Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?
“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.
Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:
The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.
What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?
A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.
Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.
In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:
There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.
Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.