An air of objectivity

A lot has been made of the word “objectivity” as it relates to news coverage and reporting.
Some people believe it is an attainable value in American journalism, a principle worthy of our efforts. Others think it is nothing short of a myth. The rankling over whether objectivity can truly exist in journalism has been the subject of so much contention over the years, I feel like I can stand before a mirror and carry on a lengthy debate with myself.

I know the rhetoric.

I also know what I believe and how I apply it to my role as chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.

To the many voices who respectfully say it’s a farce, and to the growing voices who contend it’s nothing more than a concocted standard by which journalists could hang their principled crowns for display for all these many years, I concede this point – we are all biased.

We have favorites and there are those things we do not like. We have a core set of beliefs and we nurture them, guard them and share them, and we feel threatened if we are asked to shift our thinking in another direction, be that politics, religion, social issues or fiscal philosophies.

I use those four constants because they’ve been at the core of a lot of national debate during this presidential year. They will continue to garner attention in the next. Our core feelings of conservatism or liberalism are at odds. We are figuratively crossing swords every day over social issues and how to manage the nation’s finances. The rhetoric is divisive and acidic many times. And journalists are weighing in.

Over the past months the SPJ has been deluged with calls and emails from journalists with questions about political ethics. Aren’t journalists supposed to be objective? Why are they lying and spinning the truth?

One journalist’s blog response could best be summarized by “Get over it. American journalism hasn’t been objective for years. Think Yellow Journalism.” In other words, why are we still having this discussion and why do people still cling to this lame, cockeyed notion that journalism is about impartial, unbiased, objective reporting?

Here’s my retort. I admit up front it’s not objective.

We are still having this discussion and we still harbor hope for objectivity because it matters that much to people who want to believe that the press is the bridge between the lies and the truth. They want to believe that journalists can resist their inner voices and personal feelings and deliver news that has truth and fairness at its foundation. It matters because in a world of increasing distortions and subjective opinions being packaged and sold as “fact” it’s still important to hear information that fairly takes all views into account, even those we don’t personally agree with. It matters because when we stop being objective and fall into the trap of adjusting news to accommodate our sources and not our public, we sell out our reputations and hand over our credibility. Our integrity is gone.

Think of objectivity as the act of holding your breath under water. No one expects you to be able to do it 24 hours every day. They expect that you can do it when the need arises. The consequences of not doing it are dire.

In the privacy of your home, among family and friends, you can choose to breathe as you wish. But, when you are reporting and producing news, you are expected to “hold this breath” and repress those personal feelings, working toward the goal of objectivity, much like the person submerged needs to strive for the goal of staying alive.

You “hold your breath” when you cover an event, create a news story, when someone asks you to wear a political button or erect a sign in your yard. You “hold your breath,” too, when your friends and family ask you to write stories about them, when the publisher asks for a business story about his dry cleaner. The breath holding doesn’t mean you can’t have personal feelings or opinions. In fact, it’s best if you recognize those and admit them to yourself. What it means then is these biases, subjective political, religious, social views should not surface in moments when it can impact your work as a journalist.

You see, attainable or not, it’s still worthy of our strongest efforts. To give in and suggest that journalists can’t reach this platitude is to hand over our trade to the charlatans, the carnival barkers and the mind benders. And that would surely suffocate us, our public and our democracy.

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  • Martin L. Cahn

    I have been, essentially, saying exactly this since joining the ranks of print journalists 12 years ago. I am now the editor of the community newspaper I joined. As a small paper, we all wear different hats, something I’m sure most SPJ members do as well

    In my case, I am editor, reporter and columnist all in one. I sometimes opine on stories I am covering or that my staff is writing. When I do, I always tell my readers, “This is my opinion, given here on page 2 — an opinion I work very hard to keep off of the front page.”

    We are human and come with our prejudices and favoritisms. Our job is not to be objective — that’s impossible — but to be fair. So far, I have had few times where anyone has come close to strongly claiming that I have allowed my personal feelings to cloud my reporting or editing.

    That’s not bragging, but my hope that I continue to do so and provide a good example for my staff.

  • jane

    I am always amazed at how so many can become lost in what has never been a genuine issue. So many discussions about this are entirely due to the semantics of the term “objectivity” misleading people. That is really sad. So, I agree with you, the debate is silly.

    Holding your breath only works for a minute, as you say. It might get you by now and then.

    The real honest work comes in cultivating detachment. We need to understand that this takes work. To cultivate detachment takes developing an ability to do accurate, adequate self-reflection. I think it was Descartes who talked about practicing “mental hygiene” with a pre-psychology meaning to the phrase. We have to be aware.

    It is not a light switch and it is not a method of story telling in a tool bag. It is not something you acquire and once you get it your work is done. It is a lifelong activity, discipline, practice.

    It is you. It involves who you are. It is about developing your judgment and integrity and ability to reflect on oneself.

    Some will struggle harder than others to be accurate about one’s one behavior and thoughts and biases, others are helped by a natural facility or from a lifetime of engaging in the practice of scrutinizing oneself.

    Those who can’t come to terms with this fall prey to fake objectivity and there is a lot of that around.

    They also fall back on the only external structures there are — the formula for writing a hard news story for example. That is not enough — we all know that. There is no formula for it.

    For some reason we seem to have more of a problem with this than they do in Europe and I am not sure why that is but I have noticed it. It can stunt your growth.

    We really engage in a lot of fake debates about objectivity as well, using concepts that are false to begin with and weighing them against each other, discussing them at length and so on. We can’t get anywhere with that because we are discussing the merits of stuff that isn’t even real. The language we have been using should probably be put to bed for good. It would be nice. The language is really misleading.

    “Detachment” is probably a better word to use for starting a discussion. The concept easily leads to more productive conversations than discussions about what “objectivity” means, because those are ultimately about what we should not be doing, and are not doing, and can not be.

    But detached – that is something we can cultivate and strive for. Detachment in a world where we are inexorably attached to each other, to nature, to the world. That’s a good thing to cultivate as a journalist. Tell true stories. Don’t look for a formula. You have a responsibility to invest real effort. Stories don’t write themselves.

    This isn’t the detachment of an extraterrestrial. Indeed, the presumption that only an alien from another planet can tell true stories about us sums up what I think is the presumption of those bewitched by notions of “objectivity.”

  • jane

    Mr. Cahn said fair. Forgot that word. That is good too, and it’s real. We can try to be fair and be pretty fair. We can be darn fair. We can be unfair. We actually can attain it or not. Very down to earth.

    That beats trying to be something that isn’t real and isn’t even possible.

  • jane

    One last quick comment too. Sorry, but Mr. Cahn presented a really great example of what is happening today — the re-assembled journalist who writes stories and opinion pieces.

    We are coming out of the glory days of journalism where big powerful newspapers could engage in a division of labor. No one writing editorials was writing news stories. We kept it that way.

    Some mistakenly believe that ethics require it. No, ethics doesn’t require it, abundance afforded it — BIG difference.

    We are now returning to what was an earlier model, albeit in an electronic age.

    And – here’s the big point I want to make about it — it increasingly shows that it comes down to integrity and character. Mr. Cahn’s paper could be a disaster, if he was a disaster — see?

    He can’t rely on formulas to get by. He has to be good. He has to be decent. He has to try hard to be fair and he has to reflect every week on what he is doing.

    There are no shortcuts. Who you are matters.

    There is also a place for activist journalists who make no bones about the fact they are advocating a certain course. Many great activist journalists have developed a lot of trust among readers for their fairness and accuracy.

  • jane

    OK one ultimate final comment.

    It is an absolute truth that repressed beliefs guide the pen invisibly.

    Repression is the act of hiding from oneself. The opposite – confronting oneself — is necessary.

    Instead, let them out and give them a stern talk, if necessary.

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