Demystifying the Sacred “Objectivity”

Objectivity: it’s taught as a golden rule in journalism classrooms around the country. The typical run-down goes like this: “As a journalist, your prime responsibility is to report the truth in a fair and balanced way. You must not let your personal opinions impact your writing and be sure to present both sides of every issue.” For years this has been what I have lived and breathed. For most of my college career, this has been the work I’ve been submitting in class. Every assignment follows that same “tried and true” formula: inverted pyramid, democrats say, republicans say, done. But, that model is a problematic one, and I think it’s high time we held this notion of “objectivity” under a microscope. 

David Carr, of the New York Times, conducted an interview with advocacy journalist Glenn Greenwald. In this piece, Carr explores the idea of journalism coming from an activist standpoint. Though Carr is wary of activism within journalism (he argues that reporting with an agenda takes away from responsibility to the truth) he does concede that there’s something to be said that Snowden decided to leak his NSA documents to Greenwald as opposed to other mainstream sources. This shows a shift in the way we think about journalism: we want analysis, we want well-informed opinion and most importantly, we crave journalism that takes a variety of stands.

As Greenwald put it:

“It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone call from Brazil, where he lives. “It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose — to serve as a check on power.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’d argue that rather than chasing a false notion of “objectivity” (which more often than not translates to “reporting on what people in power are saying”) we should be striving for a more transparent press. I’d much rather see a media-scape where journalists wear their biases on their sleeves, rather than covertly weaving bias into their work under slogans such as “fair and balanced.” There is nothing “fair and balanced” about presenting only two sides/ two solutions to any problem.

David Weinberger speaks to this idea on his Joho the blog. What he argues is that objectivity is just a false aspiration that in actuality is unattainable. He argues that transparency is a far more realistic ideal and actually would restore credibility back to the field of journalism:

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

 

Because journalists in the blogosphere religiously link to their sources and show, step by step, how they reached the conclusions that they did, they still retain their credibility. And if we were to have a flourishing free press full of advocacy journalists, then we’d have a plurality of opinions to choose from rather than just two. Sounds a lot more objective to me, but hey, what do I know?

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