Journalistic objectivity doesn’t suck, but our understanding of it does

The purpose and approach of journalism has long been a point of contention among educators, practitioners and outside observers. One of the longest-running discussions is whether or not journalism should prize objectivity over other potential values.

This question came to the forefront again in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, in which a mob of riotous individuals fought with police, charged down barricades and breached the inner sanctum of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. Amid banners and flags from lost regimes, these people terrorized senators, representatives, staffers and the media, destroying property and causing chaos.

Poynter legend Roy Peter Clark examined the way in which the Washington Post relied on fact and the use of language that “pushes the boundaries of traditional neutrality” to cover the event.  In his look at “telling it like it is,” Clark laid out the following case for this kind of writing:

Throughout 2020, journalists and critics have debated about whether a new social, political and technological order requires an enlarged set of standards and practices. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic, argued for a “commitment to plain language” in moving forward from the attack on the Capitol.

He imagined sentences liberated from traditional constraints. “We have to describe things as they are,” he said. What really happened on that terrible day? “The president of the United States incited a mob to sack the Capitol to lynch the vice president — his vice president.”

This essay is not meant as an invitation to abandon neutrality, only to make good choices about when and how to find a necessary distance from it.

On Poynter’s website late last year, Sonoma State University assistant professor Gina Baleria made a stronger and more direct case  against objectivity. Her point was that neutrality and objectivity undermine the ability for journalists to tell stories that need to be told. She notes:

Objectivity and journalism — over the last century, these two words have become inextricably linked. But striving for objectivity has actually hindered us from adequately covering truth, giving context and achieving equity.

As educators, it is our role and responsibility to teach a journalistic approach based not on objectivity, but on seeking truth, providing context, and including voices and perspectives left behind by the adherence to objectivity.

Baleria’s point that no human being has the pure ability to remain a blank slate is right on the mark. Despite the best efforts of people to remain neutral and balanced, both obvious and unintended biases will affect how humans act in any given situation. Intergroup-relations research has long indicated we all hold biases toward people “like us,” whether that affinity was based on race, language and culture or things as simple as wearing clothing that showed an affinity for a particular college’s sports team.

Moving forward from that premise, it would appear objectivity — neutrality, non-partisanship or whatever else you want to call the idea of staying “above the fray” —  is, at best, a farce. However, the idea that objectivity and neutrality do more harm than good demonstrates a failure to understand what we really SHOULD be doing as journalists.

Educators who train student journalists today often have to push back against the students’ current media experiences, which involve way too much punditry, opinion-as-fact content and the idea that everything has a right or a wrong answer. (And that is usually determined by which chucklehead is screaming the loudest at the time we go to commercial.) Trying to bend back toward an objective reality requires almost a “deprogramming” of sorts that helps students understand what makes for a fact, why their opinions about something don’t matter and how best to serve the needs of the audience, instead of themselves.

For people who still think objectivity, impartiality or neutrality undermine what journalists need to do in this day and age, here are a few ways to reexamine the issue:

OBJECTIVITY AS A DOOR: Maybe the word “objectivity” has gotten a bad rap because people think of it like a light switch: It’s either on or off. Either you are totally a blank slate upon which the events of history are written or you’re a biased, compromised shill, shaping reality as a tool of The Man.

When it comes to being objective, I like to think of it more like a door, which can be open or closed to varying degrees. In some cases, a completely open door is a great idea. If you go to a city council meeting and the city reps are debating Plan A vs. Plan B regarding park usage, you probably want to keep that door wide open at the start, particularly if you have limited ideas as to which is actually better. You can listen to both plans and keep that open mind until you hear something that might cause you to rethink things.

If both plans call for more playground equipment for kids, more flowers for the park and a bike trail, you keep that open door. However, if Plan B calls for the poisoning of all the trees in the park and the installation of “Uncle Crazy’s Death Trap Playground Equipment,” you can quickly start to see how that objectivity door is closing on the value of Plan B.

In some events, you can show up with a relatively closed door with a pretty quick spring hinge on it. For example, if a group with a history of racial animus and violent tendencies applies for a parade permit, it’s pretty easy to see that things have a real chance of going to hell in a speedboat in a hurry. Could this group be using this parade as a chance to reshape its image, atone for its past bad behavior and showcase a more humane side? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

In a case like this, the opening question in the interview might be about the purpose and intent of the parade. When the leader of the group starts talking about “racial superiority” or “hoping stuff gets hot real quick,” your door on objectivity slams shut.

The folks in D.C. covering the chaos probably started at the rally, where President Donald Trump started whipping people into a lather about fake news, stolen elections and more. This isn’t the first time he’s made these claims and I doubt it will be the last. That “door” on objectivity was pretty much closed shut in regard to thinking, “Well, wait now… I bet Don has something important and truthful to tell us that will support his claims of fraud…”

Keeping the objectivity door open on most things, even a crack, can make the difference between journalism and yammering. If I told you that you were going to cover a “motorcycle rally,” a lot of things might come to mind, and I’d bet a lot of them wouldn’t be good. Thoughts of “Sons of Anarchy” and “Mayans” might be coming to mind, along with other fearful items. However, the one I covered was actually a charity fundraiser for Muscular Dystrophy, where the people were amazing and the event raised a ton of money for a good cause.

When I did the “First-Person Target” series a year or two ago, where I looked at mass shootings and gun culture in America, I made a point of trying to keep as open of a door as possible going into each interview. I didn’t treat the police officer any different from the gun-rights advocate. I didn’t try to “pin down” a source with whom I disagreed or try to elevate a source with whom I identified. The degree to which I succeeded or failed is in the eye of the reader, which is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

OBSERVATIONS ARE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE: In teaching profile writing, I tell students that they do two forms of reporting: interviewing and observing. The interviews provide a lot of the steel core of the piece, strengthening it with information from sources. The observations provide details, character and reality that go beyond what someone is saying.

One piece I use as an example in that class is Jeff Pearlman’s “At Full Blast,” a look at relief pitcher John Rocker, who had what you might call an outsized personality. The entire opening of the piece is nothing but observations Pearlman picked up while riding with Rocker to a speaking engagement:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

It gets worse from there, but it definitely shows people EXACTLY what kind of jerk this guy is.

In the case of the Post story, the opening paragraphs rely on sources for key information (one person shot and killed) while using observable reality to fill in the crucial elements (tear gas, chanting, banners flying, window breaking). There were points where Post pushed past observation, which we’ll get to later, but overall, these two forms of reporting created the basis for the opening.

Journalism relies on the adage of “show, don’t tell,” which is why observation can be both informative and yet neutral. For reasons past my understanding, journalists seem to have this burning desire to step into their stories and tell people what they think, or what they want me to think as a reader. In most cases, it’s arrogant and unnecessary.

If a journalist writes, “A lunatic took to the floor of the Senate in a brazen, unprecedented and bizarre spectacle Tuesday, making a mockery of the legislative branch,” I’m likely to mentally push back. I’m also likely to think this writer has a bias, which makes it harder for me to consider other things that writer might put out there.

Instead, relying on observation and fact does the job just fine:

“A heavily tattooed, shirtless man wearing multi-colored face paint and a horned Viking helmet frocked with fur stood at the Senate podium, abandoned by Vice President Mike Pence during the Capitol attack. He hoisted an American flag attached to a spear and screamed loudly, with veins bulging from his neck, ‘Mike Pence! Show yourself.'”

Yeah, I think I’m going to come to the conclusion on my own that he’s engaging in an unprecedented and bizarre act on my own, thank you…

When a collective chant of “Hang Mike Pence!” emerged, you can easily observe and report that. You can even report this as violent, anti-government and even seditious (by its very definition), as each of those observations are easily connected to provable facts. (Unless you think that “Hang Mike Pence” was meant as a call to elevate Pence to the office of president and then “hang” his presidential portrait in the White House. If that’s the case, move on to the next point…)

TEACH CRITICAL THINKING FIRST: My friend Tony gave me the best phrase ever for explaining the idiocy of people: “If it were ‘common’ sense, everyone would have it.”

Objectivity, neutrality and other journalism tenets don’t require journalists to be as mesmerizingly unaware as a newborn kitten. On the contrary, it requires us to think harder and deeper when it comes to what we are being told and what we are able to ascertain through critical thought. Experience can be vital in helping us figure out if a source is lying to us or if a plan is a bad idea. Then again, so can just processing the reality that is unfolding right in front of us:

Journalism has been moving in this direction more recently because common sense and critical thought dictate that it should. In 2019, the Associated Press changed its stand on the concept of “racism” and “racist,” noting that using euphemisms like “racially charged” did more harm than good. Nobody’s shouting “White Power” at a rally because they thought they showed up to promote clean energy. In other words, if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, don’t call it “duckilly charged.”

Education has undermined critical thought for years, as “teaching to the test” and “getting the answers right” have taken the place of being able to think for ourselves. I’m often amazed at how many students find it completely unnecessary to verify a claim from a source that, on its face, seems outlandish to me. They figure they asked for an answer, they got one and that must be good enough. That’s not neutrality or objectivity. That’s naivete.

Which leads to the final point…

PLAY TO THE LEVEL OF  YOUR OWN COMPETENCE: We’ve talked about this on the blog multiple times before in a variety of ways. The idea that you “earn the fungus on your shower shoes,” and that journalism educators are often like driver’s ed teachers are just two of the posts that come to mind on this. In short, you need to learn to crawl before you walk, to walk before you run and to run before you fly. You can’t show up on Day One, jump out a window and expect to be soaring through the heavens.

(Side Note: My daughter started her driver’s ed lessons this month and is well on her way to the “behind-the-wheel” portion of the process. I am currently going through all of my bad driving habits and trying to rid myself of them so I can show, not tell, when it comes to doing this right. I’m also likely to be in need of sedative recommendations, so feel free to leave those in the comments section.)

The Post writer, John Woodrow Cox, is an experienced journalist at a top-flight publication, surrounded by a well-trained staff and extremely competent editors. In reading through the Q and A that Clark put at the end of of his story, it’s pretty clear how many people were involved in working through this situation. That level of expertise and information processing helped shore up any potential weak spots and avoid any landmines.

That’s not to say if you work at the Washington Post, have a decade of experience and won a boatload of awards you can’t screw up or overstep. However, I’d probably put my money on Cox when it came to nudging toward potentially non-neutral language choices as opposed to the kid in my class who still keeps mixing up “definitely” and “defiantly.”

It’s often difficult for educators to remember this because we find ourselves in what could best be described as a “Wooderson Environment:” We get older and the students stay the same age. Over that span of time, we can easily forget that each crop of new kids is coming in with exactly the same level of competence as the previous group. Meanwhile, we’re getting better, more polished and probably picking up a few new tricks.

(I go back and look at some of the stuff I wrote in college and thank God the internet wasn’t as omnipresent as it is now. I also remember my early pro years where I was making assumptions about criminal arrests, fires and other such things that make “old me” kind of freak out. Trust me, we weren’t better than the students back then. We’re just older now and our memories suck.)

In addition, as humans, it’s difficult to assess our own level competence because we like to think that we’re better than we really are, particularly when we are trying new things. That’s where the famous “Dunning-Krueger effect” comes into play, explaining that a little knowledge can truly be a dangerous thing:

The idea of “I know something, therefore I can do anything” is the reason why “fail videos” keep YouTube full of content. In journalism, failure to fully understand what it is you’re writing, seeing or saying can lead to serious ramifications for you, your media organization, the people you cover and the audience you serve.

Developing a sense of objectivity and neutrality can serve like the gutter guards on bowling alleys: You might bounce around a little bit, but you won’t end up completely screwed. Learning how and when to open or close those doors carefully will also help you from getting snowed.

Leave a Reply