By Casey Bukro
Journalism goes through phases, like a teenager sporting what is hot and ditching what is not.
Consider the “nut graph” in news writing, typographical changes to help readers “navigate” through newspapers and graphics that capture attention and inform.
Now it’s objectivity’s turn.
The New Republic magazine recently went so far, in an article about “The Abuses of Objectivity,” as to state “that saving journalism will mean saving it from a false notion of objectivity.”
The writer, Will Meyer, says the Trump Administration’s attack on media as “enemies of the people” forced mainstream press to double-down “on its commitments to truth-telling and objectivity,” leading to an appearance of fairness. This leads to showing two sides of every story, “even in cases where one side’s arguments were much weaker than the other’s.”
Objectivity, writes Meyer, also meant veering away from using unflattering terms and avoiding words like “lies” or “racism” because they might be seen as evidence of left-wing bias.
“Above all,” writes Meyer, “it meant that reporters themselves could not be seen to have any political opinions, because then they would be vulnerable to accusations of impropriety, regardless of the accuracy of what they actually wrote.”
The idea of objectivity is relatively recent, says Meyer, who credits Walter Lippmann, founding co-editor of The New Republic, with the rise of objectivity and professional ethics through the publication of his book, “Public Opinion,” in 1922.
Journalism code of ethics
Using that as a starting point, a search of some authorities on journalism ethics and codes of media ethics reveals a love-hate relationship with the idea of objectivity in journalism.
Considered by many a grand old man of journalism education, the late Curtis D. MacDougall taught journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His book, “Interpretive Reporting,” was a standard textbook, published in 1938. In a chapter on “Qualifications For Newspaper Work,” he never mentions “objectivity.”
In 1974, Thomas Griffith publishes “How True. A Skeptic’s Guide to Believing the News.” In it he says: “The assertion of nonobjectivity made possible the opinionated compression of the newsmagazines, which have proved a surprisingly durable form for fifty years.” Griffith was a top editor at Time and Life magazines. He was lauding the opposite of objectivity.
In 1987, Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published “Ethical Journalism. A guide for students, practitioners and consumers.” In a chapter on “The Objectivity Issue,” he defines it this way: “The reporter seeks to adopt a ‘man from Mars’ stance, seeking each event afresh, untainted by prior expectations, collecting observations and passing them on untouched by interpretation. It doesn’t work, of course. The world is far too complex, and readers are far too impatient to wade through and analyze raw data of this sort. Some structure has to be imposed on the data ….”
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics did an about face on objectivity. A code adopted in 1973 by the society’s national convention states: “Objectivity in reporting the news is another goal, which serves as the mark of an experienced professional. It is a standard of performance toward which we strive. We honor those who achieve it.” The ethics code was tweaked and revised in 1984, 1987, 1996 and 2014. Today, the word “objectivity” does not appear in the code.
Ethicists define objective journalism
This calls for some fresh thinking. I asked ethicists who staff the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists to give their opinions on the standing of objectivity as a useful concept in journalism ethics. They are university professors who teach ethics. When professional journalists call AdviceLine for guidance on ethics, they speak to one of the ethicists qualified to help plot a course through the maze of questions typically raised in ethics issues.
Dr. Hugh Edmund Miller, is assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, specializing in philosophy of religion and regularly teaches courses in ethics and business ethics.
It is ironic, Miller points out, that an article casting doubt on the uses of objectivity, appears in the New Republic, whose founding editor was Walter Lippmann, a leading advocate of objectivity.
Probably more than anyone else, says Miller, Lippmann was responsible for consolidating a movement already underway in the journalistic profession to transform journalists from being people with basic literacy and minimal education, but lots and lots of hustle, and the ability to string together words and file a story to meet deadlines into members of what is called the “professional-managerial classes” (PMC).
For Lippmann, journalists should be not only educated, but should cultivate close relationships with those in positions of power, as natural allies in the PMC, Miller observes. Journalism schools arose to provide credentials for entry into the PMC. While this was not necessarily a bad development in all aspects, it did change the profile of journalism in America, and Miller would argue, produced a sort of “institutional capture” of the profession by the interests of the PMC.
Objectivity, which Miller describes as “another beloved hobby horse of Lippmann’s,” helped to establish the “professional” bona fides of journalism as a learned profession, appropriate to membership in the PMC.
The PMC itself has increasingly come under the spell of Chicago/Virginia school neoliberal economics, with its corresponding move to the Right end of the political spectrum. The result has been the shift of the “Overton window” of so-called responsible discourse considerably to the right in America.
Ethics and far right journalism
However, this has not helped the journalistic profession, Miller says. Trying to occupy the middle of the window, they are heavily critiqued by those on the right, including those who have founded their own “journalistic” organizations, like Fox News – for not being sufficiently far to the right.
“This all has to be viewed in a much more international context. We in America tend to think of our journalist practices as ending at our borders, and not being influenced by those outside them. I think this is a mistake,” says Miller.
The ideal of “objectivity” developed in the United States by Lippmann and others intended to “professionalize” the trade and overcome the historic legacy of “yellow” journalism.
At this point, I’ll let Miller speak for himself, entirely in his own words:
“By holding newspapers, particularly in the reporting function, to a standard of rigorous reporting and checking of fact, ‘objectivists’ sought to raise the reputation of newspapers by establishing them as authoritative, and not just partisan. Functionally, this meant building a ‘firewall’ between reporting and editorial functions in a newspaper, magazine or other media service. This firewall was ultimately rooted in the fact/value distinction – to wit, that facts were objectively true or false, verifiable or falsifiable by universally accepted means, and could as such compel assent, whereas values were subjective and not subject to such verification or falsification.
“Therefore, by preferring reporting matters of act, journalists could easily avoid incurring charges of bias. Such reporting was also aided by a social approval of ‘scientific’ expertise. Scientists, especially in the post World War II era, enjoyed a high level of prestige and trust in American culture, in part because of the obvious contributions of science to the prosperity and comfortable lifestyle of that period. Journalists could present themselves as quasi-scientific investigators of objective reality, observing and recording data, checking it for reliability, and leaving it to the rest of the community to interpret.
“The trouble came, of course, with reporting matters which concerned value. How does one properly ‘report’ what is by definition subjective? The solution was simply to interview and quote persons stating their subjective views, and present these as reports of ‘fact’ – that is, the fact of the state of mind of the person speaking. Again, once the fact was presented, it could be left up to the reader or listener to interpret on their own. Interpretation was to be avoided to the greatest extent possible; it was reserved for the editorial function of the newspaper, within its own real estate on the editorial page.
Perfect storm attacks objective reporting
“In recent years, a perfect storm of forces has converged to subject this model of objectivist reporting to attack.
“First, the rise of the Internet and the appearance in the 1980s of Usenet groups and bulletin boards led to a democratization of information distribution and exchange. Anyone and everyone could now participate in interactive information fora, and express their views. Furthermore, the very format of these groups and fora had a leveling effect: Expertise and credentials counted for less than persuasiveness. They also led to a kind of ‘echo chamber’ effect: Like-minded individuals tended to sort themselves together and reinforce each other’s views, and the ability to choose one’s groups and exclude others — not that one was less likely to be exposed to alternative views.
“Second, once political organizations begin to realize this, they began to leverage it to increase support, gain voters and drive partisanship. Mainstream media struggled to attract readers and viewers away from what was becoming increasingly the principal media that millions of Internet users were coming to prefer to their product. The pressure was on to offer something that attracted those users, who had become used to ‘information’ of the self-confirming kind, something that traditional objective journalism had difficulty competing with.
‘Third, media organizations underwent commercial consolidation and became the objects of neoliberal wealth extraction, leading to cost-cutting, staff-cutting and relentless pressure upon journalistic ‘content-providers’ to provide clicks and advertising revenue.
Yellow journalism returns
“Finally, in recent years we have seen the emergence of pseudo ‘news’ media, such as FOXNews, Breitbart.com, etc., who seem to have returned to the old yellow journalism model of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“All of this has made objectivist approaches to reporting difficult to carry out. For the model to succeed again, it must adapt. As philosophers and media critics have long argued, interpretation and factual reporting cannot wholly be separated. In fact, even factual reporting requires discrimination and interpretation in the selection, not only of the newsworthy from the not, but among facts themselves. Journalists must increasingly become experts in areas for which they have not been specifically educated and trained in order to be able to determine how to tell a story that is fair and accurate. They need financial support, resources and the backing of their editors and publishers to report on controversial matters. That is especially true of large investigative projects, which are becoming increasingly rare. How this kind of ‘new objectivism’ will be funded and supported is one of the open questions that the trade now faces.”
Another member of the AdviceLine staff, Dr. David A. Craig, professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Oklahoma, offered this take:
“Journalists need to acknowledge the limits of objectivity, but it has ethical value as a way of thinking. Well-reported journalism that acknowledges its standpoint is honest, transparent and drives its points home powerfully. Value choices saturate decisions in reporting and writing, and no journalist can escape those choices. Journalism with an overt point of view reflects that reality. However, journalists have an ethical obligation to tell as broad a range of truth as possible, and maintaining objectivity as part of their mindset can help them to pursue and report as many perspectives as possible. They will never be neutral and they need to ask critical questions about all points of view and factual claims, but objectivity as a way of thinking has ethical value even if storytelling doesn’t use an objective frame.”
Objectivity called useless term
Joe Mathewson, another member of the AdviceLine team, teaches ethics and law of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. He formerly covered the U.S. Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal and practiced law in Chicago. Here’s his take on objectivity:
“I’ve always felt that objectivity is a useless term airily postulated only by academics and other non-journalists. I’ve never heard it used in a newsroom or by active journalists. I once asked a former WSJ Chicago bureau chief whether he’s ever heard the word actually in use, and he said, ‘Never. But accuracy!’ I agree. As a journalism teacher we talk a lot about truth, too, but never objectivity. If you try to define it, or actually apply it in a newsroom (or event online today), it breaks down immediately as a useful guideline to creating a specific story. Of course we all have biases, and they need to be recognized, but doing so, and ardently seeking truth, are more useful working professional guidelines.”
This roundup of the use of objectivity in journalism ends where it started: A split-decision. It depends on how seriously a journalist takes the concept. Some say we cannot overcome our biases. They are unlikely to do so if they believe it is impossible. Others say we can if we recognize our biases, then work to get beyond them. It depends on whether that is recognized as a goal in journalism ethics. Sometimes you can achieve what you think is possible, using a simple guideline like: Keep yourself out of the story.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
Visit the Ethics AdviceLine blog for more.