The phoniness of objectivity


“‘Objectivity” is nothing more than a way to protect the status quo,” wrote friend and colleague Maura Johnston yesterday. The New York Times’ public editor  Liz Spayd wrote a Sunday column called “The Truth About ‘False Balance’.”  Justin Peters’ response: “What Spayd doesn’t acknowledge—and what the Times refuses to internalize—is that any sentient political journalist is already passing moral and ideological judgment on the candidates and campaigns they cover.” The act of gathering quotes, arranging them in a certain sequence, writing a lead – the elements, in short, that constitute a news story – is a distillation of a moral and ideological judgment.

As a media advisor, I teach my students that every sentence is a judgment. This theory is not shared by editors of political content. Peters:

This passivity isn’t especially thorny if you’re covering breaking news, like a fire. But political reporters don’t report on actual news events so much as staged pseudo-events—not fires but politicians talking about fires. As a result, their stories often take the following format: “Candidate A said there was a fire. Candidate B said there wasn’t a fire.” That’s an objective story: The journalist takes no sides, gives equal time to each party, and does not insert an opinion. But it’s also a very bad story, because it says nothing about whether or not there was actually a fire. If there actually was a fire and Candidate B keeps insisting that there wasn’t, then it’s not “bias” to say that Candidate B is wrong. If Candidate B keeps on insisting that there wasn’t a fire—or, perhaps, if Candidate B goes on record encouraging arsonists to set fires—then journalists ought to spend more time refuting and challenging Candidate B.

Put it this way: if a reporter were to follow the clause “Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865” with the phrase “according to the Encyclopedia Britannica,” would you praise the devotion to accuracy or laugh at his fastidiousness? No one, not even devotees of the Lost Cause, doubts Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater that Friday evening. This is what is known as common knowledge.

“Share what you see,” a veteran reporter and mentor told me long ago. By all means corroborate. Find other witnesses. Contextualize. But don’t pretend the story ends because a source says an event did or didn’t happen. If you see the fire and a cop is telling you there was no fire, do you say the fire didn’t happen, or do you, for example, interview survivors who can recount their experience as well as the cop saying no fire happened?

Other weasel words: “raises questions” and its dreadful colleague “controversial.” If several people dislike a Clinton remark or Trump boast, name them. “Controversial” merely reflects your membership in the pundit class.

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One Response to The phoniness of objectivity

  1. Pingback: How Some Politicians Create Trust Through Dishonesty -

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