Objectivity: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

I’m already tired of the Sotomayor bickering, so I thought I’d get on my soap box for a bit and rant about objectivity in journalism.

(I’ll set aside debates about liberal media bias for another day, because, while I do readily admit that it exists, I don’t think it manifests itself in the way that most people think.)

An interesting and often overlooked byproduct of constantly espousing objectivity as a cornerstone of good reporting is that it’s created a new measure by which journalists are to be judged, and an impossible one at that. Because even if a reporter could be perfectly objective in each decision (s)he makes, and in every word (s)he writes, it would still be impossible to convince a skeptical, partisan audience of that. Because one thing partisanship does is filters how people perceive information. That’s why a Democrat and a Republican can watch the same clip, read the same story, but come away with very different conclusions as to what happened. I’m sure different people have come away with different readings on things I’ve written, either convinced that I’m making biased assumptions, or happy that my writing fits nicely within their worldview.

One thing this hyper-criticism of perceived bias (right or wrong) has done is created a environment in which journalists are sensitive to appearing unbiased. Sometimes we find ourselves trying a little too hard to appear fair to our ideological opposites. One thing we absolutely do not do is admit where we’re coming from on the political spectrum. It would be heresy, and probably career suicide, for an objective reporter to do so, because in America, partisanship is seen as completely divorce from truth. Part of this is via necessity; we’ve learned the hard way not to trust the P.R. machines of politicians. And part if this stems from the history of journalism in our country; our only viable alternatives to objective journalism have been yellow journalism and partisan journalism. Neither is particularly great for disseminating news people can trust.

But is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” system really all that effective? It certainly doesn’t appear to mesh real well with that other journalist’s mantra, transparency. Although I can certainly understand the problem with a reporter covering an election coming out and saying “yeah, truth be told I’m a liberal, but don’t think this is going to affect how I report on this race.” It doesn’t look good to readers, and it certainly doesn’t look good to that conservative candidate whose trust the reporter desperately needs if (s)he is going to do a good job.

On the other hand, transparency within the blogosphere appears to work very well. Even for those who try to provide objective analysis (fivethirtyeight.com is an excellent example of this: the staff admits their partisan leanings upfront, but still holds broad cross-aisle appeal).

I’ve got to think something of a hybrid model would make the most sense.

Here’s a snippet of an essay I wrote on the topic:

Explaining step by step why a journalist made what decision in his or her reporting could go a long way toward dispelling the gut reaction of shouting “bias!” when other factors might be the cause. While an objective-based transparency model might be unpopular with those who find the idea of objectivity inherently impossible, it could actually do a lot to expose bias to reporter and reader. By explaining his or her news judgment – why was this included, why wasn’t this – a reporter would create more accountability, and more careful self-evaluation of his or her own hidden biases. From the public’s standpoint, if reporters can speak openly about how biases may have affected them, even as reporters striving to be objective, it could increase trust rather than skepticism.

How often is media bias vilified without considering the effect it has? If, say, the bias is not in hiding conservative or liberal views or in distorting facts, but merely in gravitating toward stories perceived as more newsworthy (those with conflict, those which highlight the plight of the poor, inherently liberal concepts), it could illustrate that biases simply aren’t that bad – at least not to the extent that they leave out facts or intentionally promote one party’s agenda. When biases are actually impairing the public’s ability to learn truth, transparency could help expose them.

Obviously a reporter would have to be careful with what (s)he said in defense of news decisions. But take the example of a city council issue up for debate. Wouldn’t a reporter admitting (s)he doesn’t find the opposition’s reasoning to be sound because x, y, z (1) enhance credibility, because the reader knows where the reporter is coming from and (2) provide valuable insight from someone who knows the issue inside and out? Take the torture debate. Wouldn’t knowing why a reporter chose to use the term “torture” or “enhanced interrogation technique” help people understand that the facts of the story are no different?

If we all want objective journalism, yet admit that complete objectivity is probably impossible, the only argument I can see for keeping the reporter’s point of view secret is that somehow, as a society, we’ve agreed that ignorance is bliss. And maybe it is. But then, that seems counter to the whole point of journalism itself.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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