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Wrestling with the myth of objectivity

Richard Somerville, Editor
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I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy being editor of a newspaper where the publisher writes a column ” especially when the publisher is as outspoken as Jeff Ackerman.

Most of that unease results from assumptions by some readers that because the publisher holds certain views, he directs the editors and reporters to slant the paper in that direction, or that they respond to unspoken pressure from him.

While I can’t speak for every newspaper in the country, that doesn’t happen at The Union or at the six other papers where I have worked during a 40-year career. In fact, there is an ethic in this business that, while it does not totally prevent such behavior, does professionally ostracize it.



I am prompted to address this issue because of a letter to the editor received on Friday from a reader who said of a conversation he had with Jeff: “He asked me if I thought reporters wrote objectively. He proceeded to answer his own question, saying reporters are not objective, and when preparing a piece they look at the list of facts and choose which ones to include, and an order that best presents their point of view.”

My first response is that, if you mean “objective” as devoid of opinion or emotion, of course not. Journalists are not robots. In fact, because they see, hear and read more than the average citizen, they are also generally more well-informed, and thus have more data available upon which to form subjective opinions.




In a column on June 29, in his infamous column about Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ documentary,” Jeff cited research showing that there are vastly more liberals than conservatives working in newsrooms (which I assume includes all news media, not just newspapers).

This, of course, is not a surprise. Reporters as a group are young, idealistic, see the worst of the world, and don’t earn a lot of money, unlike their more-conservative corporate bosses.

But does that mean they deliberately push their personal political agendas in their work? Of course not. That’s why I don’t believe Jeff told this letter-writer it did ” or if he did, he was engaging in one of his favorite activities, leg-pulling.

First of all, Jeff has been a reporter and an editor for some very good community papers, including this one, and as opinionated as he is, I do not believe he would deliberately slant a story any more than any of his employees would.

Secondly, if he thought it was going on at The Union or any other paper where he was publisher, that reporter or editor would be fired immediately.

On the other hand, are reporters not subject to unconscious biases, like all of us? Most assuredly. In this country, newsmen and women are predominantly white, middle-class and educated. That sets us up for a whole world of assumptions and beliefs that we must

continuously strive to overcome.

This whole “objectivity” debate is in itself the result of a

misinterpretation of journalism history. Ask a dozen journalists what objectivity means, and you’re likely to get a dozen views. But the original answer is there for the looking: As newspapers moved from the “yellow journalism” in the early 1900s to a mass medium after World War I, the press barons and philosophers such as Walter Lippman realized that reader trust was of primary importance.

It was also a time of increasing reverence for science, and thus scientific empiricism ” the objective weighing of all evidence to try to reach an evident “truth,” was adapted to the newspaper ethos. Over time, however, a cult of objectivity came to mean merely providing “both sides of the story” without any form of analysis, assessment or judgment.

In fact, instead of boldly slanting stories, most reporters are so fearful of accusations of subjectivity that they often fail to give readers what they need most: reliable reporting that gets us closer to truth.

In a thoughtful article in Columbia Journalism Review, Managing Editor Brent Cunningham wrote that slavish pursuit of objectivity excuses lazy reporting, increases reliance on official sources, reinforces wariness of challenging accepted wisdom, and makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there.

“This is not a call to scrap objectivity,” said Cunningham, “but rather a search for a better way of thinking about it.”

Like every field, journalism goes through eras often triggered by paradigm shifts: political organs, to the penny press, to investigative journalism, to the “new journalism.” As we move into the digital century, I sense we are on the cusp of another shift.

At the end of his excellent analysis, Cunningham offers some suggestions worthy of consideration:

“Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies ” and the public wants to believe.

If we stop claiming to be mere objective observers, it will not end the charges of bias but will allow us to defend what we do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.

“Secondly, we need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening.”

For those who don’t think this debate is too much “inside baseball,” but who recognize its importance to our civil society, I encourage you to read the full article at:

http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/4/objective-cunningham.asp

ooo

Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays.


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