve the public good. England has 11 national newspapers, each with a well-known political bias, whereas America has only 4 national papers, each nominally "objective". Which nation has the richer public debates?

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