Objectivity: Journalism’s False Idol

Ah, objectivity. The much-debated, often maligned, supposed holy grail of journalism. Are reporters objective?

My answer: No.

My other answer: Who cares?

What does objectivity mean, anyway? Merriam-Webster’s definition is rather long, but I’d guess this one is most relevant for journalists:

3 a : expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

That sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. But, as Atlanta Progressive News notes, “most people’s basic understanding of objectivity is: balancing the sides.” The problem with that, as the author goes on to imply, is that there are frequently many, many sides to the same story. Often, not all of those sides are equally valid.

Put another way, there are not two sides to every story. There are more than two sides to most stories. Some stories only have one valid side. Some stories have many sides, and none that stand out as more valid than the others. It is the job of a reporter to judge between all of them – and not, might I add, to automatically give them all equal weight.

My favorite case in this point was the Swift Boat debate during the 2004 election. Some readers may remember an orchestrated Republican initiative discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s war medals. The “Swift Boaters” claimed that Kerry won medals for heroic deeds that he had no part in. The only problems were that their sources were not with Kerry during the times in question, their organization was backed by someone with a known personal vendetta against Kerry, and their claims were plainly refuted by both documentation and people who were with Kerry on the swift boats. They were, simply, wrong. Yet they were put on television next to Kerry campaign staffers to debate their points as though both sides had equal merit.

Another example is the climate debate. Why is it necessary for the news media to give equal voice to climate change deniers when the overwhelming body of scientific evidence and nearly all of the world’s top climatologists agree that human activity is altering our climate? I’m not arguing that we should not give the dissenters a voice. Freedom of expression is freedom of expression and all sides have a right to be heard. But every single time a climate change denier appears on TV or is quoted in a news article, there should be some note of the fact that his/her position goes against the consensus of the scientific community (if it’s a TV interview, they should be asked directly about it). If the person quoted is working for an industry group, that must be explained.

If the evidence says that you’re right and I’m wrong, why should it look as though we have equal standing? If “objectivity” can be used – is used – in the service of disinformation, what use is it?

This leads to the other point in Atlanta Progressive News’ editorial: that all news organizations have biases that they cannot control, and so there is no point in even pretending to be unbiased. Leaving aside their contentions about the corporate bias of the news media – it’s something I take issue with, but it’s a whole other debate – this view is flawed. Reading a thousand different biased viewpoints does not necessarily get you any closer to the truth. Though journalism is not just a matter of objectivity or neutrality, it is more than mere opinion. Journalism is about getting as close as possible to the truth.

How can I say that objectivity, as it is currently understood, does not matter, but factuality and truth does? Let me repeat: Journalism is about getting as close as possible to the truth. Objectivity is largely beside the point.

–Vincent Valk


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