American journalism has long embraced an impossible standard—objectivity.
Beyond being unachievable, it’s undesirable because it rejects biases that are necessary if news is to be useful in a democracy—biases for the commongood, for brevity, for making what’s important interesting. Objectivity has also hobbled journalism, substituting accuracy—often the transcription of official quotes—for the more difficult goal of truth. If that weren’t enough, neither journalists nor the public can agree on what it means. The resulting confusion sows mistrust.
When journalists are losing their jobs by the thousands and major newspapers are closing, it may seem that a discussion of objectivity has the urgency of deck chair arrangements on the Titanic. But when better to rethink the core principle of so essential a democratic institution as journalism than during a technological revolution that is ushering in new providers to fill the vacuum left by the departing professionals? Our new “journalists” range from concerned citizens, covert advertisers and press agents, Jon Stewart and Matt Drudge, to swarms of Flickring shutterbugs, Twittering texters, and YouTube vloggers.
As a standard to separate news from nonsense and a guide to ethical reporting, objectivity is about as reliable as judging character by the firmness of a handshake. So I propose we junk objectivity in favor of a more accurate, honest and demanding standard—empiricism—the scientific method of inquiry based on careful observation from multiple perspectives and logic that Walter Lippmann proposed for journalism nearly a century ago.
Although the best news organizations are already moving in this direction, replacing objectivity with empiricism would represent a paradigm shift, not just a change of terminology. It would re-pour the foundation of reporting and redefine the relationship between news providers (whoever they might be) and the newly empowered group formerly known as the audience. Here’s why:
- Empiricism doesn’t pretend that news reflects reality. It recognizes that news represents a small part of it with carefully selected words, sounds and images. It’s a partial version of what’s real.
- Rather than assuming that news organizations and journalists render the world as it is—without any biases of their own—empiricism acknowledges bias as inescapable and attempts to limit partisanship through diversity, both of staff and quoted sources. The social “fault lines” that the late Robert C. Maynard identified—race, class, gender, geography and generation—are taken seriously. So is the inherent conflict between public service and the news provider’s self-interest in inexpensively attracting an audience and servicing its sponsors.
- As with science or law, empirical journalism is a self-reflective method of seeking truth. But because journalists do not enjoy extended periods of observation, laboratories or subpoena power, their reports are even more provisional and subject to revision. Admitting this uncertainty, empirical journalism requires transparency—a willingness to disclose how its version of what happened was gathered. Likewise, it must invite other credible versions. Objectivity is a lecture. Empiricism is a conversation.
My indictment of objectivity rests on four counts, none original.
The most fundamental is that humans can’t achieve it. By definition an objective view of something would be unaffected by the viewer. It would record the occurrences in a locality like a giant video camera—a magic camera that shows everything going on above and below the narrow spectrum of radiant energy visible to human eyes. In a truly objective account of a day’s events, the story of each grass blade’s growth—or its being cut down in the prime of life by a lawn mower—would be as important as the launch of a war. To elevate one over the other is to apply a value system. It is not objective, not value free. Objective reporting would describe everything in the enhanced viewfinder of the giant camera. No one would want to consume truly objective news. Way too much trouble!
This undesirability leads to my second count: Objectivity tosses out three useful biases along with all the destructive ones.
- We want journalists to sift through the innumerable occurrences of the day and select those with the greatest impact on us. They should be guided by a bias for the common good of the community served, a pro-public slant.
- People are busy. We want news to be brief, even though that requires a set of value judgments about what matters most.
- We want journalists to use all of their talents with cameras, graphics and storytelling to render the consequential compelling. If news is to appeal to a mass audience, as it must in a democracy of any scale, journalists serve us best when they exercise a preference, a bias, for engaging detail and drama. We’re more likely to read and remember stories that touch both heart and head.
My next concern rests with how objectivity as often practiced has impeded the pursuit of truth, which throughout history has been journalism’s primary mission. Objective news providers typically act as if their observation from a single place and time, or that of an official source, provides an adequate representation of reality. As NBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield observed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, reporters embedded with U.S. soldiers “certainly did show the American side of things because that’s where we were shooting from. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war.”
Such “objective” accounts require fewer perspectives, so stories are shorter, simpler and cheaper to report. There’s also less friction with authorities when journalists surrender to them the power to say what’s real. When the official view is portrayed as an objective view, it gives voice mainly to the powerful. Civilian casualties are merely “collateral damage.” In domestic reporting, the poor and minorities often become invisible, unless they break the law. And then their depiction contributes to a divisive stereotype.
Objectivity has encouraged passivity and invited official manipulation. Reporters who pursue the public’s tough questions as opposed to merely covering what government and corporate leaders say or do are sometimes accused of “having their own agenda,” “making news” rather than “covering” it.
Objectivity, a least as some construe it, can result in journalists falling back on a “he said, she said” approach to reporting. Likewise, it can push them towards a false balance—equal time or space—when two or more sides do not have equal evidence for their positions. That has commercial value: To present one side as having the stronger claim can spark controversy from powerful constituents, possibly advertisers, and alienate both sources and audience. But demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy and powerful industries like tobacco have taken advantage of such objectivity norms at great expense to society.
My last objection was captured ably by Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Ask 10 journalists what objectivity means, and you’ll get 10 different answers.” And if you think journalists are confused, consider the public. According to surveys conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Americans now see bias almost everywhere in the news. The confusion erodes public trust and breeds cynicism.
Empiricism would make journalism more “multiperspectival,” to borrow a phrase from sociologist Herbert Gans, thus more effortful. As it became more independent and skeptical of powerful sources, it would risk their wrath, even denial of access. Accuracy would become more necessary, but less sufficient, particularly when journalists asserted facts from their own investigations rather than relying on officials. Rather than pretending that they cover “all the news that’s fit to print,” providers would have to acknowledge their limitations of staff and space or time and invite the public as a partner in what would be a more empowering and democratic form of journalism.
Now is the time. As news moves to the Web, it can more easily accommodate give and take with the community it serves. There’s room for diverse perspectives. Updates and revisions are easy to accomplish. And news is easier than ever to share.
John H. McManus, a former journalist and academic, founded GradeTheNews.org. His recent self-published book, “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web,” is available at www.detectingbull.com.