Why Objectivity Still Matters

By Berry, Stephen J. | Nieman Reports, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Objectivity Still Matters


Berry, Stephen J., Nieman Reports


The notion that reporters should be objective is taking a beating these days, and the assault couldn't come at a worse time for the public. With the proliferation of devil-may-care bloggers and the facts-be-damned TV cable shout fests, the culture of our profession is trending toward a journalistic Woodstock, where everything except disciplined reporting is considered cool.

In the Winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports, Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism and a highly respected professional, denounced objectivity as "worse than useless," even harmful. She called for "a forthright jettisoning of the objectivity credo." Objectivity, she wrote, has become "an extremely effective cudgel" against the press for anyone who disagrees with its stories. "The anticipation of these bludgeonings," she said, "has produced a yet more craven media."

Wow! What a pathetic lot these journalists are. There's only one thing left to do. The editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other leaders of mainstream media should wave the white flag and announce, "Henceforth, we are not going to be objective." That ought to satisfy the critics.

It wouldn't, of course. It would only excite the current media-bashing frenzy. And the public would still be the losers.

The State of Objectivity

So much of news these days is all about throwing anything and everything out there--half-truths, distortions, opinion news, and the "tell-it-like-it-is" rantings of the contentious bullies who run the talk shows. More and more, reporters who still view objectivity as our guide and goal stand out like someone wearing a suit at a Metallica concert. Some journalism schools and textbooks don't mention objectivity any longer, except as a topic in an editorial problems seminar. In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists, without fanfare, dropped the term from its code of ethics.

The fact that some reporters permit superficial he-said/she-said reporting to define objectivity spawns much of today's criticism. In 2003, Brent Cunningham, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in an article, "Re-thinking Objectivity," that "our devotion to what we call objectivity" played a role in our failure to cover some of the Bush administration's shortcomings. While he didn't suggest tossing it, Cunningham acknowledged that journalists let "the principle of objectivity make us passive recipients of the news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it." Other critics subscribe to Overholser's belief that objectivity "often produces a report bound in rigid orthodoxy, a deplorably narrow product of conventional thinking," in which officialdom is given too much legitimacy and the voices of others given too little.

Objectivity has been on the ropes before. From the 1920's through the press's cowardly response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's demagoguery in the 1950's and into the Vietnam era, events and critics raised questions about objectivity. Yet the standard persisted. In 1978, Michael Schudson, author of "Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers," marveled at its hold on journalism. Noting its problems as a journalistic standard, Schudson asked, "Why ... should objectivity still be a serious issue? Why hasn't it been given up altogether?"

Reclaiming Objectivity

So what is this shackle that roils our profession decade after decade and now seems to have reporters cowering in fear and passivity?

Objectivity is a standard that requires journalists to try to put aside emotions and prejudices, including those implanted by the spinners and manipulators who meet them at every turn, as they gather and present the facts. They recognize objectivity as an ideal, the pursuit of which never ends and never totally succeeds. Walter Lippmann, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and the intellectual guru of journalistic objectivity in the 1920's, viewed it as a discipline inculcating scientific principles that can guide one to "victories over superstitions of the mind. …

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