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Objectivity in Media

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong

The following notes are from my now-defunct Liberty 'Gator, presented here in reverse chronological order. The file was ported her on March 28, 2024. See also the rest of the Liberty 'Gator posts.

Lowery on Objectivity

June 27, 2020

Here I want to address Wesley Lowery's interesting take on journalistic objectivity in more detail. Here is what Lowery wrote on June 3, in response to the New York Times running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton about the protests titled, "Send In the Troops": "There are so many black people who I love and care about who work at the NYT, and they deserve so much better than to have their own employer endangering not only their lives but the lives of their friends and families and millions of other Americans. American view-from-nowhere, 'objectivity'-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity." (I'm editing slightly for formatting throughout.) A key thing to notice here is that Lowery puts the term "objectivity" in quote marks. (For far-future readers: The context here is the mass protests that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd.)

I mentioned Lowery's remarks in my June 22 column defending journalistic objectivity. When I wrote the piece, I was not aware of Lowery's June 11 follow-up comments on Twitter: "I think a lot of people are projecting a lot onto a quote that was the second tweet of a thread specifically about the Cotton op-ed and assuming it to mean something it does not. 'Moral clarity' is, first and foremost, about objective facts. Nazis are bad—objective fact. Black lives matter—objective fact. Climate change is real—objective fact. President Trump is a liar—objective fact." This squares very well with my conception of objectivity. In this view, objectivity is fundamentally about an orientation to the facts, and there is no conflict between moral clarity and objectivity. Indeed, the two are inseparable; the idea that the facts matter is a moral view.

I want to turn now to Masha Gessen's really nice article that picks up on Lowery's insistence on moral clarity. (This pointed me to Lowery's June 11 remarks.) I do think Gessen gets off on the wrong foot in suggesting that some journalists think that moral clarity is "terrible." I don't think any journalist actually thinks that. I think various journalists share my concern that some journalists might (as I put the point) "confuse moral clarity with prejudicial obstinance."

Gessen observes that news outlets, in covering the protests, can choose to either "amplify the state" or "raise up voices that have been marginalized throughout history." Gessen notes that a publication can opt "to do both." I think this is a false choice when it comes to writing a news story. A good reporter will convey the entire picture, not simply by reflecting the views expressed by various parties during interviews, but by digging beneath people's claims and putting the claims in context. The point of a news report is to convey to readers what is really going on, at a deep level, not, fundamentally, to "amplify" or "raise up" the agenda of one party. Of course, the facts very often support one cause over another, as a journalist is aware. And of course a journalist will face any number of difficult judgment calls about what to include and what to omit.

Gessen is largely concerned with how to handle a paper's editorial pages, and here Gessen raises some important issues: "In making editorial decisions, [a paper] defines what it sees as the sphere of legitimate controversy, a term coined by the historian Daniel Hallin to describe what news outlets find suitable to publish." (I referred to this as "Overton's Window.") Gessen continues: "Until recently, ideas such as defunding or abolishing the police fell outside the sphere of legitimate controversy—in Hallin's terminology, they fell into the sphere of deviance, which meant that the papers did not amplify or even acknowledge them. But the idea of using the military to crush protests used to seem deviant, too." This is a bit of a trick, I think; "defunding" the police, which means roughly to reduce the budget and scope of activity of the police, is a fundamentally different aim than abolishing the police. Going on a diet is hardly on par with not eating at all. But the broader point remains about choosing which views to consider.

Gessen quotes Susan Neiman as saying that moral clarity entails "looking at all the facts, looking at all the context." This makes moral clarity practically synonymous with objectivity.

Gessen also quotes some of Lowery's remarks from March 2: "Knowing where my own biases are / who I believe is right/wrong on an issue is what enables better and more fair questioning and reporting. Being honest with readers begins by being honest with ourselves. So often the questions that get the best/most insightful answers are posed from a place of moral clarity. Questioning someone powerful from a place of 'neutrality' often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing (see: dapper Nazis)."

I think Lowery is largely right here about neutrality. After seeing the video of George Floyd's death, there was no way I could be neutral with respect whether the killing was justified. It clearly was not. (Note: A judge needs to maintain legal neutrality when hearing the case.) So a journalist hardly should focus a story on the cops' rationalizations for killing Floyd. But if a journalist hears of a new case of police killing someone, the proper place to start, with respect to whether the killing was justified, is neutrality. Sometimes the evidence is not in, and a journalist should not make assumptions prior to evaluating any of the relevant facts.

I'll repeat my concern from my column: "One of my concerns about the new brand of activist journalists is that in their rush to do what they already 'know' in their hearts is right they may obscure rather than bring to light the relevant facts and thereby ultimately undermine authentic justice and human well-being. The line between righteous moralizing and self-righteous partisan pandering can, in practice, become thin and easily breached."

I quite like Gessen's framing here: "Moral clarity is a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity."

Gessen follows this up with a ridiculous statement: "There cannot be arguments about facts." I think what Gessen means is that we should accept clearly established facts. That's obvious. The problem is that facts often are not clearly established. Take the retraction of papers about hydroxychloroquine. Or the scientific controversy over "COVID toe." In the case of the police killing of Elijah McClain in Colorado, one of the officers claimed McClain reached for the gun of one of the officers. Although I find that very hard to believe, so far as I'm aware there's no decisive evidence either way. (The broader context is that police had no good reason to hassle McClain in the first place.) People reasonably debate complex facts all the time, in every field of study. Part of being objective means recognizing when the evidence for some fact is overwhelming, when it is merely suggestive, and when it is inconclusive. The facts are what they are regardless of what we think about them. Objectivity pertains to how we learn about facts, and often that is an extremely difficult and challenging process.

Gessen offers some interesting examples of what is up for debate. Gay marriage used to be up for debate, now it isn't. I agree gay marriage is the right policy and there's no point further debating it in this country at least in the context of mass media. "Whether Americans should have access to universal, taxpayer-funded health care is currently subject to debate; with any luck, in ten years, it will not be," Gessen writes. Here I disagree. Regardless, what is up for widespread debate in a given culture obviously is not the same as what is factually true. Whether or not the U.S. passes "universal" health care, and whether or not people actively debate it, is independent of whether the policy, in fact, is just and supportive of human well-being (considering the long term and the full context).

Now I turn to Lowery's June 23 op-ed for the New York Times, "A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists."

Lowery, again, pushes back against a certain corrupted view of objectivity: "Since American journalism's pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses. And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors."

I take his point. I merely add that what he is addressing is not actually objectivity, properly conceived. Indeed, what he is actually advocating is more objective news reporting, journalism that takes better account of the full range of relevant facts.

Lowery favorably quotes Alex S. Jones, who contrasts "he-said/she-said reporting" with "authentic objectivity."

Lowery makes a great point here: "Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America's newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance." I simply add the caveat: A journalist needs to make sure that the reported "facts" actually are facts and that other relevant facts have not been left out. Sometimes journalists simply get the facts wrong, or they fail to include obviously relevant facts, and they should be called out for that.

Lowery advocates abandoning "the appearance of objectivity" in favor of "being fair and telling the truth." As I'd put the point, journalists should be objective, not hide behind an illusion of objectivity.

Then Lowery goes off the rails by arguing that, because newsrooms are driven by "subjective decision-making," "No journalistic process is objective. And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is." Here Lowery makes two mistakes. First, he takes the inescapable optionality within news reporting as evidence against objectivity. But it isn't. As I've said, a hundred reporters each would write the same story in a hundred different ways, yet each could be objective in its approach (or each could be non-objective). Objectivity entails recognition that certain decisions are morally optional—and certain decisions are morally necessary. Second, Lowery seems to presume here that moral judgments cannot be objective, which undermines his entire case against moral clarity.

Lowery's errors carry over into his misunderstanding of bias. He suggests reporters must embrace rather than seek to overcome their biases, as the latter would lead to "public thoughtlessness." That's totally wrong. Having a moral point of view is not a bias, provided one's moral point of view is deeply informed by facts and aimed at a sensible end (broadly, human well-being). A bias is a tendency or habit or temptation to believe something in the absence of facts or in contradiction to the relevant facts. A bias is always something that is dangerous and always something we should seek to overcome. Again, bias does not mean having a point of view; it means having a point of view rooted in fallacy and prejudice.

I like Lowery's focus on accuracy and on "diligently seek[ing] out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree." In effect, he is setting up guardrails against bias (properly understood).

Lowery is exactly right that reporters should avoid "simply rewriting a law enforcement news release." Indeed, that extends to news releases from any source.

Lowery then has a thoughtful discussion about the Cotton op-ed; this is well worth reading (I have nothing to add here).

Lowery makes a great observation about the dynamics of social media: "Individual reporters now have followings of our own on social media platforms, granting us the ability to speak directly to the public. It is, then, no coincidence that after decades of pleading with management, black journalists are now making demands on Twitter."

Although I quibble with Lowery's conceptualization of objectivity and bias, I think he basically gets the substance right. He has become an important voice of our era. Read his work.

Deferring to Official Sources Is Not Objective

June 25, 2020

Here's a peculiar line I just read about objectivity in journalism (original here): "When White reporters cover issues involving race, they often fall back on traditional, passive practices of objectivity, such as deferring to official sources and remaining separate from communities." That is just a complete distortion of what objectivity means. A reporter who defers to official sources is being nonobjective, not objective. Being objective entails actively going after the facts and cutting through the biases and often-self-serving rhetoric of official sources. So the remark reflects an important criticism of actual practices, it just has nothing to do with objectivity properly conceived.

Bias and Media

June 21, 2020

Colorado journalist Chase Woodruff said last year, "I'm an extremely biased journalist; my bias is that I don't think the survival of hundreds of millions of people and habitability of entire regions of the world is a less important question than oil companies' profit margins."

Let's try to step back from whether we agree or disagree with the factual claims at the base of Woodruff's remarks. What I want to point out is that a bias is not the same thing as a moral belief. The presumption that any moral belief is automatically a bias (or the result of a bias) stems from the false belief that morality is purely subjective or arbitrary.

Libertarian radio host Ross Kaminsky said something comparable: "I don't claim to be unbiased. I just claim to be non-partisan and also that I try to state my biases up front. For example, I'm biased in favor of individual liberty." I replied, "You rationally endorse individual liberty." To this, Kaminsky replied that "many people on the left and the right oppose that." I answered, "I think you're misusing the term 'bias.' Lots of people think the biological theory of evolution is false, but I'm not 'biased' for endorsing it." So there are two issues here. A bias is not a belief that many people reject, nor is it a moral belief.

A bias is some mental disposition or habit or quirk that leads or tempts a person to believe something which is false. A genuine bias is always something we should try to overcome. The idea that we should embrace (some of) our biases stems from a confused notion of what a bias is.

NPR Debates Objectivity in Journalism

June 13, 2020

The NPR podcast 1A discusses objectivity in journalism (June 9). The show begins by running a previous comment by Wesley Lowery: "I don't even like the word 'objectivity.' When we talk about trying to be objective, we begin the conversation with a lie . . . that we don't have biases, and that we don't perceive the world in certain ways. I strive to be fair. And that fairness means that I have to interrogate my own biases. That fairness means I have to go out of my way to make sure I'm giving a fair, good-faith hearing to people who I know I disagree with." I very much like this commitment to fairness, but I deny that fairness clashes with objectivity properly understood. Fairness is not an alternative to objectivity; objectivity is the means to fairness.

The host, Sasha-Ann Simons, references a couple of relevant stories: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "barred [a black reporter] from covering protests over racial justice," while Axios not only encouraged its reporters to join the protests but said it would bail them out if they were arrested. (I selected the particular links.)

Simons asks, "Is it possible to be fair and transparent without being objective?" Again, my answer is obviously not, given the proper understanding of objectivity.

Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, public editor of PBS, says that "objectivity . . . really doesn't exist." He says, "I think it's been a word that's been overused by our industry in an attempt to portray us playing both sides or trying to reflect all sides of an issue equally. And you can't do that. And the main reason you can't do that is because we're humans. As humans we have subjective impulses. We make . . . subjective decisions every step of the way in the news gathering. We decide what stories to go after. We decide what headlines to put over a story. As humans, we make subjective decisions into how we're going to write the story, how the story will be edited. So every step of the way there's a subjective measure that's used to present news. And I've long preached that, instead of objectivity, we need to rely, number one, on accuracy. And, number two, is not even so much fairness, I think you need to be transparent. And so transparency and accuracy will give you the kind of journalism that I believe can show readers, and show audiences and listeners, that we're approaching this with the right amount of fairness, and, foremost, looking at making sure that we are right. And so, I'm a firm believer in activist journalism. I mean, I think you can have a position, and you can take a position, but you need to be right. And you need to do it in a way that's transparent, and that also shows you took the time to be introspective about your own work, and are presenting it in possibly the fairest possible fashion."

Those remarks obviously are self-contradictory. If people cannot escape subjectivity, then there can be no way to decide, other than by personal preference (whim), whether something is accurate of fair. Obviously there is a great deal of selectivity (or optionality) in journalism—journalism is an art, and a hundred different journalists would write the same basic story in a hundred different ways. But Sandoval-Palos makes a very large mistake in jumping from selectivity to epistemological and moral subjectivism. Clearly he is not really committed to wholesale subjectivism, but he opens the door to it.

In answer to a question about bias, Sandoval-Palos continues, "You can't avoid who you are even as a professional. You can't leave that at the door. But what you can do is approach a subject, approach a story, with the right goal, and that goal has to be accuracy. And you can be accurate. Accuracy doesn't know your skin color, or doesn't know your political allegiance or alliance." Just so.

Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that "white reporters are reporting through a racial lens" no less than black reporters. "None of us in this country are free from having a racialized experience, a racialized identity," she continues. Referring to the much-criticized headline, "Buildings matter, too," she complains of "a framework of whiteness where property is treated the same as a loss of black life." Granting that the headline was inappropriate, I think that Hannah-Jones makes the mistake of seeing racism at work everywhere. Is it now impossible to quote Martin Luther King Jr. about judging people not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"? The notion that the typical "white" person is as upset over some smashed windows as the murder of a black man is ludicrous, unjust, and contrary to easily accessed facts (such as the fact that many thousands of white people joined the recent protests). Also ludicrous is to ignore that a major part of white terror campaigns against blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans has consisted of white mobs destroying the property of members of those groups. That said, Hannah-Jones obviously is correct that different people have different experiences and that America's long history of racial oppression (of blacks and others) helps to set the context of our world.

Hannah-Jones continues, "The only thing that any human being is not [sic] objective about are things that we don't know enough about to have formed an opinion. And as soon as you know enough about something you have an opinion about it. So, I agree, I've long said there's no such thing as objectivity. I do believe we have to be fair, and the only way you can be fair is to understand what your biases are in your reporting and report against them." The part about working against one's biases is fine. The first part presumes that one cannot be objective about anything about which one has an opinion. Obviously that is false. For example, it is my opinion that two plus two equals four, and it is also objectively true that two plus two equals four. The question is whether our personal views align with the facts or not. Further, whether a given person is operating under some bias or not is a matter of objective fact. It is impossible to recognize a bias without thinking objectively about biases.

Morgan Givens, producer of 1A, also was on the show. By way of background, on June 6 Givens Tweeted: "Black lives matter. There's a white supremacist authoritarian in the White House. The notion of 'objectivity' is based in white supremacist doctrine meant to uphold a white supremacist system that refuses to face the truth of itself." He also retweets another comment, "Objectivity is a pillar of white supremacy." His remarks are self-contradictory. Is it an objective fact that Trump is a white supremacist, or is that just Givens's subjective opinion, no more or less justified than anyone else's subjective opinion about Trump? The actual complaint seems to be that some people have abused and misused the concept of objectivity as a cover for bias and oppression. Well, is it an objective fact that they did so, or is that just Givens's subjective opinion? That some people misuse the concept of objectivity hardly justifies throwing out objectivity.

On the show, Givens makes clear (at least by implication) that he does believe in objective facts. He says, "When you have the understanding of what white supremacy is and how it functions as a system, you cannot help but see that truth [about Trump]. And the problem that I am seeing, . . . when people point at me and say how can you say that, I'm looking at them like, how do you not have the knowledge of the institution in which you work so that you cannot see it. How do you not have the historical awareness and the subjectivity . . . and the knowledge that makes it so that you can actually remove yourself as much as possible intellectually from the white supremacist system in which we all function, to actually name it. And the reason that that caused such a furor . . . is because the inability to call out fascism is directly linked to journalists' inability to call out white supremacy in the United States because the two are so inextricably tied. And so I stand by what I said, because it's the truth. And the truth cannot be held hostage or captive for those who do not know it yet, and for those who have not done the reading yet, and for those who do not understand that it is a constant life battle to unlearn what this white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system has taught us."

So there it is. Here is hard-left, neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist dogma masquerading as absolute "truth." Here let me just say that there is much that is objectively true in what Givens says and also much that is objectively false. But these are very large debates for another time. The good news is that he does acknowledge that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, an implicit recognition of objectivity properly conceived.

Givens continues, helping to clarify what he means by objectivity: "And so unlearning that means that we have to also unmask the things that make it so we cannot call the truth the truth. That means we have to point to guidelines that say, black journalists need to be silent in the face of what they know to be true, and then also acknowledge that these guidelines are based in a white supremacist idea of objectivity." It is unclear to me whether Givens is saying that objectivity per se is fraudulent or that white supremacists have subverted objectivity. Regardless, the sensible way to state Givens's point is that pseudo-objectivity must be pushed aside to achieve authentic objectivity. So stated, the point is perfectly sound.

The discussion above takes us to the 16 minute mark of this 47 minute podcast.

A bit later, Sandoval-Palos makes a great comment: "If I point out something that I know to be demonstrably correct and accurate, then you can't say that I'm biased for having said that."

Hannah-Jones says, "Our role [as journalists] should actually be a getting at the truth, and providing context and analysis so people understand what this [a set of specific facts] means."

Hannah-Jones also says, "I believe all journalism is activism, in that we see our job as holding powerful people accountable. That is not a neutral position." I completely agree with this.

Jay Rosen on Objectivity in Journalism

June 12, 2020

I want to review two articles by Jay Rosen, one from a decade ago, one from a few days ago.

Some background: In 2010, NPR fired Juan Williams (terminated his contract) for saying the following on Bill O'Reilly's show: "When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." David Folkenflik adds this context: "Williams also warned O'Reilly against blaming all Muslims for 'extremists,' saying Christians shouldn't be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh."

Rosen quotes Brian Stelter: "After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization's belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams's contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view—rather than the view-from-nowhere—polemics." For those of us who think NPR is absurdly biased in a leftward direction, this remark seems a little humorous. The essential here is that this sets up as the key contrast "point of view" journalism versus "view from nowhere" journalism. I think that is basically the wrong way to look at things.

Here is how Rosen describes the "view from nowhere" approach: "In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial.' Second, it's a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."

Rosen thinks having a "view from nowhere" is pointless. What matters? "In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard."

Rosen argues that we cannot totally escape our personal perspective: "We can't transcend all our starting points. . . . We can't actually take the 'view from nowhere,' but this doesn't mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it—both are real."

Rosen is explicitly in favor of a sort of objectivity: "If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there's a 'hard' reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense."

Shifting to the new article: Rosen points out that traditional news operations have lost audience share to social media sites and independent outlets. Then he shifts to the resignation of James Bennet over a New York Times op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton.

Then Rosen argues that the presidency of Donald Trump has challenged the traditional "neutrality" of news media. He quotes Michelle Goldberg: "Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there's generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest."

Here is Rosen's key addition: "Debate club democracy—where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done—is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive's power."

Rosen sharply criticizes efforts to hire more-diverse reporters while hamstringing those reporters' efforts to bring their experiences to bear on their work: "Minority journalists . . . are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity."

Rosen quotes the New York Times's Nikole Hannah-Jones: "This adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the 'view from nowhere' doesn't actually work in the political circumstances that we're in."

Now let us shift to Jonathan Chait's critique of Rosen: "But why can't more representative newsrooms instead refine their conception of neutrality, rather than abandon it? Indeed, wouldn't staffs that more closely reflect the population have an easier time incorporating the perspectives of all sides and coming closer to the elusive goal of objectivity? To take a concrete example, if it took a critical mass of black reporters to force the media to report accurately on police brutality, an obvious conclusion is that diversity can enhance objective reporting, not that the goal of objective reporting has failed."

Chait warns against dogmatism: "Politics is a matter of life and death. If you start with the premise that one side has a monopoly on truth, you inevitably land on the conclusion that questioning its ideas is dangerous."

This conversation illustrates the complexities at hand. This is not an easy topic. I'm still thinking through this, and I'll have more to say later.

Woke Journalism and Objectivity

June 11, 2020

Damon Linker writes, "No newsroom is politically neutral and no editorial page ideologically unbiased. Every community, every organization, and certainly every journalistic enterprise makes decisions about what's acceptable and what isn't, where lines should be drawn, and what kinds of statements belong on which sides of those lines. Reporters and editors make judgments every day about what's worth thinking about, taking seriously, and engaging with. The rebels want to move the lines and impose new standards."

I object to the seeming equation of "biased" with "selective." It is not an ideological "bias" to hold that slavery is evil, for example. Slavery is, objectively, evil. The fact that certain newspapers of an earlier era ran pro-slavery opinions does not change that fact. Today, Overton's Window has moved so far away from slavery that normally we don't even need to consider a pro-slavery perspective (if anyone dared articulate one). Of course today we debate many other issues that are not nearly as clear-cut. But this much is clear-cut: Police hurting people for no good reason is wrong.

Linker is more concerned with that which is not so clear-cut: "No one [among the revolutionary journalists] acknowledges the difficulty of achieving moral clarity. No one notes that there are precious few 'clear moral calls' in life. No one demonstrates awareness that 'the truth,' like justice, is something our country is deeply divided about." Linker recommends "a little humility and willingness to suspend judgment for a time." Linker worries that the new brand of activist journalism will lead to demonization and to the sacrifice of facts and context on the altar of (perceived) "justice." He also worries that the new trends will exacerbate "the hollowing out of the nation's public life, as individuals and institutions burrow ever-deeper into ideological enclaves." He fears a trend toward "narrowness and dogmatism, . . . unearned certainty and facile simplifications." It's a warning we should take seriously.

Corey Hutchins is a Colorado journalist who has been covering the debate over "objectivity" in newsrooms. He readily lumps objectivity in with "both-sides-ism" and " a view-from-nowhere approach," even though genuine objectivity has nothing to do with those other things. (An objective person does consider different relevant points of view but does not presume that all "sides" deserve equal attention.)

Hutchins quotes an article by Ben Smith, which I also discuss. Hutchins quotes a line from New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, "We don't pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism." That indicates a complete misunderstanding of objectivity. Objectively, people's rights should be respected and protected; objectively, racism is morally wrong. So to be objective about human rights and racism is to recognize those moral truths (and to be non-objective is to fail to recognize those truths). So what Sulzberger seems to mean here is that we should care about human rights and racism. Of course. Objectivity does not imply being uncaring or detached from values or morality.

Hutchins also quotes from a letter from Colorado Public Radio president Stewart Vanderwilt: "Implicit bias is everywhere. . . . [W]e are committing to equity, access and social justice as a pillar of coverage by CPR News and all our services." I believe it is factually false that "implicit bias is everywhere," so that's an issue. And what does "social justice" mean here? Does it mean equality under the law, or does it mean Progressive leftist egalitarianism (which I regard as profoundly unjust)?

Hutchins also quotes from Amy Gillentine Sweet, publisher of the Colorado Springs Indy, which has always been a self-consciously ideological publication. She writes, "We know it's time to stand up and speak out. When we see racism in action, we will call for justice. If we uncover biased courts, we will hold judges accountable in print. If we see neighbors abused by the authorities, we will demand action. Silence is not an option; it never was. Our job is to seek truth—and report it. We're going to do that job." I like this approach because of its focus on reporting the truth, an implicit guard against subverting facts to an ideological agenda.

Another: Hutchings quotes Tim Russo, station manager of KGNU community radio, who writes, "For centuries the media has cloaked the genocidal and racist foundations of the country by villainizing, demonizing, dehumanizing, demeaning, and disenfranchising Black people and non-whites." As I would put it, the problem has been that (elements of) "the media" were non-objective in that respect. But his claim about "the media" is silly for the same reason that most claims about "the media" are silly: "The media" are an aggregate of many different publications and writers. The Abolitionists wrote pamphlets that were "media." Ida B. Wells worked in "the media" to reveal the horrors of lynchings. A red flag: Russo says his station will work against "patriarchy" and "privilege"—whatever that means. My fear is that Russo has bought wholesale into "identity politics," the neo-Marxist doctrine that views all aspects of human society in terms of power dynamics. [March 28, 2024 Update: I'm not sure about the qualifier "neo-Marxist."] So again this looks to me like journalists promoting hard-left political views under a facade of moral righteousness.

And another: The ever-prolific Hutchins quotes a CBS4 piece on the views of journalists there. I was struck by a comment of Gabrielle Cox: "America has a race issue. As journalists, we cannot be objective about racism. There's a right and there's a wrong." Here again is the (false) assumption that objective means detached or disinterested.

Moving away from Hutchins's piece: Vic Vela, a CPR journalist, writes, "Calling out racism is not biased journalism. In fact, it's the duty of journalism to inform your audience of the expressed views of people in your communities." I agree it's not biased to point out that racism is racism.

PBS on Media Objectivity

June 8, 2020

Rocky Mountain PBS explicitly endorses objectivity: "Rocky Mountain PBS is committed to providing balanced, accurate and quality content both on-air and online. We value the public's trust and respect the high standards set for our work. Rocky Mountain PBS strives for fairness, objectivity and responsiveness to the public's feedback and input. And we ensure transparency in our news and information content, while avoiding any improper influence from funders or other outside sources."

This has not changed, but a recent letter by Amanda Mountain to PBS supporters puts objectivity in context: "Rocky Mountain Public Media is committed to ensuring everyone in Colorado is seen and heard, and we join the call to end racism in all its ugly forms. . . . Silence is not an option to overcome the change that lies ahead. We don't accept that racism is a political issue alone. And we don't accept that to be 'objective,' as public media, we cannot give direct voice to the innate value and dignity of Black lives. We want to be a part of a new, better 'normal' we are all trying to build together as a community."

So PBS is committed to being objective, but it sensibly denies that objectivity means failing to give voice to the oppressed or failing to recognize the value of human lives. This is all fine, provided that such sentiment does not become cover for bias and for ignoring different voices.

Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, on the other hand, comes out explicitly against what she regards as objectivity (hat tip Corey Hutchins): "We must be antiracist. We must, in Chalkbeat's case, make an implicit element of our mission and values explicit. Only by publicly and explicitly standing against racism can we achieve our mission of informing and engaging the communities least served by public education. I know that some might view this statement as a departure from our journalistic values and may even trust Chalkbeat's reporting less as a result. I need to state clearly that our commitment to telling the truth without consideration of ideology or advocacy has not changed. We take this step because we believe and hope that we can in fact offer stronger, more honest coverage, and build more trust with our readers, by making our values transparent and clear. When we write about the public school system, we know it is founded on and imbued with the legacy of systems of racial oppression, as so many American institutions are. We know that schools must themselves embrace antiracism if they are to serve all children. We know the legacy press is another institution imbued with racism. As we recreate local news, we must dismantle the journalistic practices and traditions that uphold white supremacy, such as overwhelmingly white male ownership structures, disproportionately white newsrooms and newsroom leadership, and a tradition of objectivity that silences the voices and perspectives of the majority of Americans who are members of marginalized groups and eschews writing directly about uncomfortable truths. Only if journalists embrace antiracism can we fulfill our potential to serve Americans of all races and backgrounds with the news and information they need to participate in civic life."

Again, most of this is not a problem, and I appreciate news organizations making their values explicit. (Indeed, I have always been very explicitly an advocacy journalist, and I now write for an overtly ideological publication, Complete Colorado.)

I pause at Green's framing of objectivity, which I think is totally wrong. Objectivity does not mean silencing marginalized voices. Indeed, objectivity entails the opposite: telling the full story, including all relevant voices, and facing facts.

I also worry that Green seems to imply that white reporters are somehow inherently less able to cover news stories involving issues of race. Have we already forgotten that the Abolitionist cause consisted of white and black activists, standing shoulder to shoulder, staring the injustice of slavery squarely in the face and struggling, together, against it?

Bennet, Cotton, and Objective Media

June 7, 2020

Today James Bennet (brother of U.S. Senator from Colorado Michael Bennet) resigned as the editorial editor of the New York Times. At issue is an op-ed the paper ran by Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton, meanwhile, pointed out that the Times ran an op-ed by a literal terrorist, so double standards seem at play. What did the op-ed actually say? As Rich Lowry summarizes, it advocates "using federal troops to quell riots." I agree that's ghastly policy.

But I also see nothing wrong with considering points of view by prominent political and cultural leaders. Indeed, I think it is extremely important to try to understand what different people think. Of course, that doesn't mean a newspaper should open its gates to all comers. I guess a newspaper has to decide whether the purpose of its opinion pages is to promote the newspaper's ideology and agenda or to air representative views from the broader community. I have no ready answer for how newspapers should approach this. One possibility is for newspapers simply to drop their opinion sections, or else to run only in-house commentary.

A Times article by Ben Smith discusses the op-ed, the background of journalist Wesley Lowery, and the ways that newspapers are trying to approach their subject matter.

Smith writes, "Now, as America['s] biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls."

Lowery told Smith that newspapers' "core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity."

Smith quotes Lowery, "American view-from-nowhere, 'objectivity'-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity."

Smith writes, "That argument is gathering momentum in key American newsrooms."

What should we make of this? Again, Lowery simply misunderstands what objectivity means. It does not mean having a "view from nowhere." It does not mean relentlessly representing "both sides," in part because often there are more than two sides, in part because often one "side" obviously is wrong. Journalists don't have to quote flat-earthers and lunar-landing conspiracy nuts every time they discuss NASA; indeed; they hardly ever should quote those "sides." Objectivity does not mean being "neutral" on all issues nor abandoning a moral perspective.

Objectivity certainly does not mean abandoning the truth; truth in its full context is essential to objectivity.

Objectivity does entail continually checking one's premises and biases, seeking out alternate points of view, and welcoming potentially disconfirming data. The opposite of an objective person is not a moral truth seeker but a fact-averse ideologue.

Journalistic Objectivity

June 7, 2020

Denver Post reporter Alex Burness, pointing to a Washington Post article by Margaret Sullivan, refers to "the myth of journalistic objectivity." Burness continues, "A lot of journalists, but not enough, accept that 'objective' reporting is impossible. It's on us in media to better explain this to the public. More useful standards, IMO: Is the reporting fair? Adheres to facts/data? Reported without favoritism or fear of making someone mad?"

Burness recommends a book by Lewis Raven Wallace, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myths of Journalistic Objectivity.

Another Colorado journalist, Corey Hutchins, also appreciates Wallace's book, writing, "I had assigned the book for my current Introduction to Journalism course at Colorado College and invited Wallace to come lead a class discussion once students finished it." Hutchins reviews that Vince Bzdek, editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, pushed back a bit at an event with Wallace. As Hutchins tells it, "He said he worried about journalists taking sides and how those who watch MSNBC have their own truth and those who watch FOX seem to have another."

Bzdek wrote about the exchange.

My take: I think Wallace is right about quite a lot, but I think he fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of "objectivity." But that is a detailed conversation for another time.

More: Chase Woodruff, another Colorado journalist, writes, "One thing I've learned and been encouraged by while working full-time in media in the last few years, which I didn't fully appreciate before, is that there really is a large and growing number of younger journalists who recognize this, at least to a certain extent." He cites Wesley Lowery, who writes, "American view-from-nowhere, 'objectivity'-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity." Update: See also Woodruff's remarks about the "futile search for 'objectivity.'"

My take: "Objectivity" certainly does not mean giving "both sides" equal space. Among other problems, there rarely are only two sides to any complicated debate, and some "sides" objectively are wrong (e.g., flat-earthers, Holocaust deniers).

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