How can I, self-consciously an “advocacy journalist” and opinion writer for over two decades, someone who used to produce the Colorado Libertarian Party newsletter and who now writes for a self-consciously ideological publication (Complete Colorado is a project of the free market Independence Institute), seriously advocate objectivity in news media? Please let me explain.
The context is that news outlets across the country and in Colorado are wrestling with what it means to be objective and to report the truth in the era of Donald Trump, whom almost everyone in the news media opposes, and the Black Lives Matter movement, which almost everyone in the news media supports.
Three main stories dominate the national discussion: the resignation of New York Times opinion editor James Bennet (brother of Senator Michael Bennet) over the publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed about the recent protests titled “Send in the Troops,” a lawsuit over a Tweet involving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette prohibiting a Black journalist there from covering the protests, and the resignation of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s executive editor Stan Wischnowski over the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.”
The debate in Colorado over objectivity has been spurred by Lewis Raven Wallace’s 2019 book, “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.” As Corey Hutchins of the (Progressive-leaning) Colorado Independent explains, he assigned Wallace’s book to his Colorado College journalism class and then invited Wallace to give a talk. Vince Bzdek of the (center-right) Gazette went to the talk prepared to challenge Wallace but ended up finding considerable common ground, Bzdek writes.
Alex Burness, a reporter for the (center-left) Denver Post, pointing to a thoughtful article by Margaret Sullivan, writes of the “myth of journalistic objectivity.” (Sullivan doesn’t actually take that view.) Burness writes, “There is no such thing as a ‘just the facts’ story. Assigning any story in the first place is an editorial decision.”
Chase Woodruff, formerly of Westword and now with (Progressive-leaning) States Newsroom, quotes approvingly of a remark by Wesley Lowery, “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. . . . We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” Woodruff adds, “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.”
Some Colorado journalists seek not to reject objectivity but to clarify it. Amanda Mountain of Rocky Mountain Public Media writes, “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.” (See Hutchins’s write-up for this quote and the ones that follow.)
By contrast, Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat denounces “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.”
Yet much of the discussion over objectivity is marred by gross misunderstandings of the concept. Consider a remark by Gaby Cox, a producer for CBS Denver: “As journalists, we cannot be objective about racism. There’s a right and there’s a wrong.” This echoes a remark by New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, “We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.”
But objectivity is fundamentally about discovering what is factually true and morally right, not denying the truth and the right. To be objective about racism starts with recognizing where and in what ways it exists.
We need to think objectively about objectivity. Objectivity does not mean refusing to take sides, nor giving equal weight to “both sides” (usually there are more than two sides, and some sides obviously are wrong), nor ignoring the moral implications of facts, nor ignoring marginalized voices, nor treating different journalists by different standards, nor assuming a position outside one’s self (taking a “view from nowhere”).
Instead, objectivity means orienting one’s views to the facts of reality. People who are objective are oriented to reality; people who are non-objective are oriented to their subjective feelings and biases, to which they sacrifice the facts and for which they distort the facts.
Given the proper understanding of objectivity, the question of whether journalists should strive to be objective answers itself. A journalist who does not strive for objectivity is a fraud. Of course we should be careful to recognize when journalists implicitly seek objectivity but express confused notions of it, something that is common.
We also need to be objective about ourselves and our own capacities and limitations. As human beings, a species of Great Ape, we are capable of reason but also prone to bias and in-group thinking. Although we can directly perceive simple truths—I have two hands each with five fingers—complex truths prove hard to discover and often elusive. To take a recent example, consider the scientific debates about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19, about which two scientific papers first were published and then retracted.
To be objective means, in part, not to prematurely conclude that what we think is the truth actually is the truth. This means, in part, that we need to go out of our way to challenge our beliefs, to actively check our biases, and to pit our views against the conflicting views of others in open debate. We should seek “moral clarity,” sure, but we should not confuse moral clarity with prejudicial obstinance.
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.
Yes, as Sullivan recognizes, every aspect of the journalistic enterprise is morally imbued, from the hiring of a journalist to the assignment of a story to the editing of an article to the crafting of a headline to the placement of a photograph. The proper conclusion is not that objectivity in journalism is impossible, but rather that objectivity extends to ethics.
Telling the truth is morally right. Including the relevant facts and putting those facts in context is morally right. Putting truth over click-bait and sensationalism is morally right. Publishing stories that hold accountable those who abuse their power is morally right. Telling the stories of the otherwise-voiceless and powerless is morally right. These things are a manifestation of objectivity, not a contradiction of it.
At the same time, publications properly can distinguish between “straight news” stories, where the overriding moral concern is to relate the relevant facts of an event or phenomenon (which can include facts about people’s opinions about the event), and editorial pieces, which offer more-complex (and often controversial) moral consideration. For example, there is a difference between a news story about a welfare bill (or a police reform bill, or whatever) and an editorial column about the merits of the proposal.
It is possible for a news publication to totally break down the news-editorial barrier, and, in effect, turn all articles into editorials. But it’s also possible, and for most outlets probably desirable, to maintain the news-editorial wall. This is not a denial of the moral implications of a news story but a proper recognition of the moral aim at hand. Generally, journalists ought not write editorials under the guise of a news story. However, it is increasingly common practice for a journalist to produce both sorts of content, and that’s fine, so long as they’re upfront about what they’re doing.
It is a mistake to think that a news article deals with facts whereas an editorial deals with mere opinion. It is both my opinion and an objective fact that two plus two equals four. It is also my opinion and an objective fact that slavery is morally abhorrent, that someone should not hurt another person for no good reason, that defrauding people of their wealth is wrong.
The difference between a news story and an editorial is not that one deals with facts and the other doesn’t. Rather, the difference is that a news story deals with facts that are at base perceptually verifiable, confirmed largely by eye-witness accounts and physical evidence, whereas an editorial deals also with complex moral facts that by their nature are harder to verify and therefore often more controversial. Should some particular bill pass is a moral question and generally the subject of reasonable debate.
I don’t have solid answers for how news publications with editorial pages should handle the publication of diverse views. Clearly some views should be automatically out, such as claims the earth is flat, the moon landing was a hoax, today’s vaccines are dangerous, the Sandy Hook murders were a “false flag,” slavery is morally permissible, or the killing of George Floyd was justified.
Clearly some controversial views should be considered at least somewhere, such as that factory farming of animals is cruel, government should guarantee a basic income, all schools should be private, government should slowly outlaw fossil fuels, government should legalize all drugs, and the reverse of each of those positions.
What exactly a given outlet publishes and declines to publish usually comes down to a tough judgment call with an eye to the publication’s general ideological orientation. As time moves on “Overton’s Window” shifts, and a sensible publisher recognizes that as well. It’s fine for some publications to host robust debates with (ideologically) diverse writers and for others to toe a distinctive more-or-less radical ideological line. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say.
I want to return to this point, because it is important: To be objective means (in part) to maintain a certain epistemological humility (although, paradoxically, we can be proud of this humility). Reaching a complex truth, particularly a complex moral truth, is really hard work. It can take years or even lifetimes of effort.
Very often the people who express their views with the most confidence are the people with the least justification for their views. Say this with me, because it is certainly true: “Some of my current views are wrong.” We embrace rather than denigrate objectivity by realizing that we are prone to error and that we are not omniscient. We can learn truths but never “The Truth” in a cosmic sense. The objective search for truth is always a journey. To be objective means to walk that path as best we can.
In general and in news rooms, what needs to pass away is not objectivity but people’s misunderstandings and distortions of objectivity. Objectivity is dead. Long live objectivity.