Objectivity “wars”: A move toward reimagining journalism

There were several ways the conversation about objectivity in journalism continued throughout 2022, one of which was the Columbia Journalism Review’s September “Objectivity Wars” event. The discussion supplied questions for journalists to consider in their practice and priorities.
Crumpled newspapers lie atop each other. The image on the top newspaper is the focus, and features two human sculptures engaged in debate.
Pieter Musterd via Universidad Veracruzana.

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The Columbia Journalism Review’s Sep. 13 “Objectivity Wars” panel was billed as a significant conversation on journalistic objectivity and its discontents. It pitted two broad and divergent streams of thought against each other, in efforts to see where they converged. 

“The traditional, both-sides, neutral-toned model of reporting and objectivity, seen as a bulwark against a decline in media trust, is often pitted against a more muscular, outspoken journalism in response to a nation, and a profession, under siege,” the panel description reads. It’s meant to be a question — how can these models come together, if at all, to reshape the way journalism is practiced and qualified? 

The set of panelists was three practicing journalists and two journalism academics, namely Lewis Raven Wallace, Wesley Lowery, and Masha Gessen, all from marginalized communities, and David Greenberg and Andie Tucher, (respectively, white male and female) historians of the press and media scholars. 

A historical touch was already present at the event, with Jelani Cobb, Columbia Journalism School’s first African American dean, introducing the panelists — something Lowery, in his introductory remarks, noted: If Joseph Pulitzer was alive to see the panel and Cobb in his current position, he would not recognize the institution he founded. 

I can’t help saying that discussing objectivity in journalism in 2022 feels like blowing hot air — there isn’t really a demonstrated settled meaning for “objectivity” in journalism among both audiences and those making the news. Discontent about the news media and bias becomes even more complicated when asking people to define objectivity, since there are a million different ways to frame and write stories.

The old guard in the American press has yielded air time to anti-democratic factions and leaders under the guise of being non-partisan, and discussions about how and when the discontent of which groups are centered in stories or made prominent remain far from taking general hold. But I see the conversations in this panel as hopeful for revitalizing journalism’s role in supporting democracy. 

That said, this is by no means an “objective” take on the topic, the event, or the panelists’ views — for a faithful reproduction of the panel, you can watch the Youtube recording of the event. These are my highlights, along with a calling out of what I thought was missing.

Objectivity and both-sides-ism: A shifting target

For me, a question about both-sides-ism marked the most significant moment in the panel, eliciting a series of conflicting responses.

“How optimistic are you that the political press in this cycle is going to avoid the both-sides-ism that plagued the last cycle?” asked Kyle Pope, the panel’s moderator. 

“Both-sides-ism”, as Pope defined it, “is both parties being treated equally in their approach.”

Gessen said he was “not at all optimistic,” while Greenberg argued that both-sides-ism wasn’t a problem in the prior election news cycle — instead, he said, “the problem was the existence of a right-wing political and journalistic machine that supports Donald Trump, and that is quite independent of what’s happening in the mainstream journalism.”

“They [both parties] are not treated equally. There are stories in [the] New York Times all the time about election deniers on the ballot — Republicans!” Greenberg said.

Lowery’s rebuttal: “There are a proportionate number of stories about Democratic election deniers on the ballot — there are none! Were there [election deniers] getting elected statewide as Democrats, they’d be getting written about in the New York Times.  So it is equal [proportional] treatment! If Republicans murder 100 people and Democrats murder zero people, then there would be 100 more stories in the NYT!”

But Greenberg had a comeback: “So that’s not both-sides-ism, that’s objective reporting!”

To me, this discursive moment captured the essence of the problem with our focus on “objectivity” in journalism, especially with political partisanship in the backdrop. It lined up perfectly well with Lowery’s assertion just minutes earlier in the conversation that objectivity in journalism was a “moving and constantly confused concept”.

At the core of the dispute are many takes on objectivity, which have evolved over time. Historians Tucher and Greenberg provided a good backdrop in their own comments. 

On the one hand, resurgent critiques of objectivity — including from marginalized communities — say it is both the cause of selective inclusion of partisan views (both-sides-ism) and the weapon of selective exclusion of other legitimate sides to a story, like the Black experience in American democracy itself. It’s telling that the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report still reflects that experience, one of harmful and inaccurate news coverage of Black communities, over fifty years later. 

Press histories in democracies where upper-class people created and predominated mass media — including the U.S. — are littered with evidence of this.

A second, different narrative about objectivity has been that journalists cannot be seen to be “biased”, at the risk of losing credibility with the audience of said outlet. This narrative aligns with the pursuit of “neutrality”, which the panelists did not define, though I wish the moderator had asked.

A third story told about objectivity is that it’s the outcome when a reporter commits to accuracy and determining the truth, and therefore should not be mixed up with the both-sides-ism problem. There are still more narratives about objectivity, some more nuanced, others less, and throughout the event, panelists diverged on their views of objectivity several times. 

Objectivity: A style or a method?

For some years now, the question has become less about what objectivity is, and instead, more nuanced and complicated about how people in power have wielded it. 

David Greenberg sided with the method view of objectivity. Masha Gessen went with style

This central disagreement emerged when Greenberg professed that journalistic objectivity’s original claim to norms was rooted in it being a method, like science, despite the comparison being a very rough one. This argument is not new. 

I am a former engineer and did a little bit of scientific research in graduate school at USC. I’m also a former civic journalist and investigations editor by vocation. I view journalism as one of democracy’s truth-determination functions, and in line with that, I am unsurprised reporters are at home with evidence-based empirical work. 

While comparing journalistic objectivity to science has pull, I’ve also primarily seen this connection made by journalists from non-marginalized or more socially elite backgrounds. 

On this panel, in different ways, with words from their own unique journeys, Wallace, Lowery, and Gessen offered a rebuttal to the method argument and for any attempts to offer a benign couching for the word objectivity. 

For Wallace, “objectivity has been a silencing force.”

To Lowery, objectivity was “silencing people whose politics did not fit the politics of the outlet.” 

Gessen, who is non-binary, also pushed back at Greenberg: “Objectivity is a style,” they said, referring to how editors want reporters to write in a neutral and an “equal-treatment-to-all-views” tone and format.  

“Journalism gives facts their meaning,” Lowery added — whether a style or a method, “just the facts” was never going to create objectivity. He referred to the use of nut graphs in story writing, citing them as an example of interpretation journalists are always doing in complex stories and investigations that reflect a reporter’s opinion and judgment — hence, the reporter is in the story.  

Wallace, who came out as transgender in the late ‘90s, moving from activism, then to journalism, traced his journey into the field as one of subjectivity. 

“This is who I am, and this is my subjective truth; telling the stories of my life, existence, my community — trans people,” he said. For Wallace, neither the style nor the method frame was valid. Reporters make “very subjective moral decisions about what we will cover and how we will cover it, what we believe, what should be included,” he said.

Challenging objectivity: Questioning the assumption of an independent reality

Whether or not they realize it, reporters, by virtue of their narrative choices, framing, and sourcing, slowly but gradually shape the way people perceive the world around them. 

The call to objectivity, Gessen argued, assumes the existence of “an independent reality”, and the reporter merely has to depict that. 

That needs to be challenged, Gessen said: “Does an independent reality exist?”

“No.” 

To explain, they recalled the gay press they were a part of in the ‘80s, when AIDS and coverage of its treatment were major stories. 

“That reality (e.g. treatments) is not knowable unless we report on it, and our decisions to report and not report are inherently political, and we’re parts of this reality we create,” they said. “Reporting brings out a reality that is otherwise not known and reporters are also part of that reality.” 

Lowery shared his pain over how Black reporters in a newsroom contended with questions such as “Should I be Black first or a journalist first?”, whereas White reporters’ long-standing tradition of socializing with [white] police always got a free pass — “the burden of being Black in a newsroom while White local reporters can drink with cops in the evening.” 

They were never even subjected to such questions, he reminded people. 

As such, “journalism is an inherently political act”, Gessen said — a call for those in news to acknowledge the inherent politics in journalistic work. 

What this conversation missed

There were a few pressure points subliminally present in the comments from the panelists. Pressure points are topics or questions getting less attention because subconsciously and collectively, people know disagreements lurk. When called out, they could lead to a more rich or complex exchange of views and emotions, shifting the discourse to a more productive track, or broadening it and bringing in more stakeholders.

Three topics I’d like to see a direct and upfront discussion of in future conversations about objectivity:

  1. The connection between power, autonomy, and journalism through history. 
  2. How journalists cover controversies. What is a legitimate controversy that requires all-sides coverage from reporters, and how is that decided? 
  3. The psychology of bias and the relatively unsophisticated discussion of bias in journalism. 

Power, autonomy, and journalism

One of the key cultural faultlines in journalism is who the news is for and, therefore, what should be in it. I have often seen in my own conversations that people from privileged backgrounds (e.g. Brahmins in India/white folks in the US) who have not experienced social marginalization of any kind have a different expectation of news. 

Because social elites do not expect their autonomy over life and decision-making to ever be politically threatened (which often itself comes from economic well-being, social status, or often both), they relate to the news along the lines of “Give me the facts, I’ll make my own judgments; if I need opinion I know where to find it, in your columns — I’ll seek it out.” 

If you are already coasting through life and society and the economy are working for you, you need and use the news for very different reasons than people and communities who have been marginalized or oppressed by that same society and economy. This needs to be front and center in any debate on journalism’s practices. 

People who come from marginalized communities — be it small farmers in India at the mercy of the markets and dominant-caste landlords or young Black men just walking down the street in an American city — view the industrial news profession and its elites themselves skeptically. It’s the same with many in the working-class. People in this reality, to bring Gessen’s framing on “independent realities don’t exist”, may not feel this everyday autonomy over their lives. They are often living precariously. Their communities and culture have neither been represented proportionally nor with dignity in the fabric of stories. 

So for them, it has never been about “just the facts” or “receiving the news uninflected”, as Greenberg put it. It has been about power, a constant search for democratic ways to gain power politically and socially to level the playing field for themselves, their families, and their communities. Many implicitly see journalism as a way to raise the legitimacy of their claims — which are otherwise undermined or made invisible every day, including in the name of objectivity — and bring change. 

But they can also see journalism as an agent of harm, due to the ways reporters have delegitimized or misrepresented community concerns or leaned on stereotypes. 

Still, responsive, collaborative news media can become a medium for real, democratic agency. Gessen brought this up briefly when he said journalism is a political act. 

People reading the news come at it from very different journeys colliding in the public sphere through many realities. It is not possible to discuss objectivity or an avowedly less objective — at least by current standards — but “pro-democracy” avatar of journalism without discussing power and its manifestation, autonomy, and what that means for what the different publics want from the news. 

How journalists cover controversies

The confused meanings of objectivity include the assertion that journalists need to treat diverse views impartially. However, lesser focus has been given to the question of when diverse views are even legitimately necessary. Take controversies. In journalism, controversies are newsworthy. 

But how does a newsroom determine that some apparent dispute is a legitimate controversy? What is legitimacy? The determination of what is a controversy is usually what justifies the representation of multiple viewpoints and their factual claims in a story. Is there a framework of steps that journalists could use to offer justification in public when asked? 

Daniel Hallin offered a descriptive model for journalistic behavior on controversies in his book on media coverage of the Vietnam War, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam

He proposed a sphere of deviance, a sphere of legitimate controversy, and a sphere of consensus. For Hallin, when journalists felt an issue was a legitimate controversy, they would cover all sides. When there was consensus already, there was only the need to restate the consensus as context — hence other sides did not deserve coverage. If the views were considered deviant, they would not report on the issue at all. 

But Hallin described the media’s objectivity model and did not offer an ethical model to determine the legitimacy of controversies themselves. At present, journalists tend to assume that anything already controversial in social media or in peer publications should be treated as a legitimate controversy, as with Donald Trump’s claims about mail-in ballot fraud and coverage of treatments and vaccines in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic

Defining legitimacy for controversies is not easy. It requires setting and using some standards that competing claims must actually meet. Since journalism serves democracy, one approach could be this: Competing claims that appear to be fomenting controversy need to first pass some standards grounded in democratic principles.  Those could include truthfulness, factuality, weight of empirical evidence, connection to actors with a record of having made credible claims, compatibility with human rights, non-dehumanizing, etc. Climate change is the best example of how a settled question in science (at least from 2012) was allowed to become a controversy through the news media allowing invalid claims to gain credence in the discourse.

Openness about biases in journalism and journalists

Objectivity is sometimes framed as news “uninflected”, as Greenberg put it in his comments. This usually refers to mitigating away the “biases” of the journalists that might come in the way of conveyance of the news. But this claim about objectivity also misses a sophisticated understanding of what bias actually is and the different types of bias human beings carry, along with their implications for journalists. 

Biases are psychological conditions or predispositions that allow us to enact a particular behavior quickly. They come from experience, culture and values, norms, familiarity, evolution-survival, expertise, and a whole host of factors. They are the brain’s shortcuts to save us time from performing the otherwise cognitive and deliberative work we may need to consider every situation thoughtfully. 

Journalists need to make hundreds of decisions before and during the crafting of a story, and it is impossible to run each decision through an exhaustive, universal rubric — let alone reach uniform conclusions. 

The questions we must discuss in journalism are which biases are good for accurate storytelling and which biases aren’t. Objectivity became legacy media’s answer to this question and failed to build accurate narratives. Is being pro-democracy as a cultural rooting a good bias or a bad one? If we do not want to regress to the old objectivity of silencing uncomfortable perspectives, we must necessarily encourage journalists to discuss and classify biases comfortably, confidently, and transparently. 

Discussing these questions on journeys around power, autonomy, controversies, and biases up front and center, with “objectivity” in the backdrop is more likely to offer a pathway out of the “objectivity or not” frame. Indeed it might go towards what the organizers stated as a goal: “…redefine what qualifies as great journalism.” These pressure points are signals of opportunity to have this conversation as a series of events instead of one.

Subramaniam Vincent directs Journalism and Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He writes and synthesizes research on advancing pro-democracy norms in the news media, and has authored several book chapters and journal articles. Vincent, a 2015 John S. Knight Journalism fellow, received the NorCal chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’s 2022 Board Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism. He also co-founded and led two award-winning news magazines in Bangalore, India. 

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Omar Rashad.

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