Every few years, an old debate re-emerges in journalism: Is objectivity a good thing?
The debate goes something like this: Objectivity opponents argue that journalism at its best should be about the pursuit of truth. Traditional he said-she said reporting, which requires that journos document both sides of every argument and refrain from making their own judgments, may be objective but does nothing to reveal the truth, they say.
Journalist Wesley Lowery recently summed up this view in a tweet:
American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) June 4, 2020
The old guard of objective news gathering, on the other hand, say the truth can be an elusive thing, and that it can be dangerous for journalists to decide they know what the truth is without getting both sides – indeed, all sides – of the story.
The debate periodically resurfaces when reporters grapple with how to cover challenging new stories. Climate change is a good example. For years, many news outlets covering global warming have made a point of not only interviewing scientists who believed that climate change is real and caused by human activity, but also, in the interests of objectivity, quoting climate change skeptics.
This triggered an outcry when it became clear that the vast majority of experts firmly believed in climate change, and that only a very small minority did not. So some news outlets abandoned the “get-both-sides” approach to this topic, though studies indicate climate change deniers still receive a disproportionate amount of coverage.
Donald Trump’s presidency has presented reporters with another challenge. Trump, in a way that is unprecedented in modern times, lies and fabricates. Over and over again, he has shown little if any regard for the truth.
Still, early in Trump’s presidency, journos were torn: Should they call Trump’s lies lies? Mistruths? Errors? As time went on, and it became clear for all to see that Trump didn’t care if he was truthful or not, more news outlets started calling his false utterances what they were.
Examples like these would seem to support the argument against objectivity. After all, getting both sides of the argument obstructed journalists, for a time at least, from telling the truth – climate change is real, and the president lies. It’s this failure to act quickly when new situations arise that frustrates those who say objectivity, at its worst, is a crutch.
Journalist Alex Jones probably put it best when he defined journalistic objectivity “as a genuine effort to be an honest broker when it comes to news. That means playing it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute, regardless of your own views and preferences.”
But he added, “Objectivity also means not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear. He-said/she-said reporting, which just pits one voice against another, has become the discredited face of objectivity. But that is not authentic objectivity.”
Journalistic objectivity was originally modeled on the process of scientific discovery, in which theories are declared facts only after painstaking experimentation.
Of course, journalism and science are two very different pursuits. Journalists face daily deadlines in producing the first draft of history, while scientists toil for years to prove or disprove a single theorem.
If journalists never made mistakes, this rush to jettison objectivity and have reporters simply call things as they see them would be justified.
But journalists can and do make mistakes, most often when a reporter staring down a deadline starts to make assumptions.
Should journalists report the truth? When the truth is clear to see, when it’s been checked and verified, absolutely (the old joke in newsrooms is, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.) Jones’ phrase about “the weight of truth” is key here.
Sometimes, though, stories are complicated and full of gray areas, and clear, self-evident truths are hard to find. Those are the times when objectivity can be a tool, not a crutch.
The lesson for journalism students? State the truth unambiguously when you can. When you can’t, when the facts are in dispute, do thorough reporting and be fair to all sides.