The notion that reporters should be objective is taking a beating these days, and the assault couldn’t come at a worse time for the public. With the proliferation of devil-may-care bloggers and the factsbe- damned TV cable shout fests, the culture of our profession is trending toward a journalistic Woodstock, where everything except disciplined reporting is considered cool.
In the Winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports, Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism and a highly respected professional, denounced objectivity as “worse than useless,” even harmful. She called for “a forthright jettisoning of the objectivity credo.” Objectivity, she wrote, has become “an extremely effective cudgel” against the press for anyone who disagrees with its stories. “The anticipation of these bludgeonings,” she said, “has produced a yet more craven media.”
Wow! What a pathetic lot these journalists are. There’s only one thing left to do. The editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other leaders of mainstream media should wave the white flag and announce, “Henceforth, we are not going to be objective.” That ought to satisfy the critics.
It wouldn’t, of course. It would only excite the current media-bashing frenzy. And the public would still be the losers.
The State of Objectivity
So much of news these days is all about throwing anything and everything out there—half-truths, distortions, opinion news, and the “tell-it-like-it-is” rantings of the contentious bullies who run the talk shows. More and more, reporters who still view objectivity as our guide and goal stand out like someone wearing a suit at a Metallica concert. Some journalism schools and textbooks don’t mention objectivity any longer, except as a topic in an editorial problems seminar. In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists, without fanfare, dropped the term from its code of ethics.
The fact that some reporters permit superficial he-said/she-said reporting to define objectivity spawns much of today’s criticism. In 2003, Brent Cunningham, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in anarticle, “Re-thinking Objectivity,” that “our devotion to what we call objectivity” played a role in our failure to cover some of the Bush administration’s shortcomings. While he didn’t suggest tossing it, Cunningham acknowledged that journalists let “the principle of objectivity make us passive recipients of the news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.” Other critics subscribe to Overholser’s belief that objectivity “often produces a report bound in rigid orthodoxy, a deplorably narrow product of conventional thinking,” in which officialdom is given too much legitimacy and the voices of others given too little.
Objectivity has been on the ropes before. From the 1920’s through the press’s cowardly response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery in the 1950’s and into the Vietnam era, events and critics raised questions about objectivity. Yet the standard persisted. In 1978, Michael Schudson, author of “Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers,” marveled at its hold on journalism. Noting its problems as a journalistic standard, Schudson asked, “Why … should objectivity still be a serious issue? Why hasn’t it been given up altogether?”
So what is this shackle that roils our profession decade after decade and now seems to have reporters cowering in fear and passivity?
Objectivity is a standard that requires journalists to try to put aside emotions and prejudices, including those implanted by the spinners and manipulators who meet them at every turn, as they gather and present the facts. They recognize objectivity as an ideal, the pursuit of which never ends and never totally succeeds. Walter Lippmann, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and the intellectual guru of journalistic objectivity in the 1920’s, viewed it as a discipline inculcating scientific principles that can guide one to “victories over superstitions of the mind.”
Lippmann would say Cunningham and Overholser are right about the failings of the press, but wrong to blame objectivity. Objectivity, as Lippmann wanted it practiced, does not exclude “aggressive analyzers and explainers.” Nor does it ban investigative journalism or interpretative reporting, as Overholser argues. Curtis D. MacDougall, the father of interpretative reporting and renowned textbook writer, made that point in every edition of “Interpretative Reporting,” starting with the first in 1938. In the fifth edition (1968), MacDougall invoked the “scientific method”—the essence of the search for objective fact—in teaching interpretative reporting. And in his seventh edition (1977), he wrote, “As is true of no other profession, his [a reporter’s] entire training is devoted to overcoming or sidestepping his prejudices. He is encouraged to be as open minded and objective as it is humanly possible to be and to be aware of any emotional obstacles that he may have to overcome.”
In investigative reporting, as in no other genre, is the effort to devise strategies and methods to deal with personal biases and external manipulation more crucial. The variety of strategies is infinite, depending on the demands of each inquiry and the creativity of the journalists. For example, they devise interview techniques to gain information, to help “unspin the spin,” and to determine whether sources know what they are talking about. They identify tangible criteria and evidence, such as documents, written policies or guidelines, the law, statistics or codes of ethics against which to measure or gauge the actions or practices they are investigating. They seek viewpoints and information from diverse sources. And they devote much reporting time to vetting and testing their findings.
The ultimate purpose of this method is to help the journalist see the facts as accurately as human frailty allows.
Some journalists and news organizations are more conscientious in the pursuit of objectivity. At times, even good journalists get off track, but not because objectivity failed as a standard. Consider the following:
- When The New York Times proffered alleged facts about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction from unnamed sources with a stake in a U.S. invasion, it was not the standard of objectivity that failed. But the pursuit of it certainly did.
- When CBS journalists aired bogus documents from “unimpeachable sources,” they let something—perhaps the scent of a hot story, their preconceived notions or fear of getting beat—blur their view of the evidence that would have helped them to determine whether the alleged documents were genuine and the source unimpeachable.
- When political reporters allowed the presidential candidates to get away with lies and distortions, the culprit was not objectivity but the failure to challenge and verify, which are imperative in its pursuit.
Those of us who value objectivity as an essential standard of journalism approach its use by first recognizing our humanness—our subjectivity. Precisely because we understand our frailties, we insist upon maintaining the pursuit of objectivity. “As our minds become more deeply aware of their own subjectivism,” Lippmann wrote in 1922, “we find a zest in objective method that is not otherwise there.”
The pursuit of objectivity is what separates us from our audience and from pseudojournalists. Rather than cower to those who would use objectivity as a cudgel against us, we should reclaim it, use it, and reveal how we pursue it. More importantly for the future, we should teach it.
Stephen J. Berry teaches investigative journalism at the University of Iowa. He was a newspaper journalist for more than 33 years, having worked most recently for the Los Angeles Times. He and a colleague won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for the Orlando Sentinel.