A limited version of objectivity worth defending

Objectivity was a major topic at the Nieman Foundation’s 80th anniversary event this weekend, especially during a panel on the line between activism and journalism. Nieman Reports has a new(ish) article on that subject, too. “Impartiality”, “fairness”, and “accuracy” were all terms that came up as possible replacements for “objectivity.” The article and the event together raised a lot of interesting questions, most of which I won’t even try to address.

I want to focus more narrowly, offering a limited defense of a certain kind of objectivity. Here’s a great quote from Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, from the Nieman Reports piece:

“Professional journalism needs to shift away from the way in which it performs objectivity. The critical move needs to be from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as truth-seeking. That’s how you avoid false equivalencies. In a propaganda-rich system, to be neutral is to be complicit.”

“Truth” can mean many things, so I’ll narrow it even further: from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

The first advantage of objectivity as the search for empirical truth is that it flat out doesn’t apply to some key journalistic questions to which “objectivity” was offered as an answer. What stories should a newspaper cover? That just plainly isn’t an empirical question; there is no “objective” answer in the sense of objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

A newspaper that tries to remain “neutral” in what it chooses to cover might opt to defer to other institutions like political parties to set the agenda. Claiming that this strategy is “objective” is nonsensical and harmful. That doesn’t mean “neutrality” can’t ever be defensible. A trade publication might look to trends and attention within the industry it covers to decide what it should report on. Claiming that this is being “objective” is deeply misguided, but adopting this neutral posture might make sense for the business.

Civic journalism can do better. Decisions like what to cover depend on values, and the best journalistic institutions won’t simply punt on questions of values in order to maintain some appearance of neutrality.

But those publications can still aim for “objectivity” in the sense of empirical truth-seeking, and I’m partial to that term over either “fairness” or “accuracy”. Fairness is an important value, especially for journalism, but it doesn’t proceed from the search for empirical truth. Accuracy doesn’t have that problem and so is closer, but the word can be misconstrued so as to let journalists off the hook. If you write about a thorny empirical topic like climate change or fiscal policy and you faithfully report everyone’s opinions you’ve in one sense accurately described the debate. But you may not be helping readers understand the truth.

Objectivity remains, in my view, the best word for conveying a commitment to the search for empirical truth — particularly in areas where that truth is more complicated than straightforward matters of fact. Objectivity is not an appropriate answer to many of journalism’s toughest questions but understood narrowly it can still be useful.

UPDATE: More from Benkler in a Q&A with Boston Review. This was interesting, on why objectivity-as-neutrality works less well than it once did:

Journalistic core practices have never been perfect but, broadly speaking, they have worked reasonably well. That is largely because, until recently, both political parties in the United States and the major actors—corporations, unions, nonprofits—more or less complied with a set of elite norms about how much you could attack basic foundational facts, how much you could fabricate. This meant that the model of journalistic objectivity and balance—being neutral and reporting on both sides—was not systematically biased in favor of one major party or the other. It reflected, more or less, the elite consensus range of views. Trust in media largely oscillated with the party in power: critical coverage meant that if your party was in power, your trust in journalism declined, and then rebounded when the other party took power.

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