Objectivity

by Casey Mills on August 2, 2004

I remember walking in to my first meeting as the soon-to-be managing editor of San Francisco State’s newspaper, the Golden Gate Xpress. I sat down with professors and fellow staff members to discuss the upcoming semester, looked around the table, and began to feel very self-conscious about a small yellow button prominently displayed on my sweatshirt. The button read “Matt for Mayor.”

I turned to one of my mentors, a journalist named Yvonne Daley, and asked her if wearing that pin would be acceptable in a professional newsroom. She smiled, shook her head, and said, “No way in hell.” Since then, I’ve struggled almost daily with what it means to be a “professional, objective” journalist; not only if it’s something fair and necessary to impose upon journalists, but whether or not it was something I ever could – or wanted – to be.


I believe journalism’s obsession with objectivity as an ideal is often a negative force in the profession for a variety of reasons, and would like to use the Chronicle’s recent behavior, particularly the suspension of letters editor William Pates for a $400 contribution to John Kerry, as a starting point for a discussion of my own views on objectivity, employing both my experience as an editor of the Xpress and my research as a graduate student at SF State as a means to argue my points. Not a lot to draw on, I know, but we all have to start somewhere.

Journalism professors at SF State walked a thin line. The notoriously progressive campus, with its large amount of activists, made it hard to impose professional standards on student journalists. As a result, student journalists were free to do whatever they wished with their free time, be it organizing for the Young Republicans or working to overthrow capitalism. As managing editor, I tried to foster this environment, believing that writers’ involvement with issues and organizations, be they conservative or liberal, would provide their reporting and writing with a level of depth and insight unavailable to the “objective” journalist.

Obviously, I enforced the strictest guidelines for articles being factually sound. However, I also believed telling writers that couldn’t join political groups would force them to both deny an important part of themselves and to lie to me. They’d have to pretend they didn’t have feelings about certain issues, when in fact it was quite the opposite. I felt it was better to have everyone’s beliefs in plain view, then work from there, rather than pretending the paper’s writers were blank slates, able to cover anything “objectively.”

One of the most shocking contradictions I’ve observed at SF State is the profoundly different way different disciplines address objectivity. I’ve taken graduate seminars in History and Political Science, as well as journalism classes. In History, and in Poly Sci to a lesser degree, the notion of objectivity has been largely discredited. Talking with other grad students, it’s obvious postmodern ideas are working their way into other disciplines, at various speeds, and have been calling into question one of the most basic scientific principles – that of an “objective observer” – for quite some time. Strange, then, that until very recently, most journalism schools still taught objectivity as an ideal, rather than a subject of debate.

In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalist’s dropped “objectivity” from their code, and the subject has increasingly become a subject of debate within the profession. Journalism’s voice of conscience, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), recently devoted the cover of a recent issue of their magazine to an article titled “Re-thinking Objectivity.”

In it, author Brent Cunningham documents several reasons “objectivity” ultimately compromises the quality of journalism. For example, he documents the tendency for lazy reporters to get one quotable comment from both sides of an issue, and do no further reporting, feeling they’ve provided a “balanced” account. He also points out that journalists are often afraid to ask pointed, tough questions to those in power for fear they will be dubbed partisan and denied access to these sources.

Cunningham’s prescription?

“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.”

This discussion continues today in CJR’s coverage, most recently in the May/June issue, in which the publication explored mainstream journalism’s inability to report well (or even at all) on issues regarding class. The author concludes one of the reasons for the problems in that “Our devotion to the ideal of objectivity produces too many stories that are so concerned with ‘balance’ that they end up saying very little.”

Former journalist David T. Z. Mindich also recently published a book titled “Just the Facts: How Objectivity Came to Define American Journalism,” that seeks to explore the roots of objectivity’s rise to prominence in the field. He documents the evolution of the various aspects of objectivity, from the inverted pyramid style of writing to the ideal of non-partisanship.

Perhaps his most shocking point is that this journalistic ideal of “balance” is a hopelessly flawed one. He cites coverage of slave lynching in the late 19th century, documenting journalist’s propensity for giving credence to white’s claims that almost all lynchings were retaliation for black men’s sexual aggression towards white women, without investigating if this was really true. It wasn’t.

Mindich concludes, “In the case of lynching, ‘objectivity’ failed the truth. All the ‘objective’ reporters and all the ‘objective’ methods could not put together a reasonable understanding of lynching. That truth lay outside the rhetoric of ‘objectivity.'” Might not the same be said of journalism’s now increasingly apparent bungling of the lead-up to the war in Iraq?

Obviously, questioning objectivity opens an enormous can of worms, presenting a host of problems that could provide a library’s worth of subject matter. But I think it is a can that should be opened and dealt with, because it is a far more honest way of approaching journalism than the current half-hearted song and dance so many reporters have to engage in. Official A said this, but official B said this, they report, even though it’s painfully obvious to the journalist that Official A is lying. But the writer can’t say anything, and I think readers are growing increasingly frustrated by this, evidenced by the increasing number of media consumers who go to blogs and websites for their news instead of newspapers.

Objectivity is a quality the San Francisco Chronicle demands of its employees. However, I believe in many ways this request is disingenuous. Objectivity is an amorphous term, open to a variety of interpretations. As with many such terms, such as patriotism or loyalty, it can be used by those employing it to justify and mask their own agenda.

In the case of the Chronicle’s recent suspension of Pates, I believe the paper is using objectivity as a means of furthering the Hearst Corporation’s own conservative agenda. By claiming that Pates’ minor contribution is deserving of suspension, but Hearst’s donation over the past three election years of $30,000 to Republican candidates and committees is not worth a mention, the paper is selectively employing the term, and hiding behind it to avoid accountability for its bias.

News publications should recognize their employees come to their jobs with a wide array of life experiences and biases. They should allow them to act upon their beliefs, be it by donating to candidates, attending protests, or engaging in any sort of political endeavor, especially if the publication’s owners already do so. Journalists are human, and they should be recognized as such.

By doing so, publications would not only be finally admitting the impossibility of complete objectivity, they would allow their writers to explore subjects with the deep knowledge and perspectives on certain issues they possess. Readers would be provided a variety of perspectives, rather than just an objective one, leading to a profound improvement in a publication’s ability to achieve what is journalism’s primary goal; to present a full, rich depiction of the world we live in.

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