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April 25, 2024, 9:57 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Objectivity” in journalism is a tricky concept. What could replace it?

“For a long time, ‘objectivity’ packaged together many important ideas about truth and trust. American journalism has disowned that brand without offering a replacement.”

There are many possible reasons for the public’s declining trust in journalism — it’s falling for pretty much everyone — but it’s plausible that one of them is the difference in that way journalists and audiences think of “objectivity.”

Objectivity is a tricky concept. Ultimately, we’re with the skeptics who say it never really made sense. And yet! For a long time “objectivity” packaged together many important ideas about truth and trust. American journalism has disowned that brand without offering a replacement. At the end this post, I’ll point to some starting points for figuring out what values a new generation of journalists could promote instead.

What do journalists think of “objectivity”?

To find out, we read every article mentioning the word from 2020 to 2022 in three publications where journalists talk to each other: Columbia Journalism ReviewNieman Journalism Lab, and Poynter. We coded each of these 195 articles on a five-point scale from “very negative” to “very positive,” and found that when American journalists speak about objectivity, they are three times more likely to speak negatively of it than positively (our count is 111 to 38).

Sentiment of “objectivity” in 195 articles from Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Journalism Lab, and Poynter, January 2020 to February 2023.

Looking through the spreadsheet we compiled, the two most common criticisms of objectivity were that this word has been used to exclude minority voices and that false balance risks distorting the truth by legitimizing falsehoods. For example:

The notion that one can be completely without bias in their reporting is a nice idea until you realize what’s “objective” is actually determined by what doesn’t rock a white, male, upper-class sensibility and worldview. [source]

and

Institutionalizing such a model puts gatekeepers in the position of legitimizing falsity by presenting it alongside truth. It creates a system where demands of fairness and balance neuter journalists’ and other gatekeepers’ abilities (and responsibility) to differentiate fact from fiction. [source]

We agree that journalism has a responsibility to say when something just isn’t true, and it’s hard to argue against accurately and empathetically portraying the struggles of people long excluded. But objectivity meant many other things besides “both sides” and “white and male” — it covered a range of virtues that still ring true.

Audiences still want objectivity

We couldn’t find any surveys that directly asked news consumers what they thought of “objectivity,” but there are good surveys that ask about something like it, such as “reflecting a range of different views,” or “giving every side equal coverage.” These surveys show a consistent pattern: Audiences strongly prefer impartiality.

Source: Reuters Institute survey, 2021.

Conversely, the percentage of Americans who see “a great deal” of “political bias” in the news is increasing. From the Knight/Gallup American Views 2020 report:

Americans feel the media’s critical roles of informing and holding those in power accountable are compromised by increasing bias. As such, Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide.

Of course, audiences may say they want objectivity while actually being happier with reporting that validates their views. Research generally finds that perceptions of bias depend mostly on whether audiences think the publication supports their politics, not what was actually written, and we have previously discussed audience capture. But this doesn’t let journalism off the hook — if audiences say they want X, then repeatedly disavowing X is still a losing proposition.

There’s no going back

In 19th-century America, most news publications were very partisan, with many directly funded by political parties. Objectivity was in part an attempt to free the news from political influence, although the motive was also economic: as publications turned from benefactors to readers for their revenue, it made sense to try to appeal to everyone regardless of their politics.

But as the industry professionalized, it also adopted better standards and big aspirations. Objectivity wasn’t just about impartiality; it also meant that journalism could claim something of the rigor and authority of science. The point of objectivity was to remove the individual reporter from the equation, so that you would get the same information regardless of who was there.

If the basic role of journalism is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it,” then this makes a lot of sense. In the classic view, the reporter is supposed to be a neutral proxy for the audience, an essentially interchangeable professional. In all the criticisms of objectivity, it’s important to remember that it’s a bulwark against the opposite: pure opinion, devolving into fiction. Steering in the other direction, a 1949 treatise for CIA analysts defined the “objective situation” as “the situation as it exists in the understanding of some hypothetical omniscient Being.”

Alas, this is not only impossible but nonsensical. It’s a view from nowhere.

The problem is not one of discipline or character; it’s important for journalists to cultivate intellectual honesty, but the challenge is more fundamental. Stories are not found in nature, but are carefully assembled by picking out only some of the facts and observations available to the reporter. Even if the facts are fixed, their meaning is not, and the same set of facts can power two very different stories. Meanwhile, there has been a century-long shift from “event-centered” to “analytical” or “contextual” journalism, where framing and background are even more relevant.

The dilemma of objectivity is this: if the journalist doesn’t apply some set of values, how do they know what’s worth including in the story? Rooting for a cause can give you both a conflict of interest and greater insight. The very question of what to cover becomes incoherent without a value system, and indeed, Red and Blue have different opinions of what deserves attention. This is why the Trusting News project recommends that newsrooms routinely explain their coverage choices.

If not objectivity, then what?

In the end, we agree with the criticisms: objectivity is a deeply flawed concept, for reasons that go far beyond diversity and false balance. But journalism is lost without standards for truth. If objectivity has failed, the challenge now is saying what should replace it.

There is much to learn from other fields that deal in truth, many of which have had their own reckoning with objectivity. For example, this is what the intelligence community thinks of it today:

Even if analysts try to be “objective” in a procedural sense, they will not be able to achieve absolute objectivity because biases consisting of cognitive frameworks are necessary in order to infer meaning from incomplete data. Conceptual frameworks provide each analyst with a different kind of filter, for both understanding and interpretation, and a corresponding set of biases.

This kind of thinking leads to a “transparency is the new objectivity” approach. Or journalism could borrow from science once again. In contemporary statistics there are calls for more precise language:

We argue that the words “objective” and “subjective” in statistics discourse are used in a mostly unhelpful way, and we propose to replace each of them with broader collections of attributes, with objectivity replaced by transparency, consensus, impartiality, correspondence to observable reality, and subjectivity replaced by awareness of multiple perspectives and context dependence.

These statistical virtues would apply pretty well to journalism, too.

Happily, there are signs that journalism itself is beginning to offer up replacements for objectivity. New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger recently argued for a strong notion of “independence,” noting particularly the duty of a journalist in times of conflict:

When the stakes feel highest — from the world wars to the red scare to the aftermath of 9/11 — people often make the most forceful arguments against journalistic independence. Pick a side. Join the righteous. Declare that you’re with us or against us. But history shows that the better course is when journalists challenge and complicate consensus with smart questions and new information.

This is sage advice, very much the sort of “complicating the narrative” approach favored by conflict professionals, which we have discussed several times. But it doesn’t say much about all the other reasons we might believe journalism has any resemblance to truth — things like accuracy, transparency, and comprehensiveness. Perhaps “independence” can grow to cover these ideas, but it will likely never be as expansive as “objectivity” was.

As much as anything else, “objectivity” was a symbol that represented a package of values that audiences trusted. It was a brand, now tarnished, that has no modern equivalent. Perhaps objectivity is an incoherent ideal. Perhaps the journalistic orthodoxy that grew up around it is no longer tenable. But if journalists publicly abandon it without articulating a convincing replacement, audiences will only hear that the profession has given up on truth.

Jonathan Stray is a senior scientist at the Center for Human-compatible AI at UC Berkeley, where he studies how algorithmic media drives political conflict. He runs the newsletter and podcast Better Conflict Bulletin, where this post was first published. Sana Pandey coded all the articles mentioned here.

Press hat image created with GPT4.

POSTED     April 25, 2024, 9:57 a.m.
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