Poynter conducted a study of 167 journalists and published the results on September 1st. The results are fascinating, and worth analyzing, as they seem to document a change in the way our industry views objectivity, but the biggest takeaway was the responses to a question about mission. Poynter reports that the statement with the broadest support: was this one: “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”
That statement may seem unsurprising, even cliché. But a shared acknowledgment that truth is the highest purpose of our work and our labor, even among those who disagree about how to achieve it, should form the basis upon which all discussions about objectivity proceed.
The current debate over objectivity has been a long time coming. Remember that news sources in this country were intensely biased up until the 20th century. Journalists didn’t just have opinions, they expressed them frequently, advocated for political candidates, and manipulated coverage in order to favor whatever side the newspaper’s owner was on. Matthew Pressman explains in his book, On Press; The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, that it wasn’t until the 1920s that reporters and editors began to experiment with neutrality.
Pressman noted that “overt partisanship in the news pages would alienate large parts of the target audience,” so struggling papers decided that presenting the news in an objective way might broaden their audiences. One could argue that the strategy worked, but the idea of reporting facts in a neutral way eventually morphed into employing only reporters who appear to be neutral on political issues.
The American Press Institute created a guide to the basics of journalism that says the initial intent was not to deny bias, but to work around it. In other words, the word “objective” was never meant to describe the journalist, but the process. The guide states, “Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work….The method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.”
That may have been the intent but, in practice, “objectivity” became a value judgment, an amorphous judgment that news directors would make, declaring this reporter as objective and this one as biased.
When I first started in this industry, I remember questioning why I was not allowed to volunteer with a non-partisan organization whose goal was to register voters, regardless of party affiliation. “It’s not really about being objective,” I was told, “but the appearance of objectivity.” The organization may be non-partisan, in other words, but our listeners would assume it had a liberal bent and perception is, after all, reality.
Regardless of how you may feel about the pursuit of objectivity and the original intent, it has been used for decades as a method for silencing the voices of women and people of color. As Mary Retta wrote in June of 2020: “Our current standard of journalistic objectivity is so entrenched in the values of white supremacy that any reporting that falls outside that lens is automatically considered biased.”
After years of debate and protest from journalists of color, many newsroom leaders are beginning to come around on the issue. Perhaps we are reaching the point that David Weinberger wrote about, when “transparency is the new objectivity.”
But as policies and practices surrounding objectivity evolve, it’s crucial to remember the results of the Poynter study: regardless of their opinions on objectivity, nearly all journalists surveyed believe that their most important duty is to tell the truth.
When you engage in discussion about this issue with your staff or co-workers, never forget that we all have this in common: an obligation to tell the truth. You may not agree with someone’s opinions on objectivity, you may believe they’re misguided, but they probably believe their method serves the truth. Just as you do.
Having a discussion about this issue is healthy and encouraged, but one way to avoid the kind of recriminations that are common when objectivity is questioned, is to constantly remind yourself that truth is the common ground. If they are arguing passionately to remove “objectivity” from a mission statement, it’s probably because that word has prevented them from telling the truth in the past. If truth is our mission, we must remove the obstacles that prevent us from discovering it and relaying it to our audiences. Objectivity is one of those obstacles. Let’s remove it.
From our open letter:
For too long, public radio has pursued objectivity as a value, and sought to present news in an unbiased, neutral way. Objectivity, however, doesn’t exist.
Every person brings their own experience and perspective into the newsroom, which informs the work they do. The opinions of reporters, editors, and producers in the industry shape what stories are published, and how they sound and are told. The pursuit of objectivity denies this reality. And leads to the silencing of journalists whose subjective reality — being Black, or trans, or working class, for example — leads to them being labeled as incapable of being objective.
There is the lack of trust toward the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people whose stories we are supposed to cover as a reflection of the world we live in. Then there is the mistrust of the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized journalists who try to report on those stories. Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our white colleagues. Canadian journalist Pacinthe Mattar
Randy Moore, editor of The American Biology Teacher, 1999
“The sanction of scientific objectivity was a convenient cloak to select evidence to reach the a priori conclusions that the scientists (and others) wanted to hear. Even Louis Agassiz, the leading biologist of the mid-19th century, believed that God created blacks and whites as separate species.”
Mary Retta, Bitch Media, June of 2020
“Our current standard of journalistic objectivity is so entrenched in the values of white supremacy that any reporting that falls outside that lens is automatically considered biased.”
Accuracy, in this case, precluded reporting that Floyd was “murdered” by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin before a formal charge was brought against the officer. What this meant was that mainstream news outlets across the country deployed bizarre syntax and every euphemism imaginable to avoid assigning culpability to Chauvin for a crime that we all saw on video. Instead of writing “the officer who murdered George Floyd,” for example, the Associated Press referred to Chauvin as the “Minneapolis cop who knelt on a man’s neck,” a statement that is factually true but devoid of any subjective notions of racism or police brutality.
In 1919, prolific journalist Walter Lippman shifted the notion of good journalism once more by declaring that reporters should aspire for “the scientific spirit” and base their reporting more on statistics and facts, which more closely resembles the model of reporting that we see today. However, many contemporary outlets such as the Columbia Journalism Review have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of objectivity, illustrating how the definition is continuing to change. The modern prioritizing of objectivity has, in fact, historically been an ineffective way of documenting the news. In his recent book Berlin: 1933, French journalist Daniel Schneidermann examines how different news outlets outside of Germany portrayed the growing Nazi movement and persecution against Jewish people. At the time, he writes, reporting from mainstream outlets such as the New York Times was fragmentary, dry, and often buried on the paper’s interior pages.
This contrasted with the reporting of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish-run newspaper that used more subjective language in reporting on the Holocaust and published well-rounded profiles on victims of antisemitism; Schneidermann notes that many mainstream outlets at the time dismissed the paper as insufficiently neutral. “We can’t accuse the New York Times of having avoided the raw facts,” Schneidermann writes. “Except that the raw facts don’t suffice. In order for a piece of news to touch consciences and hearts, there must be emotion running through it.” Though a direct comparison between the Holocaust and today’s political moment is woefully inadequate, Schneidermann’s point on the inutility of so-called objective journalism in portraying injustices rings true today. This perhaps helps to explain why the Times saw its greatest number of canceled subscriptions in the 24 hours after Cotton’s op-ed went live, and why many are turning to Twitter as a source of news about protests instead of relying on mainstream media.