Two really smart critics have cited the journalistic tradition of objectivity as the reason mainstream media have missed or underplayed some big stories.
Steve Outing, writing in Editor & Publisher, says objectivity has gotten in the way of informing the public about the real dangers of climate change. Giving the global warming deniers the same credibility as scientists trying to sound the alarm is misleading and unfair, he argues.
And my former Knight Ridder colleague, Saul Friedman, blames a rigid objectivity for failures to report the flaws in the Bush administration’s justification for the war in Iraq.
Both critics are right when they say something is wrong. However, the fault lies not lie in objectivity but rather in a careless and inadequate application of the concept of objectivity. It’s an important distinction.
In the days when information was scarce and reporters mere transporters of information (a “transmission belt,” says Friedman citing Vladimir Lenin) they had neither the time nor the expertise to dig below the surface. And so the rule was to report “both sides” and then “let the reader decide” but without giving the reader much, if any, information on which to base that decision.
In the age of the Internet, mere transmission no longer adds value to information. The way to add value to the surplus of data is to process it to help the reader select it and make sense of it. That requires interpretation, and interpretation requires objectivity in the scientific sense. I call this objectivity of method as opposed to the he-said/she-said objectivity of result. In other words, journalists should act more like scientists: collect information, look for patterns, construct a theory, and then provide an objective test of the theory. Objectivity in this sense means asking a question of the data in a way that will protect you from being fooled by the answer.
Journalism, like science, is tentative in its conclusions. It should be as transparent as science, leaving a paper trail of data that other investigators can retrace and arrive at the same or better conclusions.
The reporters who bought the White House line on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were not being objective investigators. They were just parroting their sources, fearful of alienating them. That’s stenography, not reporting. Correspondents in the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau got the story right because, not having a Washington outlet, they were not in a symbiotic relationship with the official sources and had to use shoe leather to seek out the working stiffs in government and the military. Objective inquiry, not advocacy, made their effort successful.
Journalists like to run in herds, and their herding behavior leads them to cluster around a master narrative. Special interests that benefit from the absence of a policy against global warming long were able to promote a master narrative that there was as much to be said for the denialists as the alarmists. Reporters wanting to get behind the master narrative had to gain some level of expertise in the subject matter. Objective application of such specialized knowledge can help a journalist provide clues that will point readers toward truth.
It used to be said that a good reporter is good anywhere, and that might have been true when reporting was a hunter-gatherer activity. But now journalism’s main activity is not gathering information but processing it, and that takes subject-matter knowledge as Friedman acknowledges at the close of his essay. In applying structure and logic to the facts, one need not and should not abandon objectivity. All that needs to be abandoned is the primitive belief that interpretation-free reporting of what “both sides” say is objectivity.
Phil Meyer is the Knight Chair of Journalism Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods (Rowman and Littlefield, 4th edition, 2002) and of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (University of Missouri Press, 2004).