Thoughts on objectivity and journalism

Sometimes truths exist that do not fit our preconceived notions and moral understanding of the world. This is true of me. It is true of everyone.

As a journalist, I must look at everyone with skepticism. I must divorce myself from people’s circumstances, their personalities, their kindness toward me and discern whether they are telling the truth. Can I trust the information I am learning from this person?

Covering Mr. Trump as an abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate is more than just a shock to the journalistic system.
— Jim Rutenberg

I have been drawn to the field of journalism since I was fourteen. It appealed to me because it was about writing, it was about learning new things, it was about satisfying my innate and endless curiosity.

When it comes to journalism, the reporter is supposed to present the facts of a situation — be it the details of a scandal or a crime that occurred, or laying out exactly what a piece of legislation being pushed through Congress will mean for the citizens affected by it. Journalists are meant to divorce their ideology from the situation they are covering and only present factual details. This is impossible. It always has been. But now, we’re seeing this impossibility exposed in a different way.

I and my colleagues find ourselves in a position that none of my mentors or journalism professors had previously experienced in their careers: facts don’t seem to sway people anymore.

History of objectivity in journalism

American journalism was not founded on “objectivity.” In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When Adolph Ochs became the publisher of the New York Times in 1896, he decided that he wanted to change the appearance of journalism. In the late 1800’s, the Times’ two main competitors were William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Other New York based papers such as The Herald and The Sun decided to sensationalize their news in order to compete with the entertaining stories Pulitzer and Hearst were pumping out.

Ochs went in a different direction with the Times. In a “Business Announcement” of an August 1896 edition, the publisher wrote:

“It will be my earnest aim that THE NEW-YORK TIMES give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form… as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved… and… to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

“Regardless of party, sect or interests involved” meaning that there were in fact political parties, sects and interests involved in the daily operations and funding of the New York Times. Ochs was still tied to the Democrats for financial reasons. He borrowed a significant amount of money to buy the Times, particularly from major insurance companies, and he needed the support of Democratic donors and companies to keep the newspaper in business.

“Sect” was also involved in the certain ways the New York Times covered the news. In the early 1930’s, during Hitler’s rise, Ochs struggled with how to handle what the Times frequently referred to as “the German Situation.” As the son of German Jewish immigrants, he suffered personal anguish from the antisemitism the world witnessed during Hitler’s reign. He did not, however, instruct the Times to cover Hitler with the same urgency he felt. On January 31, 1933, in his regularly penned opinion pieces as the publisher, Ochs wrote:

“There is thus no warrant for immediate alarm. It may be that we shall see the ‘tamed Hitler’ of whom some Germans are hopefully speaking. Always we may look for some such transformation when a radical or demagogue fights his way into responsible office.”

Ochs also instructed the Times to cease from publishing any more letters regarding Hitler and Germany, which was a staunch deviation from the paper’s practices. Despite his editorial decisions, Ochs felt strongly about Hitler’s rise to power, telling his daughter when Hitler became German chancellor, “this will lead to a second world war.” Ochs spent most of his career being particularly careful not to comment on issues that were seen as “Jewish” out of fear it would ruin the Times’ reputation as an impartial newspaper.

As Ochs did with Hitler’s rise, it is still a common occurrence today for journalists to unintentionally overcompensate for their personal opinions in their reporting. Trying to avoid the appearance of bias can lead to overlooking the truth that time brings out, such as what we now know about Hitler’s intentions when he first rose to power.

Objectivity in the news

The news has been operating on the premise of objectivity that can be defined in the following way:

  • There are always two sides to an issue
  • These two sides function in more or less the same fashion and are using the same information to make their decisions
  • Both of these sides are equally valid, because they both sit upon solid foundations built upon factual accuracy

Much of these practices were a result of of the American system of politics, which has historically been comparative. America uses a two party system, which lends itself well for false-dichotomies and two-way comparisons. With the two major parties in power arguing back and forth about why they are right and the other is wrong, news can simply dictate and say the reader can decide who’s right from reading both sides.

Objectivity doesn’t exist, except in God, and she’s not going to tell.
— Ken Burns

During the presidential debates, there was a question of whether the moderators should “fact check” the candidates in real time. Those who said that it wasn’t a journalist’s place to push back against the candidates fell into the camp of having the journalist serve as stenographers — this is what the two candidates have said, I’ll let you figure out whether what they are saying is true (to you). This understanding of objectivity discourages reporters from actively analyzing information. It also discourages them from including information which may be valuable to the reader in making their final conclusions.

EJ Dionne says that journalists operate under a serious of contradictory dictates. We must be disengaged while simultaneously having an impact on today’s events. We must be fair-minded but still find a fresh angle to a story in order to capture an audience’s interest. We must use neutral language that does not sway favor to any side of a given story, even when no such language actually exists.

Objectivity as a social construction

A concept that goes overlooked when discussing objectivity in reporting is the invisible norms that have been established within western society. White, straight, cisgender men have always been considered neutral arbiters of information. White men have been established as “default” and everyone else is considered a “special interest group.” It doesn’t matter what the topic is or whether this trust is conscious, white male opinions tend to be valued more.

In america (sic), [the mythical] norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian [sic], and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society.
— Audre Lorde

In fact, much of American society’s problems would be solved if we decided as a whole to believe those on the fringes — women, people of color, disabled folks, low-income communities, etc. Instead, these groups must fight for their right to be heard using protest and other activist practices. This tends not to be true of white men.

White voices are magnified. They were magnified during this election cycle through an institutional system known as the electoral college. They were magnified in the media as the powerful and neglected force that pushed Trump to victory. The experiences of white people, specifically white men, tend to be considered objective reality when the fact is objectivity is simply a construction of what we cannot see unless we unlearn toxic social values.

White men frequently do not have life experiences that allow them to see the realities of institutional oppression. They must be told about the experiences of sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, etc. They must be told these things over and over again and sometimes that’s still not enough to convince them it is a regular occurrence for many Americans. Because they have been established as the mythical norm, as Audre Lorde called it, we have a tendency as a culture to consider them the individuals who can “objectively” see what’s really going on.

A person’s understanding of the world is a result of that individual’s unique perspective. If the only way a person can come to believe phenomena such as racism and sexism are actually happening within the world is to experience it, there’s not much a journalist can do to convince them otherwise. There is no trust there.

The effect of the digital revolution

Journalism is based upon the trust between the consumer of news and the reporter. If the viewer does not trust the source, then no one will take the source’s information into account. Fox News began to undermine this idea of trustworthy journalism, with calls of the biased liberal mainstream media while simultaneously insisting on its point of view was fair and balanced. The internet provided an effortless extension of the seed of mistrust that Fox News planted back in the mid-1990's.

With the internet, the source of this information stopped mattering. People who are accustomed to the old paradigm of the news — that is, the paradigm that existed before Fox News — trust that any information they are reading that fits into their already preconceived understanding of the world must be true. When someone can curate their news feed to only show them information that confirms their worldview, it’s easy to believe what they’re reading.

In addition to the lack of proper sourcing of articles, the internet has also sucked away the attention of the electorate. The news media is necessary in order to keep the electorate informed so voters are not making decisions based on false information. In order for this to happen, voters must want to be informed. When the actual news is dry and sometimes too nuanced to follow on a daily commute to work, the simplified and sensationalized articles on Facebook have a tendency to win a person’s attention. The best headlines, even when no article is attached to them, get shared the most.

Despite living in the constantly moving environment of today’s urban life that typically engulfs members of the press — myself included — we ironically overlook how valuable time is. The reality is attention is a finite resource. In the old paradigm, before the internet and cable networks, consumers had limited options for sources for news. There was the network news at 6, where the viewer would get 30 minutes of national/international news and 30 minutes of local news. There were a handful of national newspapers that delivered everywhere and, typically, a local paper. Now, there are infinite number of sources available online — many of which play telephone with outlets’ reporting or, even worse, flat-out make up information for clicks. Unless people go out of their way to make sure what they are reading is factual, they may not learn the truth.

There’s much more I can say about objectivity and journalism — and I’m going to continue to say it. This is a concept that I have been struggling with since I was in college and I foresee it will be more relevant than ever during a Trump presidency.

But it is not just journalists and other media professionals that must think about these concepts that do not have clear solutions — news consumers must consider them too. Non-journalists have to engage with the news with a skeptical and critical eye. It’s up to those consuming the news to use their money, voice and finite resource of attention to cast out fake news and demand better information.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Daniel R. Blume