Sunday, November 14, 2004

Objectivity doesn't mean being uncritical

The New York Times's ombudsman makes the crucial point that journalists have a responsibility not just to present "objectively" multiple points of view, but also to adjudicate between these points of view. He also provides some clues as to what has gone missing from journalism over the last few decades:

The historical roots of objectivity as a journalistic ideal suggest there's more to it than parking one's opinions at the curb. Before it was applied specifically to journalism, the idea of objectivity grew out of a variety of early 20th century intellectual movements recognizing that somewhere in the swamps of conscious and unconscious thought, people could be biased without knowing it. By the 1920's Walter Lippmann and others were arguing that reporters could combat unconscious bias by applying scientific method and its "sense of evidence" to journalistic inquiry. Only by the rigorous testing of hypotheses could the investigator - the journalist - reach reliable, bias-free conclusions. The key word, and the one that has disappeared from the definition over several generations, is "conclusions." Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight....

Some of the very best journalists in the country keep what they know off the page because they've been tied up by an imprecise definition of objectivity. I'm not calling for unsupported opinion, but for a flowering of facts - not just those recorded stenographically or uttered by experts, but the sort that arise from experience, knowledge and a brave willingness to stand behind what you know to be true. (Emphasis added)

Journalists (and everyone else) shouldn't let accusations of "liberal bias" or "elitism" cow them into giving a free pass to distorted or disproportionate statements from those they're reporting on.

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