Archive for the Theory and Ethics Category

A Less Strict Objectivity

Posted in Theory and Ethics on January 20, 2009 by jessicapruitt

If not a truth robot, there should be some sort of equation for objectivity. I’m thinking something along the lines of: # of sources times pi divided by political influence^2=objectivity. The truth is, however, that language doesn’t work in the same way that math does. No matter what a writer writes, no matter how hard he or she strives to be objective, the output will be somewhat lacking the precision of, say, one of Newton’s laws or Pythagorus’s theories. As Cunningham so aptly notes in his article, “Rethinking Objectivity,” we are human. We are human, we are subjective, we are fallible, and we’re not going to get rid of these traits anytime soon.

Given the media’s long-held goal of objectivity and its prominence in the industry, however, it’s impossible to write off objectivity entirely. It is quite obviously preferable to see a news article that provides a wide spectrum of information with multiple perspectives than a one-sided article based on only one opinion or, even worse, speculation. At least for me, I would still prefer to believe that I’m not simply a gullible, spoonfed consumer. If nothing else, a goal of objectivity in journalism helps me to feel as if I am a free and independent thinker, respected by journalists and free to form my own opinions. In many ways, media’s goal of objectivity indicates this respect: the onus of deciding what is true and right is placed on the reader.

When objectivity gets in the way, however, of providing the public with as much significant information as possible, it is no longer the noble aspiration it once was. Regarding this, Cunningham makes an interesting point, saying: “I think most journalists will admit to feeding sources the information we want to hear, for quotes or attribution, just so we can make the crucial point we are not allowed to make ourselves.” When journalists are forced to rely on the one-sided information they are fed by the government and forced to provide only one point of view because officials refuse to speak on the issue, as Cunningham notes, objectivity loses out. It would be preferable to allow those journalists to ask questions and to make their own observations. After all, what makes an “official source” any more viable than the journalist himself? A journalist who has been researching the article for months, after all, likely possesses a more informed understanding of the issue than just one “official source.” Given this, while objectivity is a noble goal to strive for, it needs to be looked at less strictly and reevaluated. When it gets in the way of presenting valuable information, it should be put aside in the interest of informing the public.

Elaborating on the imperfection of humanity, Cunningham explains that “We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious.” Here, he makes the important point that it is awareness of bias, more than elimination of it, that leads to good news writing. Unconscious biases not only fool and mislead the reader, but they allow us to mislead ourselves as well. Again, journalists must not (and can not) try to become robotic in their intake and output of information, but rather must accept the fact that the world of words and humanity works quite unlike a mathematical equation. If, instead, we look at objectivity less strictly, with the idea of human error in mind, something more complex and more intelligent than simple objectivity will be able to develop.

Cunningham confirms this idea, stating that “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.” I have little choice but to agree. Pretending towards objectivity often has the effect of preventing the public from seeing valuable information and furthermore gives them the impression that everything they read is true. Neither of these outcomes are desirable in terms of an educated, democratic society. We therefore must redefine objectivity, if not cast it out altogether, in order to include a certain deference to our humanity and our intelligence. Doing so will improve not just journalism, but society as well.