Objectivity and the scientific method won’t save journalism

There are a million and one opinions about what objectivity in journalism is (sophisticated?) and is not (neutral?). One example is how “objectivity” is an extension of the scientific method, even when there is an argument that it shouldn’t be.

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Newsroom leaders have been figuratively subtweeting, writing counter op-eds, and tsking about Wesley Lowery’s op-ed in The New York Times. Lowery outlines how newsrooms have time and time again interpreted “objectivity” as “neutrality,” usually to the detriment of marginalized communities. The pushback from patricians of journalism, generally, centers around a kind of paternal concern against journalists throwing caution to the wind and becoming pundits (though, I would argue cable news has already embraced that role). 

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of The Elements of Journalism with Bill Kovach and Executive Director of the American Press Institute, argued for more careful reading of the piece, as did Dean Baquet in an interview with the Longform podcast. 

The way they seem to describe it, objectivity is a byproduct of the scientific method. Walter Lippmann, as Rosenstiel points out, was among the first major voices to encourage adoption of objectivity for what could be considered modern journalism in the 1920s. Lippmann encouraged reporters to view objectivity as the scientific method applied to reporting. Its arrival was due to a more cultural shift towards empiricism. Newspapers adapted quickly, seeing it as a way to sell more papers and, as Mathew Ingramwrote for CJR, a way to be friendlier to more advertisers. Objectivity was a way to reach the more literate masses, the scientific method was a short-hand for determining how objective the reporting actually was. 

(One could draw a line between the decline of the newspaper and the increasing partisanship of media as they seek to carve out affluent audience niches — a common-enough business practice called retreating up-market — but that’s an essay for another day). 

Even today, many journalists use this definition of “objectivity,” the extension of the “scientific method,” as a way to describe how they decide what is objective. The problem is that it’s so clearly not working. First, and perhaps the most obvious problem with objectivity is that it never worked this way. 

There is no historical precedent for the scientific method-type objectivity to have actually existed, broadly, in newsrooms. In the 1950s, Warren Breed illustrated for us that antisemitism had far greater sway over news coverage than any desire for accuracy. In the 1960s, the oft-cited Kerner Report detailed in explicit and excruciating detail how newsrooms failed Black communities because they reported white values. In the 1970s, Gaye Tuchman performed an ethnography illustrating how objectivity was not thought of as a scientific instrument but as a defense mechanism against accusations of bias. In the next two decades, scores of papers underlined how news culture was a product of a predominant culture, one that was white, straight, and male. In the past two decades, scores of journalists on social media and online have underlined for their (often former) newsrooms exactly how they fail marginalized communities. Teaching objectivity as a “scientific method” seems to be completely limited to journalism school and to meta-journalism books like The Elements of Journalism. It doesn’t seem to exist in newsrooms in a pragmatic sense. The reason for this is simple: The scientific method, on a mechanical level, doesn’t translate to journalism.

The scientific method — the process of testing the accuracy of a hypothesis to reality — assumes that the instruments of testing (the journalists) will have what statisticians call validity and reliability

Validity asks if the instrument will detect what scientists are actually testing for, or that the survey will actually measure what it’s trying to measure. 

Reliability asks if those results are consistent over time. 

Journalists are bad at this. If you asked a journalist: “what is it about this story that makes it newsworthy?”, you are testing the instrument’s validity. You’re asking them if they are covering what they think they’re covering. Journalists wouldn’t be able to tell you what makes a news story a news story. They might cite traditional news values like proximity or novelty, but these change over time and according to the audience (poor reliability). It’s a gut instinct cultivated with experience. It’s an art, not a science. 

Journalists are not scientists and we wouldn’t want them to be. Their work isn’t performed in a controlled environment.

One new non-profit publication, The Markup, makes a point of aligning itself with the scientific method. However, I’d argue that there’s an important distinction there: The difference between showing your work (always good practice for science and journalism alike) and using the scientific method, which is a way to confirm reality, repeatedly, over time. The Markup’s method is tangible. It’s laid out in a pragmatic, actionable way. Often, when journalists talk about involving the scientific method, it isn’t so definite.

Science might not be what we want to aspire to in our reporting, and not just because science has been used to oppress people. 

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Khun lays out a kind of weird algorithm for how science evolves (yes, there is a science for science). Khun, a philosopher, theorized that science was not, as it had been suggested in the first half of the 20th century, an accumulation of knowledge over time (development-by-accumulation). It was actually the product of some accumulation, before a happy accident happens, which results in a paradigm shift. Something weird occurs and it completely changes the way we look at a scientific field. 

Humans interested in this weird occurrence push the research farther, resulting in a new way of thinking. Khun uses the Copernican Revolution as an example. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions created a lot of chaos in its day for insinuating that some element of science actually relies on a human element of weirdness and inspiration, and makes for great GRE preparation for the “vocabulary” section. His ultimate argument: That there are ways of knowing that exist out of our current paradigm. Which led to a very tricky (and thus controversial) question: Who are we leaving out?

In America, our science is Western, it is colonized, it is predominantly male and heteronormative and affluent. It is biased. It is biased because it can only understand things within its own paradigm. To use an oversimplifying example: Freud offensively attributed women’s inadequacies of character to penis envy. But most women do not literally want a penis. They want the freedom and privilege that comes with it. 

Consider that how we perform science is, in itself, biased in a certain way. If the flawless, Vulcan-like logic of modern science has been slowly re-evaluated with time, why do journalists hang onto objectivity so fiercely? Who cares? 

I am not advocating for more editorials or more opinions being thrown into news reporting, I am advocating for recognizing how deeply flawed our understanding of “objectivity” is and how it currently serves in American newsrooms. I am advocating on behalf of quality reporting, what Lowery calls “moral clarity,” which is currently suffering from a serious lack of perspectives. Rosentstiel says in The Elements of Journalism that, “Being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism,” yet that is often how it is applied today when we tie “objectivity” to the scientific method. A Black journalist can be benched from reporting on a civil rights movement, but a white reporter won’t be for reporting on the new cold press coffee shop in a gentrified neighborhood? Is a reporter from a wealthy background ever told to delete a tweet about their skincare routines or how their health radiates from “drinking water?” Is a male reporter told he’d be biased writing about a controversial new vasectomy practice? Of course not, because our “objective” reporting, our science, is usually paid for by the people whose paradigms these kinds of stories exist in. 

It seems we’re due for a paradigm shift. 

The author worked for Tom Rosenstiel as the American Press Institute’s summer research fellow in 2019. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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