How the Myth of Objectivity Protects Journalism

9 11 2010

Recent stories from both On the Media & Politico highlighted Michael Kinsley’s (@michaelkinsley) recent observations that “The notion that journalists ought to be sort of political, ideological eunuchs is hopeless”. In Kinsley’s view, it would be better if journalists’ political opinions were clearly stated, publishing, for example, a record of how they plan to vote in upcoming elections.

I think Kinsley is right in that we can’t expect our journalists to somehow exist free of political, social or moral opinions. What we can do is simply ask that those practicing the profession endeavor to be fair. This was the guidance we received when I was in Journalism school: that the standard to which we should aspire is not objectivity–which is impossible–but fairness. Covering all sides when they exist, leaving out your own opinions, relying on strong editing as a backstop to any inadvertant slip-ups. Sure, fairness is hard to both guage and achieve, and one that frequently falls down, but it’s a worthy standard that has gotten it mostly right in most media most of the time during the modern age of print and broadcast journalism.

And that’s where I think Kinsley and others like Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) get it wrong. It sounds great to say that journalists should just lay their cards out on the table so that people don’t have to guess their personal political views, but in reality this would would add even more fuel to the fire of our already fractious political-media environment. When a journalist reporting about the Jon Stewart or the Glenn Beck rallies makes it known that his tendency is to vote Democrat or Republican, he and his news outlet immediately receive a check against them from those readers on either the left or right, and who will then begin scrutinizing the work for hidden codes signalling the writer’s political agenda. Will editors then have to send two or more reporters to cover every politically charged Washington event, just to placate readers of every possible political bent? Or, will certain publications whose editorial voice already aligns with the either the left or the right stop hiring journalists from the other side because of the headache is causes them for their most partisan readership? I worked for Dow Jones for years, and knew a number of fine and respected WSJ editors and reporters who were political Liberals. An evironment in which these reporters had to somehow disclose that fact seems pretty chilling.

And none of this is to speak of the impracticality of such a system, as it does no justice to the nuance of many of our personal political beliefs. There are many of us who vote regularly across party lines, or who hold beliefs that are complex, somehow managing to believe at once in, say, lower taxes, government health care reform, a strong national defense and a woman’s right to choose. And given that these beliefs may change over time, or as new candidates emerge, political disclosure by journalists would either be very difficult to accurately assess, or would force us into artificial poles of political description.

And so the irony is that although actual objectivity by journalists is a myth, the appearance of objectivity is something that most news organizations must work very hard to maintain, or they risk losing something even more important: credibility. NPR was widely criticized for not allowing their employees to attend the Jon Stewart rally, but they were merely applying the same journalistic standards that most large news organizations do (and that we were all warned to expect back in J-school): that while we certainly can privately exercise our rights as citizens by voting, publicly aligning with a political cause hurts our credibility in that the appearance of fairness is compromised.

Criticisms over recent issues with political commentators like Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann should be understood to be a different issue, and I think some of the criticism NPR and MSNBC have taken over these cases is justified. Since these individuals are already paid to publicly express often controversial political opinions, taking them to task for expressing that opinion via other forums (like Fox News) or methods (campaign contributions) seems both pedantic and obtuse.

The standard that still can be applied, to both pundits and reporters alike, is the earnest attempt at fairness by journalists and their editors. Once we’ve ejected the cloak of political anonymity from our newsrooms, I suspect even a facade of fairness will be the next thing to inevitably go out the door.