Journalism and the Illusion of Objectivity

by Michael Holtzman on April 4, 2014


Nobody can honestly claim an objective perspective. This is true even for reporters at the most reputable mainstream publications, such as the New York Times, where opinion pieces are supposedly restricted to the editorial or op-ed pages. Every good journalist is informed about the subjects they cover but it is unrealistic to believe they discover facts in a vacuum known as objective truth.

Yet practitioners of mainstream journalism continually represent themselves as free of bias. The public supports this fiction, demanding objective reporting based on a naive insistence on unbiased coverage. Rather than attacking the credibility of those who claim to be impartial but are not (just turn on Fox News or MSNBC), this article seeks to challenge the idea that a mythical state of factual truth known as “objectivity” even exists.

The remedy is simple: open disclosure of relevant opinions and biases. Under this approach, sometimes labeled “advocacy journalism”, the public would be better served through access to a diversity of media outlets that openly and honestly express their points of view.

The Illusory Nature of “Objectivity” In Journalism

Plato's cave

Our experiences in life, the education we receive, our social circles, and many other factors, shape how we approach and interpret the world around us. Human beings are complicated organisms whose perception makes experiencing “objectivity” impossible. Each of us observes and processes existence through our own individual, subjective prisms. No one, no matter how respected or esteemed, can claim that they are simply experiencing reality untainted by their own bias. For example, a young black man walking down the street at night wearing a hoody might be perceived as harmless or dangerous depending on the observer’s racial bias.

Many mainstream journalists accept the philosophical position that reporting “pure objectivity” is impossible but still consider it a worthwhile aspiration. Under this view a writer’s personal opinions are irrelevant to her reporting; similarly, a Judge is required to follow the law and impartially apply it to evidence before the court. The ensuing internal struggle to achieve neutrality supposedly brings the journalist closer to the truth by testing her own assumptions.

Journalistic objectivity promotes the view that facts should be reported “as they are” and value judgments avoided entirely. There may be a fine line between the two but there is a difference between asserting well-established truth — for example, the holocaust really happened — and expressing opinion, even if well-informed. Because the reporter’s personal opinion is removed, the news consumer is left to interpret the truth for herself.

However, scholarship on social perception has documented biases and errors that influence an individual’s basic cognitive process. Thus, each person experiences “truth” in his or her subjective way and no single person can express all perspectives that exist in a society.

Because of this reality, any journalist or media sources claiming impartiality should be approached with even more suspicion than visibly opinionated writing. For instance, the New York Times (NYT) is often considered the United States’ Newspaper of Record because of its authority and reputation in accurately recording what later becomes “history.” However, rooted in the NYT’ institutional perspective and reporting methodologies are all kinds of subjective political and cultural assumptions about the world. As many know, the NYT is frequently accused of framing controversial issues with a liberal bias.

Another interesting question is how do structural or inherent biases, common to all media outlets, influence consumers? On an institutional level, media bias refers to the practice of choosing which stories to report, which to feature on the front page, and what sources they will quote. A few of the most discussed types of media bias include:

  1. Commercial Bias: Since the news media are for-profit businesses, they must deliver a product to consumers that will increase ratings and advertising dollars.
  2. Narrative Bias: The incapability of reporting all relevant stories and facts and the necessity of connecting selected facts, to the exclusion of others, into a coherent narrative.
  3. Status Quo Bias: The mainstream news almost never questions the fundamental structure of the political system and ignores alternative perspectives on how government might be run.

It should be made clear that bias does not per se entail that a message is false or unfair. However, omitting relevant viewpoints increases the possibility of manipulating readers. Another source of manipulation potentially arises from the goal of reporting each and every argument as if they were all equal. If 97% of scientists agree that global warming is man-made than why give equal voice to the 3% of scientists who disagree? Some arguments rely on faulty evidence that journalists should openly interrogate, not report as if it were just another valid argument.

The important distinction is between journalists who pretend that subjective assumptions do not influence their work, even if only on a subconscious level (and of course those who proactively disguise their views), and reporters who honestly disclose their perspective. Members of this second group are often pejoratively labeled “advocacy journalists” or “activists.”

Journalism or Activism?

Control RoomAdvocacy journalists intentionally and transparently adopt a non-objective viewpoint, usually to promote some social or political purpose. Critics argue that starting from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get at the truth. These writers will supposedly manipulate evidence to support a declared point of view because pride is on the line. They are, supposedly, less likely to convince those who are not already convinced because it “feels preachy.”

But isn’t pride always on the line for professional reporters regardless if their view is disclosed or not? And if a reader feels preached at can they not just flip the channel or page? Why can’t readers stand to read things they might not “agree” with? Agreeing with Obama’s drone strike policy shouldn’t mean that you then ignore all news stories about civilians killed by drones.  If the relevant ethical standard by which reporting should be judged is fairness (giving the opposing side a chance to respond) and accuracy (of facts) then why is pride or preachiness even an issue?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, practicing journalism is always a form of activism because there are always choices. Every day editors decide what stories to cover, which to feature on the front page, and what sources to quote. After all, aren’t journalists theoretically supposed to be advocating for the public, for democracy, and acting as a watchdog on government behavior?

The result of making choices is that the interests of one group or another will be served. Just because a writer does not intend to support a specific group does not mean her choices have any less effect.

Even silence involves choices. What is not said has the effect of making an expressed narrative more valuable than unstated ones. Classifying waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” while omitting the word “torture” influences a reader’s perception of how the War on Terror is being conducted. Similarly, citing low rape statistics in isolation doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer people are being raped. Much of the time fewer rapes are being reported because victims are remaining silent, an important part of the narrative that is frequently overlooked.

The most important point is that the process of choosing what to report and how to frame facts inevitably involves highly subjective assumptions, whether they are cultural, political, or other. An author who openly expresses her bias avoids a pretense of objectivity.

Because biases are always present, explicit disclosure of one’s views better serves the public by promoting transparency.

Dear Journalists, Please Disclose…!

Maybe the most detrimental aspect of “objective” journalism is how it makes readers passive recipients of the news, rather than proactive analyzers and interpreters of it. A writer with a reputation for objective reporting is not usually challenged because her words are viewed as relaying impartial facts.

The public would be better off if the illusory pursuit of objectivity in journalism was rejected. If writers fully disclose their biases, this would enable a more honest and open examination of the information they convey.

I’ll start: I consider myself politically radical because my values fall outside of the primarily two-party system (Republican vs. Democrat) that dominates politics in the United States. Neither political party represents my views so I look for answers and truth elsewhere. A more in depth disclosure can be found on this blog’s About Me page.

I welcome readers to scrutinize my writing for bias in story selection, chosen verbs and adjectives, and descriptions; it is undoubtedly there. But note that I recognize my voice to be only one among many choices in the marketplace of ideas and I do not hide behind the illusion that what I am expressing is “objective” truth.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

dirk craen June 9, 2014 at 3:12 am

Highly energetic blog, I enjoyed that bit.
Will there be a part 2?


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