If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited a long-running debate over the principle of objectivity in journalism. If you work in the field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a close friend or family member of a journalist, you’ve probably heard more than your share of existential angst about it over the past month. 

If you’re not in either of those categories, you should still care because you are a consumer of journalism, whether you like it or not. So here are the basics of the debate:

Most professional journalists and newsrooms operate under a strict code of ethics, which includes the principle of objective reporting. This means a journalist reports the facts of the story and all relevant context and perspectives without regard to the reporter’s personal opinions or any other outside influence. Journalists are expected to recuse themselves from stories they are unable to report in this way. In addition, to avoid the perception of bias, journalists are generally required to refrain from publicly expressing their personal opinions on potentially controversial issues and from participating in or contributing to political campaigns or causes. 

These principles – objective reporting and perceived lack of bias – are distinct but closely related. They are frequent subjects of passionate debate, particularly as American society has grown more and more polarized since the rise of social media and the election of President Trump. The current national discourse on race has raised the stakes and the emotional pitch of the debate even further, with the suggestion that the traditional journalism ethics code may be yet another societal institution created and enforced by white men and deserves to be, if not entirely tossed out, significantly revamped.

Ironically, I cannot write about this issue objectively. Like many journalists, my professional ethics have become deeply entwined with my own personal moral code, much like I imagine doctors might feel about the Hippocratic Oath. Seeing this debate play out over the past month has been gut-wrenching on a deeply personal level, for me and for many other journalists. I have been listening, reading, and thinking about these issues, trying to remain as open as possible to new ideas and perspectives. I am to the point where the only way I can process my thoughts is to write them down – a symptom of the profession, I suppose. I offer them here for anyone else who may be struggling, for interested bystanders, and for anyone in between.

***

Here are the arguments as I understand them, followed by my thoughts about each one.

Objective reporting is not possible because everyone brings their life experiences and their conscious and unconscious biases to their work. That bias shows up, not just in the execution of individual stories, but in the choice of which stories to pursue. This is especially problematic given the lack of diversity in many newsrooms.

There is no doubt that journalism has a diversity problem. Many smart people are working on it, many more have started working on it over the past month, and I think they would all agree we have a long way to go. This matters for many reasons, not least the array of life experiences and perspectives that are missing from editorial meetings across the country each day. But I don’t believe it follows that objectivity is impossible. For one thing, a piece of journalism should not be the work of one person alone. It should be a collaboration of at least two people (reporter and editor) if not more, with input from others in the newsroom. Also, the job of a good journalist is first to listen deeply and to immerse themselves in the communities they cover to the point that it comes naturally to bring diverse perspectives and voices to their reporting. That goes for editors and news managers too.

Objective reporting, when defined as “just the facts” reporting, is neither fair nor accurate because the “facts” are often controlled by official sources (government agencies, police departments, etc.) that are part of an establishment in which many people across the political spectrum have lost trust. Reporters must not be simply “stenographers,” reporting what officials say without question.

This argument assumes a misguided view of objective reporting, at least as I understand it. In no way does the objectivity principle preclude the inclusion of context or the questioning of official facts or pronouncements. Indeed, those are essential elements of responsible, thorough journalism. 

Of course, those activities take time and resources, both of which are in short supply in many newsrooms these days. In fact, all of these arguments and counter-arguments point back to the steady decline in newsroom staff, coupled with the simultaneous increase in output expectations due to the demands of social media and multimedia. As I wrote just after the 2016 elections, most journalists don’t have time to listen deeply to the people in their communities anymore because they’re too busy “creating content.” They often struggle to find time to do the digging and questioning necessary for well-rounded reporting too. This issue deserves a treatise of its own (the post linked above is a start), but I would argue that before we throw out the objectivity principle, we try realigning newsroom priorities away from endless content creation and back towards engagement, deep listening, and investigative reporting. News organizations must also reinvest in the resources necessary for journalists to do their jobs.

The principle of objective reporting can lead to false equivalencies in the pursuit of “balance.” The most common example notes that until recently, most news outlets felt the need to include a climate change denier in every story about that issue. Today, the debate includes questions such as whether and to what extent defenders of Confederate symbols should be reflected in coverage.

This concern is a key reason many news organizations and journalists are wrestling with the objectivity principle right now.

Objectivity does not, in fact, demand false equivalency. On the contrary, false equivalency breaks what is arguably the most important principle of journalism ethics – accuracy. When climate change became settled science, most news organizations stopped including deniers in their coverage. This didn’t happen overnight. There was a period of debate over when the science became “settled,” but the change did happen. That said, news organizations do continue to report on opposition to various policies and proposals intended to fight climate change. Of course, journalists must fact-check all sides and provide the context necessary to understand all the arguments, but they cannot simply ignore opponents of these policies. Why? Because the debate over how best to fight climate change is still very much unresolved, and the objectivity principle requires journalists to reflect its full range.

The debates over today’s racially charged issues are likewise very much unresolved. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to racist acts of violence that have been roundly condemned by all sides, but the movement is also advocating for concrete policies and actions that are not universally accepted. The counterarguments can be uncomfortable to say the least, but they do exist – and not just on the fringes of society. The objectivity principle requires journalists to report those arguments and perspectives. Does that mean news organizations should interview representatives of white supremacist groups? Probably not. But it does mean they should find a way to reflect the perspective of someone who shuns racism but also mourns the loss of symbols like Confederate statues and namesakes … or of someone who believes problems with policing are the result of a few bad apples rather than a system that is fundamentally flawed. Of course journalists must challenge those arguments and provide factual and historical context, but under the objectivity principle, the arguments cannot be ignored. 

Some are asking if now is the time for the institution of journalism to change course – to go against its long-held ethics and pick a side, to stand up for what seems so clearly to be right. 

Journalists are human beings and should not have to give up their rights to freedom of speech or expression, especially when it comes to standing up for “human rights.” Nobody should have to “check their identity at the door.” Also, it’s better for journalists to be transparent about their opinions than to hide them.

Any news organization that interprets the objectivity principle as a requirement to “check your identity at the door” is highly misguided. I’ve been appalled by stories of editors who have asked reporters of color whether they could be objective when covering the Black Lives Matter protests. That is entirely unacceptable, and the fact that it’s happening points to a need for more education about the meaning and purpose of the objectivity principle.

Beyond that, though, there are several still-valid reasons reporters refrain from doing things like marching in protests, contributing to or participating in campaigns, adorning their cars with political bumper stickers, and Tweeting their opinions on controversial issues.

  • Those activities may lead the audience to believe that the reporter – and by association their news organization – is biased, eroding public trust in both entities. Imagine a reporter participating in a Right to Life rally one day and covering the legislature’s debate over an abortion bill the next.

  • Those activities are likely to impede the reporter’s ability to do their job. Four years ago, journalists were beating themselves up for not doing enough to understand the concerns of people who eventually voted for Trump. Those voters would be unlikely to talk to a journalist whose Twitter feed is full of progressive talking points.

  • Those activities may cause the journalist to become part of the story. The focus should never be on the reporter but rather on the people and issues being covered. The minute the reporter becomes a participant, or worse, a public focus, their perspective changes, as does the public perception of their work. They are no longer serving the public; they’re serving themselves and/or their agenda. Whether that’s the perception or the reality doesn’t really matter – both have negative effects on the validity and usefulness of the reporting.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we decide reporters may speak out in support of “human rights,” who decides what falls under that heading? I was once a student of Soviet communism, and while many Soviet citizens saw no need for a right to free speech, they were appalled that Americans weren’t guaranteed jobs or health care or a place to live. To them, those were incontrovertible human rights. Many Americans feel the same way today. If we decide journalists may advocate for the principles and policies of the Black Lives Matter movement, may they also advocate for Medicare for All? If a reporter believes fetuses have a “human right” to be born, may they advocate for abortion restrictions? 

This is the problem. If we believe the line between what journalists may and may not speak about is in the wrong place, who gets to decide where the new line should be?

***

This brings us back to the difficult question raised earlier:

Does this moment in history call for the institution of journalism to pick a side and stand up for what seems so clearly to be right? 

If the answer is yes, who defines what is “right”? 

If we throw out objectivity, we must answer that question, not just for the issue of the day but for any subsequent issue. Because once journalists disavow objectivity, I fear they will find it hard to reclaim. 

This line of reasoning calls into question the very purpose of journalism. 

“I don’t think it’s up to me to say what’s right or wrong,” one journalist wrote in a recent online discussion.

I agree. I don’t believe journalists are the arbiters of morality, nor should they be the ones to define right and wrong. That infinitely complex human dilemma is the realm of theologians and philosophers – and the most honest of those would admit even they don’t have all the answers.

At our best, however, journalists are arbiters of truth and understanding. To live up to that purpose, we must reflect society in all its beauty and all its ugliness. We ignore the ugliness at the expense of accuracy and at the expense of understanding. 

I suppose that’s why I can’t bring myself to abandon objectivity – at least not yet. 

***

Friends and colleagues have been publicly speaking, writing, and posting insightful thoughts about this for weeks. I have stayed silent, listening, reading, thinking, worrying, and trying to find my voice – trying to decide whether I even have a voice in this discourse as a middle-aged white woman. I know there are people out there who can’t wait to tear my words apart. But I hope anyone who has read this far will take this collection of thoughts as the honest exploration it has been and continues to be. I remain open to new ideas, and I do believe ethics – like morality – are constantly evolving. 

Finally, I hope in my career that I have reported and edited dispassionately and fairly. But I am a passionate person. Had I chosen a different path, I might have poured my passion and energy into a political or social cause, or maybe I would have become a philosopher and somehow divined the ultimate definitions of right and wrong. Instead, I have attempted to create and advocate for good, solid, factual, ethical, useful, meaningful journalism that has hopefully advanced understanding if only a tiny bit. That has been my cause. 

If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

4 thoughts on “If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

  1. Judith — this is a great spin-down on the debate over objectivity. I think most journalists would agree with most of what you conclude — I do — although I steer clear of the term, “objectivity,” because it is used indiscriminately and that blurs the debate. For example, I don’t believe in “objective journalists,” because I agree with those who argue we are subjective beings in a subjective endeavor. I do, however, believe in “objective methods,” because these are procedures (like we use in science) to bypass or account for our subjective beliefs in order to deliver verified facts and information in a selected context. While Journalism, of course, may borrow from the scientific method, it also enjoys the art of storytelling, wordplay, viewpoint, etc. — deviating from the scientific method — and so we create messy overlaps between fact-based reporting and other “content.” And let’s not forget journalism as a business; it is evaluated on additional merits (which is why we love public media!). So, you are helping me sort my own thoughts on this… and I look forward to sharing your analysis with my j-school students. All that said, I’m open to the idea that our ethics need to allow for more questioning of our traditional standards… and we should examine what we mean by objective methods, too… but I’m not about to concede the value I place on truth-telling and skepticism. It’s the role of conscience and moral judgment in journalism that you now have me thinking more deeply about.

    1. Judith Smelser says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Mike! I did think long and hard about whether to use “objective” or “impartial” in this discussion. To your point, I did take care refer to “objective reporting” – because I agree no one can claim to be an objective human being … nor would we really want that! Thanks again.

  2. @Judith — I think you (and all your readers) would appreciate the presentation from Tom Rosenstiel to the International Society of Journalists conference last week. He doesn’t like the word objectivity, but recalls the history behind it (hint: to reform a wayward press back in the day). I love this idea that “view from nowhere” was not coined by NYU’s Rosen but came earlier from a philosopher who argued that journalists start with a subjective view — because that’s only appropriate — then WIDEN their view to get more perspective, creating a more objective view of what’s real. It’s a very valuable session and his back and forth with UT Journalism chair Kathleen McElroy goes far in addressing the white privilege arguments that arise with this tradition. Link: https://isoj.org/tom-rosenstiel-if-we-think-that-our-opinion-has-more-moral-integrity-than-genuine-inquiry-then-i-fear-we-will-be-lost/

    1. Judith Smelser says:

      Thanks, Mike, I look forward to watching it. As I’ve continued to think and read about this issue, I’ve started to think we may indeed need to abandon the word objectivity, partly because the word itself has become so fraught, and also because I’m realizing the understanding of the principle (whatever one chooses to call it) is far from universal. In some cases the principle – at least as I understand it – has been and continues to be misinterpreted.

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