Objectivity, revisited

“If the substance of a thing is made of its relations with other things, a way to show that substance is to prove that these relations resist, that they are recalcitrant.”

Let’s be honest: Nobody wants to talk about objectivity in 2016. Sure, objectivity is the heart of (American) journalism, a pivot of journalistic identity, a core value of newsmaking in a democratic society. But still, the debate about objectivity has been on for several decades now, and that makes it an old bromide rather than an exciting question for the second half of the 2010s.

juliette-de-maeyerWe all collectively struggle with that notion, especially in our postmodern world. Whenever a conversation about objectivity in journalism starts, the term itself, its definition, and its meaning are usually contested (evidence of heated debate to be found here, here or here). To make things worse, a plethora of other ill defined concepts are brought to the rescue. You know the arguments: Objectivity is unattainable, and we’re not even sure that reality exists, so it’s all about striving for objectivity. But what really matters is good sourcing and attribution. But actually, it’s about the absence of bias, so the key terms are fairness and balance. No, wait, what really matters is transparency. Anyone care to define all those terms and how they relate to each other? Meh.

Everyone is annoyed with objectivity, but strangely, we can’t get rid of that fuzzy concept. It always comes back in debates about current and future journalism. So here’s a modest proposal for 2016: Let’s look at objectivity in a slightly different way. Let’s think about objectivity not as a dichotomous quality of something (which is either objective or subjective). Instead, let’s think about objectivity in terms of resistance to objections.

To do that, we might seek inspiration in another community that has had several deep identity crises over objectivity: science. Yes, people dealing with hard facts that imply things that are incredibly real and objective, such as gravity and microbes. There’s an interesting recent trend — well, for us social scientists, a recent trend is whatever happened over the last 30 years or so — in the sociology of science that has cast a new light on how we now think about objectivity in science (seminal books include Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s 1979 Laboratory Life and Latour’s 1987 Science in Action.)

To make a long story (ridiculously) short, those works implied an ontological shift that could be summarized like this: Scientific facts do not inherently possess the substance that allows them to exist. To exist, they need to relate to other elements. And this is exactly what scientists do — they build a wide net of connections between things, between microscopes and observations and computers and instruments and bacteria and books and federal funding and scientific publications…

Similarly, we could say that journalistic facts do not inherently possess the substance that allows them to exist. A journalistic fact is not objective in and of itself. It is objective because it relates to other things, because it builds a network of relations with witnesses, with data, with observations, with quotes, with other-sides-of-the-medal, with documents… Those connections are more or less robust, and together, they take part in the objectivity of a news article because they allow them to resist to objections. If the substance of a thing is made of its relations with other things, a way to show that substance is to prove that these relations resist, that they are recalcitrant.

And you know what? This can work in concrete acts of journalism, and not only in theoretical musings by dreamy university professors. Digital environments open new perspectives in the presentation of news that could precisely show how news articles resist to objections. Actually, I’m not even making a prediction here, as 2015 has already brought us a fascinating project that does exactly that (even though it’s not framed in those terms by its creators). Membrane is a new “reading experience” from the New York Times R&D Lab.

They call it “permeable publishing”. By highlighting pieces of text within an article, readers can select a question they want to ask and submit that question to the newsroom (“Who is this?”, “How did this happen?”), and therefore dispute the facts that are presented. Questions and answers are integrated within the article, readers can browse previous questions and decide if they want to continue to “push back” to ask other questions. Other experiments with annotations, sources and interactions with readers (Medium, ProPublica) had already paved the way for that innovative format. But isn’t that a very clever, extremely well-designed manner for a news item to prove its recalcitrance? Readers are enrolled in the whole process and by asking specific questions they allow journalists to show how their articles relate to the world, how they resist to objections — it’s an interactive display of objectivity-in-the-making.

That’s my wish for 2016: more clever design innovations that may, one day, reconcile journalism with (a revisited version of) objectivity.

Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal.