The Rise (and Fall) of Objectivity

If you’re going to critique objectivity as a tool or an ideal of journalism, you have to look at the purpose of journalism itself and how objectivity helps to serve that purpose. Objectivity is, without a doubt, an important function of journalism. It points us to a rational- albeit, an ever shifting- middle ground; tries to provide a perspective not soaked in bias or knee-jerk sensationalism. For journalism to be valuable to public discourse, it has to be trusted. It should represent not just a teasing of facts, but their full meaning, and act as a credible, truth-seeking source of fair and accurate information, as best as it can be attained.

Therein lies the rub,

does journalism merely stake a claim to objectivity to create the ideal image of a trusted, truthful reporter; or do they employ it as a tool to actually earn that reputation? The benefits of professional neutrality are often misappropriated- serving the writer, rather than the reader. The principle of objectivity has taken a beating over the years from in and outside of media circles; no doubt in part due to the evolution of the press, the politics, and the society it all operates in.

Therefore, I suppose I would argue that objectivity as we know it, or perhaps, as it’s commonly been argued, is the means rather than the end.

The concept has stuck around throughout history. It’s adapted to new models and new styles of journalism; it’s been re-worded and at times disregarded entirely. We’ve seen the catch-phrases of some in the mainstream media slide their way from that of objective reporting, to *ahem* fair and balanced, to non-existent as the current backlash against objectivity itself continues. This on and off long-term relationship with the practice has produced a plethora of terms, theories, and conventions by which journalism has operated and through which it is examined in an ever-evolving field.

For some, objective reporting has evidently become a premium to such an extent that J-studies professors might yet be tempted to include a chapter on stenography in the journalism curricula. In the name of apparent neutrality, journalism has at times worked diligently, only to fail at satisfying other crucial ideals which are themselves integral to the job. From this perspective, objectivity seems to exist not necessarily as the highest water mark of journalistic professionalism, but a component with its own challenges and limitations; one which I necessarily a part of a larger function. Historically speaking, people have always had a basic need to communicate and share information and meaning with each other. Going back to ancient oral histories, Rome’s Acta Diurna and technological advancements like Guttenberg’s printing press, journalism began to take shape as an important voice of society; one which has helped to shape and redefine the way individuals, writers and governments interact with each other.

The colonial era in the west drew much of its influence from the news and practices of journalism abroad, namely Europe. Publick Houses and The Shipping News became important parts of the public sphere.

Historian Mitchell Stephens had curiously acquired an Aug. 5/ 1679 edition of Domestick Intelligence: a London-based publication credited to Benjamin Harris- who would go on to publish Publick Occurances, Both Foreign and Domestic: the first American newspaper 11 years later.** The import of European influence also impacted the American press’ ability to report independent of state control. American journalists were influenced by London newspapermen under the pen name “Cato”, who introduced the concept that truth is the ultimate defense against libel. The media’s adoption of the concept of free speech led to the acquittal of John Peter Zenger, a printer and critic of the Royal Governor of New York. I think it’s evident that this event, and the enshrining of press freedom in the constitution highlights the social importance of the press’ ability to take a particular stance when it’s appropriate.

The emergence of the public sphere was significant. As Micheal Schudson puts it..

“people could converse as equals. Individual reason, not social position, was the measure of an argument’s worth. Newspapers, pamphleteers, coffeehouses, and salons were among the key institutions that made a public sphere possible.”

And I have to agree. The media has gone through phases of revolutionary partisanship, political criticism and activism- like that of the pamphleteers; as well as economically-driven business models and detached professionalism. An outspoken press didn’t come to fruition without facing its own challenges, however. The Sedition Act in 1798 was a particularly unfriendly piece of legislation that sent up the river as many as 1 of 4 politically opposed editors.  As the press increasingly distanced itself from partisan reporting, the concept of the press as a business model was growing with publishing wars between William Randolph Hearts of The New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World.

Henceforth we have “yellow journalism”, of course based in part on the “yellow-kid” comics meant to help rake in the business. Yellow journalism stuck around, a term that came to describe the sensationalist headlines and tactics used to gain readership, criticized for the papers growth expending accuracy. As media empires became prominent there was a greater call for journalism to adopt more rigorous methodology and objectivity in its work; realizing that writers were not without their own biases.

The political climate in the 1960’s was a particularly interesting example of this objective methodology leading the media to an over-reliance on official sources and falling completely behind the momentum of the public. Schudson said that:

“For journalism, habitual deference to government officials, especialy in foreign policy, came to be seen not as professionalism but as occupationally induced laziness, naivete, or worse”

They would eventually get on board with the public’s criticism of the administration, of course, via Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. The release was a defining event in media history; and one that would pave the way for future whistleblowers and journalists alike. The downside to the assumed high ground of professional objectivity is evident enough that media critics have been, for decades, discussion the error of its ways; to the extent that the press has in many ways become the butt of one of the world’s longest running jokes. The Iraq war coverage was again another example of objectivity getting in the way of the actual truth.

Linda McQuaig’s snippet from “it’s the crude, dude” does a good summation of this…

“Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart after the release of the Senate report, a regretful [Wolf] Blitzer chalked up his failure to a kind of collective blindness: “We should have been more skeptical”

This admission is critically important and revealing as to the limits of objective reporting, even in the trusted, upper echelons of Blitzer’s Situation Room. To me, it seems that journalism and journalists develop habits. Many journalists still rely heavily on official, unnamed sources in lieu of stringent verification; as is present in many modern phenomena, including the spectacle of campaign coverage or foreign affairs. In a traditional sense, an active media in many ways required a society that is willing to seek out information, and it still does, although, with the boom of new media, journalism is able to reach farther out to grab it and reinvent some of the rules.

Perhaps this is just what the profession needs to give a new breed of journalists the ability to put objectivity to good use instead of misuse. Media criticism such as Geneva Overholser’s “forthright jettisoning of the objectivity credo” seems to advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater, does it not? It’s well noted where objectivity has failed, but objectivity is not a pit-stop to rest on your laurels a while; in its proper form, objectivity doesn’t ostracize fact-checking. 

The practice itself, is in a state of separation from it usefulness and its purpose. I think the ultimate desire of journalism would, or should, be to remain relevant and useful; if tweaking the criteria of objectivity is what is necessary for journalism to remain relevant as the 4th estate, then that is what journalists should be focusing on. I would have to assume that it’s not the fault of objectivity being a bad or unrealistic standard for journalists, but that we’ve mangled and muddied its meaning and importance so much that the media’s desire to appear professional is what essentially gave objectivity its bad reputation. Journalism should not have to sacrifice the truth for an audience. Neither should it let slide the standards of verification, loyalty to the citizenry, or even your own opinion to appear legitimate.

In instances where it’s necessary- journalists should follow their conscience and not be swayed by credo’s which look a lot better on paper than in reality. Thomas Nagel coined the phrase “The View from Nowhere” and suggested that by transcending our initial subjective response and taking an objective step back, we would achieve a wider and more accurate perspective of the world. Significant, I believe, because in that definition itself he suggests that a world view is an aggregate of experience; that a true picture cannot be wholly perceived without the contribution of the subjective; that the two, together, amount to a world view. Nagel believed that objectivity was an important addition to the subjective human experience. Though, the frequency with which modern journalism insists on divorcing the two and deciding that objectivity is the comfortable father figure they’d rather live with isn’t doing the profession, or us, any favors….Jay Rosen’s Pressthink examines the phenomena through the professional-lens whereby the state of devoid opinion or inquiry, is assumed to be a defining quality of good journalism.

While objectivity is undeniably an important aspect in good reporting, Rosen states that it has become “overrated by people who think it can replace the view from somewhere, or transcend the human subject. It can’t.

In the end, I think objectivity is only truly desirable if it can be re-aligned amongst the other responsibilities and elements of journalism. If not, then I think, as history has shown, objectivity has the potential to be a perfect catalyst of power aabusers and offers the kind of journalistic rigidity which degenerates the public sphere and limits citizens opportunities to be informed as well as handicaps whatever allegiance it had to a functioning democracy. 

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One thought on “The Rise (and Fall) of Objectivity

  1. Pingback: When More Is Really Less | rational politics

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