Substantive Objectivity: Embracing a Journalistic Norm of Verification

by Matthew L. Schafer

Press critics love to discuss journalistic objectivity – or more to the point, whether such a thing actually exists at all.  With the press (or at least cable television) returning to its partisan roots, it is unsurprising that journalistic objectivity is receiving renewed attention.

Why do critics spend time ruminating over journalistic objectivity?  In short, it is widely accepted – at least as a normative proposition – that for democracy to work the electorate must be informed.  Because most voters are busy working, running to the dry cleaners, or carting kids to soccer practice, they necessarily rely on the press to inform them.  Thus, whether the press is accurately informing voters is critical to whether a democracy can run smoothly.

Objectivity then – or more broadly, how journalists go about informing voters – is of the utmost importance.

It is fair to say that most press observers believe that journalistic objectivity is and always was an impossible goal.  Simply, they argue, no journalist can ever detach themselves from their own biases.  While it may surprise some, journalists are people also, and therefore, human nature prevents them from presenting a controversy straight down the middle.


Journalists often refuse to call factual balls and strikes.  Instead, they quote partisan umpires, each of whom have decidedly different views of home plate, explaining why the other umpire called the pitch wrong.  This style of reporting has become the traditional, “Democrats say X, but Republicans say Y.”  In short, this is “he said, she said” journalism at its most pure.


The effect of this inability to be unbiased shines through in newspaper and television journalists’ desire to be fair and balanced.  Journalists often refuse to call factual balls and strikes.  Instead, they quote partisan umpires, each of whom have decidedly different views of home plate, explaining why the other umpire called the pitch wrong.  This style of reporting has become the traditional, “Democrats say X, but Republicans say Y.”  In short, this is “he said, she said” journalism at its most pure.

In one often quoted phrase, Jay Rosen criticized this journalistic approach, calling it the “view from nowhere.”

“The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost ‘above’ anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions,” Rosen said.

Michael Shudson explained just how deep this approach to journalism runs, “‘Objectivity’ is at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing.”

Most recently, Linda Greenhouse, writing for Nieman Reports, described the main concern that this type of journalism raises, “Inside the profession of journalism, there has been a lively debate going on for years over whether the ‘he said, she said’ format, designed to avoid taking sides on contentious issues, impedes rather than enhances the goal of informing the reader.”

She went on to conclude, “But there is another side to ['he said, she said' journalism,] too—one that calls on journalists to do their best to provide not just the facts, but also—always—the truth.”

While it is hard to disagree with Greenhouse’s broad assertion that journalists should deliver the truth, Greenhouse failed to set forth any rules of the road that journalists could follow on their way to arriving at the truth for their readers.

Greenhouse’s examples of cases where the journalist should have reported “the truth” are perfect illustrations of how messy truth, as a guiding journalistic principle, can be.

She notes:

“A 2009 story in The New York Times about a dispute involving Fox News described the cable network as ‘a channel with a reputation for having a conservative point of view in much of its programming.’”

“A 2011 New York Times article, typical of many others, referred to Jared Loughner as ‘the man accused of opening fire outside a Tucson supermarket.’”

“NPR has chosen to use ‘harsh interrogation tactics’ or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ instead of ‘torture’ when reporting stories about waterboarding and other coercive practices used to interrogate terrorism suspects.”

She criticized the first example as impermissibly wishy-washy as a result of the clause “with a reputation.”  This, perhaps, results in a reader believing that Fox News is not actually biased, some people just think it is.

She criticized the second example, explaining, “Whether the Tucson shooter is guilty of murder is a legal question, but there is no question at all about his identity as the man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people.”

Finally, she acknowledged that the NPR example is a more difficult case because the use of the word does not necessarily lend itself to a black or white assessment.  Nonetheless, it seems that, by singling it out, Greenhouse believes this euphemistic stance does not cut it.

Having set forth examples of euphemistic reporting, Greenhouse had to confront whether  truth as a guiding principle is that much more useful than objectivity.

“Truth. How about truth for a goal?” she suggested, pointing to Neil Gabler, who advocates such an approach and suggests that “the media ‘marshal facts, but they don’t seek truth.’”

Despite offering truth as an alternative to objectivity, Greenhouse conceded it is “difficult to make the search for truth the highest journalistic value.”

In support of this assertion she offered two arguments.  First, she wrote, “To report, without elaboration, a politician’s charge concerning the ‘death panels’ in the health care bill is—assuming the politician is quoted accurately—certainly to report the truth.”  But this, she concluded, does not really inform the reader and therefore, truth is less useful as a guiding principle.

“[T]he notion that there exists one Truth exists in some tension with core First Amendment values,” she continued.  “After all, ‘the First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a ‘false’ idea,’ the Supreme Court tells us.”

Thus, Greenhouse, on one hand, left the reader with one conclusion that journalists have to tell the truth.  On the other, Greenhouse told the reader that the truth is either not useful or there is no such thing as truth in any event.  The reader is left thinking, “So what should a journalist do?”

To answer that question, it is first necessary to reconcile Greenhouse’s conclusion that we need truth with her assertions that truth is useless in many circumstances and there is no such thing as one truth in any event.

The internal conflict in Greenhouse’s article occurred for one reason:  She conflated truth in ideas with truth in facts.

As to the usefulness of truth, it is no doubt true, as Greenhouse pointed out, that reporting what a politician says amounts to truth.  This is emphatically not the issue though.  The point that Greenhouse failed to grapple with (and what Gabler is demanding) is that journalists “report the truth [about the fact of the matter at issue].”  The important thing is not whether the reporter truthfully quotes a politician about his ideas about death panels, but whether a reporter truthfully presents the facts as to the non-existence of death panels.

As Gabler notes, “Telling the truth requires shoe leather.  It requires digging up facts that aren’t being handed to you, talking to experts, thinking hard about what you find.”

Greenhouse then proved the point that she conflated truth in ideas with truth in facts when she explained that the Supreme Court has found that there is “no such thing as a ‘false idea.’”

This truism aside, it does not address whether there is such a thing, or any value in, a false fact.  And, to take her line of support, Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan have recently echoed the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, telling us that “false factual statements are less likely than true factual statements to make a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas.”

As a result of conflating truth in ideas with truth in facts, Greenhouse ended up espousing a broader and less defined rule for journalists than is realistically workable.  Her approach is a loosey-goosey call for truth.

It is unclear how Greenhouse would tell a reporter, for example, to deal with the terminology of torture as it relates to waterboarding.  This is so, because whether something qualifies as torture is a much more subjective inquiry – a judgment call.  (Of course, a reporter could quote the Geneva Convention (or something similar), but this is a different type of “truth telling” than simply reporting whether healthcare will result in more people with health insurance.)


“Putting aside the raucous debates about objectivity for a moment, it is clear that journalists in many circumstances can research and relay to their readers information about verifiable fact,” we wrote last year.


There is a more useful and definitive guiding principle than “truth” alone.  In a synopsis of a study of journalists’ approaches to dealing with the death panel claim that political scientist Regina Lawrence and I conducted, we concluded with what we thought is a useful and workable rule for journalists to follow: “substantive objectivity” or stated differently, the idea of reporting definitively “verifiable fact.”

“Putting aside the raucous debates about objectivity for a moment, it is clear that journalists in many circumstances can research and relay to their readers information about verifiable fact,” we wrote last year.

This rule is more definite than an appeal to truth alone.  It urges journalists to report facts that are capable of verification through empirical analysis – whether such analysis is the result of journalists’ own research, non-partisan expert organizations’ research (like the CBO or Fact Check), or scientific peer-reviewed research.  At the same time, it has a limiting principle – journalists should only specifically assert verifiable facts – that Greenhouse’s truth principle fails to provide.

Under our model, a journalist might have to pass on defining waterboarding as torture and resort to the tried-and-true method of “he said, she said.”  On the other hand, a journalist could without worry note that the Affordable Care Act will result in greater healthcare coverage.

This fixation on verifiable fact as a guiding principle is useful for two reasons.  First, it gives journalists a plausible-deniability peg on which to hang their reporting.  An ombudsman could defend a reporter by saying, “Smith was right to call Senator McConnell wrong when the Senator asserted that healthcare will cost the country a trillion dollars.  Indeed, Smith relied on the non-partisan CBO’s estimate of healthcare savings in order to question the Senator’s assertion.”

Similarly and most attractively, this approach moots the squabbling about whether a reporter can actually be objective.  Or, as Professor Lawrence and I wrote, “Of course, every journalist is — to some extent — influenced by their experiences, predilections, and political preferences, but these traits do not necessarily interfere with objectively reporting verifiable fact.”

In sum, appeals to truth are attractive, but not useful.  Drawing the line at verifiable fact, however, is useful, because it is both limited and clean.  It preserves the advantages of the current “he said, she said” approach by offering the journalist plausible deniability through a reliance on expert organizations and peer-reviewed scientific research.  And, it removes the reporter (as much as possible) from charges that he is biased, because he can answer a charge by indicating that he relied on an expert organization and no other reputable non-biased organization or peer-review study, among other sources, existed to rebut the fact.

About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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One Response to Substantive Objectivity: Embracing a Journalistic Norm of Verification

  1. Second Life says:

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    I mean Substantive Objectivity: Embracing a Journalistic Norm of Verification | Lippmann Would Roll is a little plain.
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