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Q: Should journalists try to be more objective?

Credit: Michael Patrick Ramirez

A:

They can try–but they will fail. And that’s not something to bemoan. It’s something to recognize and build on because total objectivity is a myth. No one is entirely objective because we are all human beings seeing the world through our own prismWe’re shaped by our upbringing, religion, culture, and education—all of which influences our point of view. That’s why the Project Implicit Bias test is such a useful exercise. It reminds us that we all have personal biases, including many unconscious ones that impact how we live our lives, consume news and report stories. Being aware of them and periodically challenging those beliefs (key lesson #5 of the course!) helps us overcome that natural tendency to seek out information that affirms our preexisting views.

Journalists, of course, are no exception. They too must learn to recognize their own prejudices so that those biases don’t influence their work. And that’s not always easy. Reporters are constantly making judgment calls from the moment they decide which story to cover. They choose how to frame it, who to interview, what to include, how to write it. That is all subjective.

So while the goal of objectivity is a virtuous one, it’s unrealistic. Instead, journalists should strive to be fairaccurate, and complete.

Fair means being fair to the evidence. Sometimes a story will require balancewith both sides of an issue given equal time.  But other times, that would not be fair to the facts. The example we use in class is a story about climate change. It would not be fair to the preponderance of scientific evidence that the climate is changing to give climate change deniers the same weight in a story. A good rule of thumb is the more evidence you have, the less balance you need.

Accurate means verifying all the information in the story and being transparent about what you know, how you know it and what you don’t know. It also means remembering that journalistic truth is provisional. Like scientific truth, it changes over time as more evidence becomes available.

Complete means learning as much about the story through as wide an array of sources as possible so you can include a range of relevant and diverse points of view. 

“In the original concept… the method is objective, not the journalist.”

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

In our textbook, The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel talk about the “lost meaning of objectivity.” They remind us, “In the original concept… the method is objective, not the journalist.” They argue that the discipline of verification evolved to counterbalance a reporter’s natural biases, test those assumptions, and produce news that is closer to the truth. It was never meant to be a trait achievable by individuals. (You’ve seen personal proof of that.)

But if we can agree that objectivity once again refers to the craft of journalism and the act of consistently verifying information so that personal biases don’t undermine the accuracy of a reporter’s work, then indeed, we can help restore its lost meaning. Only then can objectivity begin to regain its status as a canon of journalism and a habit of the mind essential for all journalists.