by Matthew L. Schafer
Octavia Nasr, CNN’s Senior Middle East Editor, was fired last Wednesday after tweeting that she was sad at the passing of a Hezbollah leader. A CNN memo said that Nasr’s credibility was irreparably damaged. Nasr became the second victim of Israeli angst, following Helen Thomas’ departure from Hearst last month.
Both of these exits have rejuvenated questions about journalistic objectivity and its place in the 21st century news ecosystem. With the rise of cable news and the establishment of the blogosphere, some have asked whether objectivity is dead or just drowned out. The deeper question of whether objectivity is a noble goal of journalism, however, remains unanswered.
I think it is fair to say that democracy needs journalism, and journalism needs objective reporting.
In the 1920’s, public relations yielded to the impossibility of absolute fact in the new social environment, and instead relied on subjectivity to shape this new world. Responding to the rise of the mob mentality, professionals “took public opinion to be irrational and therefore something to… manipulate, and control,” Sociologist Michael Schudson argued in his book Discovering the News. Journalists countered the rise of public relations by creating professional schools that instilled in their young journalists notions of objectivity and the scientific method.
“Journalists came to believe in objectivity…, because they wanted to, needed to, were forced by ordinary human aspiration to seek escape from their own deep convictions of doubt,” Schudson wrote.
The turmoil of the 1960s created public distrust in the government. Racial injustice, Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam War weighed heavily on the public’s perception of government. While older reporters stressed objectivity, young reporters advocated interpretative reporting in response to the loss of public confidence in government. The critical culture fundamentally changed journalism and “straight society” news by promoting increased criticism, muckraking, and questioning of the government and official sources.
Yet, journalists–at least traditional journalists–are still guided by and influenced by a pursuit of objectivity and many see objectivity much as the founder of America’s journalism schools saw it. Before becoming entirely disillusioned, Walter Lippmann, the namesake of this blog, suggested that liberty itself depended on objectivity.
“There seems to be no way of evading the conclusion that liberty is not so much permission as it is the construction of a system of information increasingly independent of opinion,” Lippmann wrote in 1920. “In the long run it looks as if opinion could be made at once free and enlightening only by transferring our interest from ‘opinion’ to the objective realities from which it springs.”
Today, however, opinion is made free by creating your own reality. Indeed, objective reality is somewhat a fool’s wish. It is beyond what any one reporter can hope to achieve, but simply because it is unobtainable does not mean that the pursuit of it is without cause or benefit.
“The objectivity norm guides journalists to separate facts from values and to report only the facts,” Schudson writes. “Objective reporting is supposed to be cool, rather than emotional, in tone… According to the objectivity norm, the journalist’s job consists of reporting something called ‘news’ without commenting on it, slanting it, or shaping its formulation in any way.”
Conversely, critics argue that the objectivity norm simply allows journalists to be hamstrung into reporting each side without examining the truth behind the facts. Many argue that objectivity–along with fairness and balance–makes the journalist subservient to the public relations officer and the press conference. Some even blame the lack of press scrutiny in the run-up to the Iraq war on institutionalized objectivity.
“Our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to ‘truth,'” Brent Cunningham argued in his well-regarded article Re-thinking Objectivity. “Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is ‘both sides of the story,’ that’s often good enough.”
In the past few years objectivity has taken its punches. A recent poll showed that almost 70% of Americans think that objective reporting is dead. More American’s are tuning into hear cable news pundits rather than their counterparts on the broadcast nightly news. In 2009, press accuracy hit a record low with only 29% of Americans reporting that the press gets the facts straight and 18% reporting that the press deals fairly with all sides.
There is still plenty of reasons to appreciate objective journalism, however. Indeed the traditional press continues to be the source of original information. In a case study of Baltimore, conducted by the Project for Excellence in journalism, research found that 95% of original content came from traditional news outlets–the stalwarts of objective journalism.
I think it is fair to say that democracy needs journalism, and journalism needs objective reporting. If objective reporting dies, the information that it uncovered once upon a time will remain covered. The investigative pieces will remain uninvestigated, and we will be worse off because of it. Opinions are fine, but if everyone is giving their opinion and no one is still in the business of reporting, then democracy is dead.
I would also argue that objective reporting, when done right, does not have to hamstring reporters. Instead, objectivity hand-in-hand with the dedicated journalists digging below the surface, can create a journalism that is both ruthless, dependable, and defensible. And while it isn’t perfect, at least it’s attempting to be.