Objectivity isn’t a magic wand

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The protests over the death of George Floyd and the way they have been covered (or not covered) by newsrooms around the country has widened existing stress fractures in journalism around the topic of race. One of the things that is being called into question is the concept of objectivity. Wesley Lowery, a reporter with 60 Minutes, put some of this into words with a recent essay in the New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.” Whatever the ideals behind objectivity might be, Lowery wrote, in practice it translates into an industry in which “the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” And it’s important to note that this not only leaves Black journalists—and other journalists of color—on the outside looking in, but also makes for worse journalism, if by journalism we mean representing the truth about the world as accurately as possible.

What qualifies as objective journalism, Lowery says, “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making: which stories to cover, how intensely to cover those stories, which sources to seek out and include, which pieces of information are highlighted and which are downplayed.” The piece sparked a conversation on Twitter, including a response from Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran journalist and executive director of the American Press Institute, and the co-author of a classic journalism textbook called The Elements of Journalism (a book that Lowery cites approvingly in his essay). In a multi-tweet thread, Rosenstiel tried to clarify what he said were some of the historic aspects of how objectivity became an industry standard principle. The practice began as a way of injecting more scientific rigor into the practice of journalism, he says, but instead it has turned into a devotion to false balance and other elements of what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere.”

Rosenstiel is quite right that objectivity started as an attempt to make journalism more rigorous by applying the scientific method, a structure and process designed to arrive at an objective truth. But the industry probably shouldn’t congratulate itself too much on the purity of the intentions behind this change: it wasn’t just that journalists or publishers suddenly decided that objectivity would be a good thing. It was also seen as a way to make journalism more palatable to advertisers, as the consumer-focused ad industry was becoming more national in scope. Over the next 50 years or so, objectivity came to be seen as a bedrock principle of journalism, to the point where some newspaper journalists— and journalism teachers—still argue that dismantling it will kill journalism. But as Lowery points out, what qualifies as objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye is still predominantly male and white.

While the scientific method may be designed to be impartial, as Rosenstiel suggests, it has also been used throughout history to justify some of the most horrific injustices. Scientific studies from prestigious researchers and influential institutions have been used to “prove” that women are inferior to men, or that Blacks and other people of color are less intelligent, or that the mentally handicapped should be euthanized. It’s not as though the scientific method is a magic wand that bestows omniscience. More recently, algorithms have been pitched as the solution to a number of social problems, including crime and online abuse—and yet, algorithms can be just as biased as human beings can, which isn’t surprising, since they are designed by human beings. Even conscientious programmers often wind up codifying their own biases and prejudices into the software they write.

Rosenstiel also took issue with the suggestion that objectivity could or should be replaced by a sense of what Lowery called “moral clarity.” If journalists take refuge in subjectivity, Rosenstiel said, they will wind up thinking that “their opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry [and] journalism will be lost.” But Lowery argues that getting rid of the concept of objectivity doesn’t mean a return to the partisan press that preceded it, or a descent into a swamp of subjectivity and opinion. Instead, he suggests that a better approach would be for journalists to pledge that we will “devote ourselves to accuracy, that we will diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree, and that we will be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.”

Note: We will be discussing this topic next week in a series of interviews on CJR’s Galley platform. If you can think of anyone who should be part of this discussion—especially journalists, academics or researchers of color, or those from outside the traditional media industry—please let us know.

Here’s more on objectivity and journalism:

  • A defense: In a chapter from his book “Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy,” Alex S. Jones—director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard—writes that the crisis in news “is not one of press bias, though that is how most people seem to view it.” Rather, he says, “it is a crisis of diminishing quantity and quality, of morale and sense of mission, of values and leadership.” Jones argues that “authentic journalistic objectivity” serves a crucial role in the tradition of American journalism, and that journalists should not abandon it so quickly.
  • A bludgeon: In a piece in the New Republic, Will Meyer writes about the case of Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired from the popular public radio show Marketplace after writing a blog post questioning journalistic objectivity, in which Wallace said he couldn’t be impartial about attacks on trans individuals like himself. In a follow-up post describing the firing, Wallace noted that the ethics code he was accused of having violated didn’t contain the words “objectivity” or “neutrality.” Meyer says that Wallace’s book, “The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity” argues that the ideal of neutrality has been used both by the center to marginalize radical voices and by the right as a bludgeon to quiet critics.
  • An illusion: Teen Vogue talked to nine journalists in their 20s and 30s about why they believe neutrality is an illusion, and how taking stances have made them stronger reporters. Kamrin Baker, editor in chief of The Gateway, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s student newspaper, said: “The truth is not neutral. In this political climate, the truth is that people are being oppressed, harmed, and lied to by government leaders.” And Jack Mirkinson, former deputy editor of Splinter, said: “The only available conclusion to be reached is that striving for a mythical level of neutrality is self-defeating. It’s also a form of inherently conservative journalism that can wind up masking the truth in its efforts to achieve objectivity.”
  • Dangerous: Rob Wijnberg, one of the co-founders of the crowdfunded Dutch journalism startup De Correspondent, wrote in 2017 about “Why objective journalism is a misleading and dangerous illusion.” The concept, he argued, “ may be the most poorly understood, tenacious, dangerous illusion journalism has ever believed in. Misunderstood, because it’s confused with independence and impartiality. Tenacious, because it seems easy and it’s cheap. Dangerous, because it’s the biggest lie you can tell the public. And an illusion, because it doesn’t exist.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Wall Street Journal has an inside look at the bizarre harassment campaign waged by six executives of eBay—including the head of the company’s online security team—against a husband and wife who wrote a blog that was critical of the company. The couple received threatening emails and tweets, and then a series of packages including a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig’s head mask. Neighbors were sent pornographic videos addressed to the couple. Six former members of the company’s security team have been charged with cyberstalking.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, writes about how the network’s coverage tends to fall into an ideological back-and-forth between Democrat and Republican viewpoints, but the Trump administration challenges this dynamic. “I’d argue that the Republicans’ gloves came all the way off during Bush v. Gore, a case in which, in an alleged democracy, one party went to court to ensure that citizens’ votes would not be counted. But one rarely hears this mentioned a scant twenty years later,” she writes. “Until we take full account of all that led up to the Trump Administration, we’ll just be watching a never-ending charade, where facts don’t matter and government and media alike are reduced to a theater of the absurd.”
  • A senior Facebook executive told almost 200 advertisers on a conference call that the company is suffering from a “trust deficit,” according to leaked audio of the call that was obtained by the Financial Times. The social network has been hit by a number of large defections from its advertising platform, including The North Face, Patagonia, and the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company. Despite the boycotts, senior policy executives defended Facebook’s decision to allow several controversial posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on its platform, according to the leaked recording.
  • Twitter has permanently suspended the account of a journalistic organization called Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoS, after the group shared links to a huge collection of documents from more than 200 police departments and training centers, the result of a hack by the group Anonymous. A Twitter spokesman told ZDNet that linking to hacked material is against the company’s terms of service, and that the cache—known as BlueLeaks—also contained information that could have put individuals at risk. The leader of DDoS, Emma Best, told Wired magazine that her group tried to remove any identifying information from the cache before the links were posted.
  • Today at Global Fact 7, a worldwide gathering of fact-checking organizations, a technology nonprofit called Meedan released a five-month-long case study that looked at more than 5,700 fact-checks across five countries—India, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria—and four languages. The study, which was supported financially by WhatsApp and Facebook, looked at the performance of fact-checking efforts involving a number of partners including Agence France-Presse, Africa Check, BOOM and India Today. Among the report’s conclusions: that bots are one of the best ways for fact-checkers to engage with audiences on social platforms.
  • All five members of the executive committee of the group Investigative Reporters and Editors have said they will resign after the selection process resulted in an all-white executive committee. A statement from the committee members says that while the board of directors of the group “is one of the most diverse boards in its 45-year history,” with three Black members and a majority of women, the committee was “heartbroken and frustrated” by a process that led to the election of only white members. The group said it will hold an emergency meeting as soon as possible, at which all five members will resign and a new selection process will be held.
  • A judge has ruled that Rep. Devin Nunes has no right to sue Twitter over statements made by accounts pretending to be his mother, a fake cow, and a Republican strategist. The judge said Twitter was “immune from the defamation claims” due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says social media companies can’t be held liable for what people post on their platforms. Nunes “seeks to have the court treat Twitter as the publisher or speaker of the content provided by others based on its allowing or not allowing certain content to be on its internet platform,” Marshall wrote. “The court refuses to do so.”
  • ViacomCBS has changed its mind on when to air its TV adaptation of “A Higher Loyalty,” the book by former FBI director James Comey. The network said earlier this week that the show would be on after the federal election, but according to the New York Times it has decided to air the program in September. Director Billy Ray had criticized the original air date in an email to cast members, saying the two-part program called “The Comey Rule” was intended to be broadcast before the election. Actor Jeff Daniels plays Comey, and Brendan Gleeson — best known for his role as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies — plays Donald Trump
  • Vice Media is calling on the advertising industry to review its rules on “brand safe” keywords, after the company recently found that the list of blocked terms includes “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd,” “protest” and—in one case—“Black people,” according to Variety. In a recent internal analysis, Vice said it discovered that content related to the death of George Floyd and resulting protests was monetized at a rate 57% lower than other news content. That, according to the company’s head of advertising, is a result of brands and agencies specifically blocking their ads from appearing next to news stories about these issues.

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