On ‘Objectivity’

The following is part of an essay I wrote when applying to journalism grad school. Following the thread of yesterday’s post on how objectivity (as normally understood) isn’t a thing, this post considers a possible re-definition of the term to make it both a plausible and desirable trait of journalists.

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Question: Is objectivity a good criterion for responsible journalism in a democratic society?

160px-Bill_keller_at_nyc

Bill Keller

Objectivity—telling the truth rather than some version of it—is a controversial principle in journalism. On the one hand, alleging bias is tantamount to calling a reporter a liar. Bill Keller, former editor of The New York Times, considers non-partisanship integral to giving readers “the information they need to make up their own minds.” Kovach and Rosensteil, in The Elements of Journalism, argue for an objective method of newsgathering which mimics the scientific method. The Pew Research Center’s “Principles of Journalism” follows Elements by defining journalism as a “discipline of verification” which tempers personal bias with a “transparent approach to evidence.” Put simply, a journalist’s job is to just tell the unvarnished truth and let readers draw their own conclusions.

ArtnCraftOn the other hand, bias may be unavoidable. As The Wall Street Journal’s William Blundell puts it in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, “As storytellers…we can’t be totally objective…By the act of selecting what material to use and what to omit, by deciding what to stress and what to downplay, we forfeit any claim to ultimate objectivity.” (p. 64) On this view, objectivity is a mirage which obscures the epistemological impossibility of unbiased storytelling. What is called objective is really just uncontroversial.

So journalists must, and cannot, be objective.

One way of resolving this dilemma is to redefine objectivity, so that instead of denoting the absence of an agenda it denotes the presence of one—specifically, the agenda of informing democratic citizens per se. If a journalist’s first loyalty is to bolstering her readers’ capacity for informed consent, then how much her other, inescapable biases explicitly enter her work is largely an aesthetic/rhetorical concern, not an ethical one. By redefining objectivity in this way, journalists can differentiate themselves from pundits without committing to the impossible task of not having a point of view.

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