JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY RECONSIDERED
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Things creep up on you. Hardly anybody has noticed that we are now precisely halfway through the "oughts" - that is, the years '00 - '09. And if we think about what has been happening, we will notice that peculiar things have been creeping into our media and - without our always paying attention - are solidifying. At the same time, as we shall see, there are things that may need changing that have stayed the same.
We have already remarked repeatedly on one of the most pernicious trends, the hijacking of our airwaves by the right wing and the failure by ourselves or our government to take any preventive action.
The print media have their own insidiously creeping maladies. Even as their competitors in talk-radio and cable-tv news have built a whole industry based on being offensive, the daily newspapers have gradually slid into an era of inoffensiveness. This probably has something to do with the consolidation of the newspaper industry whereby even the larger cities have, at most, one or two dailies. Trying to appeal to the widest-possible markets, newspapers work hard at trying to irritate the fewest people. The result is predictable. They lose their edge. They become dull.
There is another reason for the overall dullness though. It is a concept that non-journalists find strange. In journalese, it is referred to as "objectivity." It includes other terms such as "balance" and "fairness."
In practice, "objectivity" manifests itself as the unwillingness to remark directly about the truthfulness or credibility of people under discussion. It shows itself by the inclusion of an opposing viewpoint to balance someone else's stated opinion, whether or not the contrarian view makes any sense at all. But now, finally, the practice of journalistic "objectivity" is a subject of debate within the journalistic community.
It is a critically important discussion because, in an era where breaking news is communicated by television and radio hours before newspapers even start to think about tomorrow's layout, it is the deeper, more serious content that will determine whether newspapers survive as a serious element in the public policy setting process. That serious content includes everyday news reporting, investigative journalism and the editorial pages.
It is how these elements are created and managed that are now being questioned. In particular, recent comments by Michael Kinsley have led to a flurry of discussion.
The gist of Kinsley's contribution can be found in the Columbia Journalism Review web site (www.campaigndesk.org/archives/000973.asp). Brian Montopoli was the interviewer who asked about campaign reporting and Kinsley, (who was formerly the editor of Slate.com and is currently the editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times) gave this response:
The biggest problem is - and I don't know what the solution is, so it's not a criticism, as much as it is a puzzle - is that the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie. And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, "it's controversial," or "many have challenged it," euphemisms like that. And then they always need to pair it with something else. "Candidate X murdered three people at a rally yesterday, and candidate Y sneezed without using a Kleenex. This is why many people are saying this is the roughest campaign ever."
A personal aside: I proposed doing this column to Joe Shea, editor of American Reporter, a little over a year ago. The concept, if you want to call it that, was that I would report on the media from the standpoint of the consumer. I have no training as a professional journalist, never attended journalism school, and have lots of questions about why certain things happen in our mass media world.
I do have training as a scientist, though, and as somebody trained in the ethics and logic of science, I find this whole model for journalistic "objectivity" to be nonsensical. Let's consider.
In science, as in history, mathematics and even the criminal law, the goal is to find the truth. We can argue semantics and philosophy about the ultimate nature of truth or (as Plato) whether we can perceive it directly, but in our day to day world, we recognize that there is a certain class of truths that are obtainable and knowable. In 1945, the identity of the chemical carrying hereditary information in our cell nuclei was in question. Since the 1950s, we know that it is DNA. Since the seventeenth century, we have understood the rules that govern planetary motion as explained by Newton.
The criminal justice system takes up questions that are less amenable to perfect surety. In criminal cases there may be lingering doubt - did or did not Scott Peterson murder his wife - but the objective is to find the truth and make it known. The goal in a criminal trial is that the jury reach a verdict, whether it be guilty or not guilty.
In science as in law, the goal is to reach a correct decision about the subject in question. Each discipline has its methods and each takes care to publish its developing methodologies and its conclusions.
This is where the fallacy of journalistic "objectivity" is to be found. There is no requirement, no incentive even, to reach a decision as to the truth and then to declare it in print. If I understand the point correctly, that is what the word "balance" means. John says this, but Mary says that, and reporters need only write down what each says. They even have a cynical little term for it: "He said, she said."
Kinsley goes directly to the point: "And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, "it's controversial," or "many have challenged it," euphemisms like that."
In other words, the papers report some allegation along with well documented refutations, but never take the last step, which is to write, "Based on the evidence and logic, we conclude that these claims are lies."
Perhaps I am too dense to understand the deeper nature and beauty of journalism, but this refusal to draw conclusions in things that cry out for drawing conclusions strikes me as a form of moral cowardice. At the least, it is a meek sort of business model.
This is not to say that reporters and editors must in all cases reach a conclusion on factual questions. The issue is whether they are willing to report accurately that some things are conclusive, even as they report that others remain in question.
There is another side of the "balance" and "fairness" issue that scientists (and, I believe, most non-journalists) find baffling. It is the system whereby a contrarian view is sought out and published as part of a story, without regard or comment as to its lack of credibility. This is particularly irritating in stories involving scientific controversies where there is a well developed consensus among scientists. Inevitably, the reporter manages to find some holdout who refuses to accept the majority viewpoint. It is certainly fair for a journalist to report that there is lack of unanimity. It is sloppy to report the fact as if there were an even split among scientists.
Sometimes it is only public outrage that puts a stop to these tactics. Within recent memory, there were tobacco company executives who claimed to be unaware of evidence linking cigarette smoking to cancer, and the occasional newspaper story quoted them as if they were to be taken as acceptable opposing points of view.
The principle described above remains applicable: Scientists and juries try to work towards reaching a conclusion on questions of interest. They may not necessarily reach that goal, but it is the goal. The concept of balanced journalism is a different beast altogether, resulting in published stories quoting totally marginal characters who seem to exist solely to publicize their obsolete views.
There is one other concept central to science and criminal law which seems to be absent from objective journalism. It is judgment.
I refer to carefully considered judgments made on the basis of evidence and logic. Judgment is the heart and soul of science, as it must also be in criminal law. It is an ideal, not always achieved and never perfect, but it is necessary for mature consideration of difficult questions.
Judgment involves going beyond making decisions simply by counting the number of people who are on each side of a controversy. The fact that there are a certain number of people who believe that halogenated hydrocarbons damage the ozone layer and a certain number who continue to deny it may be of some limited interest, but it is not the way an atmospheric chemist would consider the question.
Instead, he would consider the evidence. He would read the research studies and the expert reviews of the research studies. He might ask people he really trusts. Then, he might reach a decision as to the credibility of the asserted hypothesis. He would never achieve absolute certainty, but he might (as many did) reach a reasonable level of certainty.
The problem for the working reporter is that he cannot be an expert atmospheric chemist on one day, then an expert heart surgeon the next and an expert on Constitutional law on the third day. Nobody can know much of anything, much less most of everything. It does create a quandary. It explains to some extent this technique of looking for "balance" in reporting. For every innovation in surgical technique, there may be highly qualified doctors who are for it and others who are against it.
In this kind of story, balance is a reasonable technique because balance is a justifiable part of the story. Good judgment takes us to this conclusion.
It is a very different thing when elected officials lie through their teeth and when corporate public relations officers lie about product defects. It is also a very different thing when elected officials give evasive answers that are intended to mislead the public about the predictable effects of tax cuts and spending increases.
It would be a different, more interesting world if newspapers were to report the facts as they really know them, using their best judgment as to the credibility and logic of the the subjects of their reporting. It would be a change in that old, worn out concept of journalistic objectivity, but it might be a change for the better.