What is the role of a journalist in a post-objectivity world?

Consider the following: A [news organization] in California declares on its “about” page that it stands for these things:

  • A government that is transparent, accountable, just and efficient.
  • A well-informed and educated community.
  • Quality affordable housing.
  • World-class infrastructure that supports free enterprise and job creation.
  • A robust and inclusive arts and culture scene.
  • A clean environment.
  • Preparations for climate change in this Pacific Ocean port city.

Can you identify which of these are radical stands by the Voice of San Diego?

They all are.

Here’s why: Objectivity is an ethos built on the “shall nots” rather than the things that journalists might stand for. We shall not have insights independent of those we quote; we shall not take sides, even in things as fundamental as a better community; we shall not have feelings; we shall not be biased.

Objectivity says, in essence, that journalists are not human.

That sounds ridiculous. And yet, here’s the headline that went with the story on a journalism trade website in March: “Voice of San Diego’s ‘What We Stand For’ is a bold stance against ‘objectivity.’”

So how did we get to this place in journalism, and what do we do about it?

I’ll describe this evolution in three stages. They are arbitrary. History, like life, rarely fits so neatly.

The roots of objectivity go back to the mid-1800s. There were massive changes in the news industry. The advent of the telegraph allowed for rapid transmission of news, and it brought about The Associated Press, the first national news collective.  Faster, cheaper methods of printing were invented, giving rise to the penny press. Penny newspapers opened up a new audience of middle and lower classes. “The public” was no longer confined to the business and political elites.

In that sense, newspapers became more democratic. But above all, according to Stanford University professor Theodore Glasser, they became more efficient. It was more efficient to have the AP send essential facts suitable to all newspapers, not just one. It was more efficient to adopt a more telegraphic style of writing, which came to be known as the inverted pyramid, because printers could simply lop off the less important information that didn’t fit on a page.

So, we might consider this first stage in the 1800s as the economic imperative.

The turn of the century gave rise to a second stage: professionalism.  

Professionalism came into vogue in the first two decades of the 1900s. What once were jobs performed by artisans or craftsmen turned into professions. The world’s first school of journalism, at Missouri, began in 1908, for instance.

The third stage of objectivity could be identified not by a trend but by a person. Walter Lippmann’s writings became the cornerstone for the journalism we practice today. Despite decades of criticism, it has remained unbroken.

Lippmann said journalists needed “the scientific spirit.” “There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours,” he wrote. “It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.”

In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note that Lippmann was calling for an objective methodology, not an end in itself. Journalists were not expected to be objective. They weren’t even expected to be neutral. They were to account for their biases by seeking other views.

So, objectivity was and is a form. It was meant to be about how we do what we do. Over time, it has been warped to become an ethos of who we are.

Perhaps the most famous expression of this came from a famous Washington Post editor, Len Downie, who said that, in his zeal to become as objective as possible, he doesn’t even vote. (Downie influenced generations. “I don’t vote,” Chris Cillizza wrote last year in the Post’s “The Fix” column, “and never really have.”)  

No one ever asked Downie to give up the most fundamental right of Americans. And yet, here we are.

The conventions of objective reporting, as Glasser wrote, means quoting official sources with impeccable interviews; juxtaposing conflicting truth claims, and claiming both as facts. The conventions are used as a defensive measure. We’re not saying the earth is flat; we’re saying that HE SAID the world is flat.

I have been a working journalist for 32 years. I put on the yoke of objectivity at a young age, and soon after realized the shallowness of the ethos. I didn’t know what to do about it, because to reject objectivity was to reject everything I was taught, everything I believed.

I didn’t get into journalism to become the next great writer. I got into it to do a little world-shakin’, to borrow a phrase from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”

It’s hard, though, to find passion in objectivity.  

Isn’t there a better way? What does a post-objectivity world look like?  

Some ideas:

First, we don’t throw out core ideals associated with, but not beholden to, objectivity.

Specifically, the discipline of verification remains. The most important question in a journalist’s toolbox will always be this: “How do you know that?” — closely followed by “What do you mean by that?

Second, we recommit to what Kovach and Rosenstiel define as journalism’s first obligation: truth-telling.

I mean truth in a practical sense. I can see it, touch it, smell it, act on it, wrap my head around it.  My colleague John Schneller draws the distinction between the invisible and the visible symbols around us. If love is the invisible, then the old man who goes to bed with a photo of his late wife in his arms is the visible.

A practical truth doesn’t rely on he said/she said reporting. We can say that global warming exists, because the overwhelming evidence says it’s so. We don’t have to present fringe science as something other than what it is.

Third, we pay as much attention to sense-making as to fact-gathering. By that I mean journalists who go beyond translating and into context building. We don’t need more information; we need people who can help us make sense of the world.

For years, I’ve put it this way to my professional editors and my students: We need to write more stories that are less than 4 inches or more than 24 inches. Death lies in the middle, with bureaucratic language and episodic stories that provide little more than a few new facts. Give me those things in mini-reports with lots of facts per inch, or take the time to tell me a story that gives me more meaning per inch. And use all the devices available in the digital age.

Fourth, we allow point of view and emotion to re-enter our storytelling. The fake news industry owns emotion right now. It goes by another name: fear. Fear can overwhelm the sturdiest set of facts. I don’t mean we should fight fear with more fear. We can, however, pay more attention to telling great stories of the human condition.

Fifth, we must agree that we as journalists are dependent on certain things. That we’re for certain things. That we’re for a more healthy democracy, or at least the aspirations of democratic life. That we’re for giving voice to many ideas and opinions and concerns that make a community and not just giving voice to the experts or people in power. That we understand and accept competing good ideas can exist, that the world is more than two-value thinking, villains and heroes, victors and losers. 

We can own the problems and point toward possible solutions. We do so not in isolation but in concert with others. To do otherwise is hubris.

And that brings me to the final, most important response. The journalism beyond objectivity is a journalism of humility.

Humility allows us to ask the extra question. To say, essentially, tell me more. Tell me more why you don’t believe what I believe, on climate change or affordable housing or education. Allow me the opportunity to learn something from you.

And, just perhaps, you can learn something from me.


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