NPR Debates Objectivity in Journalism

The NPR podcast 1A discusses objectivity in journalism (June 9). The show begins by running a previous comment by Wesley Lowery: “I don’t even like the word ‘objectivity.’ When we talk about trying to be objective, we begin the conversation with a lie . . . that we don’t have biases, and that we don’t perceive the world in certain ways. I strive to be fair. And that fairness means that I have to interrogate my own biases. That fairness means I have to go out of my way to make sure I’m giving a fair, good-faith hearing to people who I know I disagree with.” I very much like this commitment to fairness, but I deny that fairness clashes with objectivity properly understood. Fairness is not an alternative to objectivity; objectivity is the means to fairness.

The host, Sasha-Ann Simons, references a couple of relevant stories: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettebarred [a black reporter] from covering protests over racial justice,” while Axios not only encouraged its reporters to join the protests but said it would bail them out if they were arrested. (I selected the particular links.)

Simons asks, “Is it possible to be fair and transparent without being objective?” Again, my answer is obviously not, given the proper understanding of objectivity.

Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, public editor of PBS, says that “objectivity . . . really doesn’t exist.” He says, “I think it’s been a word that’s been overused by our industry in an attempt to portray us playing both sides or trying to reflect all sides of an issue equally. And you can’t do that. And the main reason you can’t do that is because we’re humans. As humans we have subjective impulses. We make . . . subjective decisions every step of the way in the news gathering. We decide what stories to go after. We decide what headlines to put over a story. As humans, we make subjective decisions into how we’re going to write the story, how the story will be edited. So every step of the way there’s a subjective measure that’s used to present news. And I’ve long preached that, instead of objectivity, we need to rely, number one, on accuracy. And, number two, is not even so much fairness, I think you need to be transparent. And so transparency and accuracy will give you the kind of journalism that I believe can show readers, and show audiences and listeners, that we’re approaching this with the right amount of fairness, and, foremost, looking at making sure that we are right. And so, I’m a firm believer in activist journalism. I mean, I think you can have a position, and you can take a position, but you need to be right. And you need to do it in a way that’s transparent, and that also shows you took the time to be introspective about your own work, and are presenting it in possibly the fairest possible fashion.”

Those remarks obviously are self-contradictory. If people cannot escape subjectivity, then there can be no way to decide, other than by personal preference (whim), whether something is accurate of fair. Obviously there is a great deal of selectivity (or optionality) in journalism—journalism is an art, and a hundred different journalists would write the same basic story in a hundred different ways. But Sandoval-Palos makes a very large mistake in jumping from selectivity to epistemological and moral subjectivism. Clearly he is not really committed to wholesale subjectivism, but he opens the door to it.

In answer to a question about bias, Sandoval-Palos continues, “You can’t avoid who you are even as a professional. You can’t leave that at the door. But what you can do is approach a subject, approach a story, with the right goal, and that goal has to be accuracy. And you can be accurate. Accuracy doesn’t know your skin color, or doesn’t know your political allegiance or alliance.” Just so.

Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that “white reporters are reporting through a racial lens” no less than black reporters. “None of us in this country are free from having a racialized experience, a racialized identity,” she continues. Referring to the much-criticized headline, “Buildings matter, too,” she complains of “a framework of whiteness where property is treated the same as a loss of black life.” Granting that the headline was inappropriate, I think that Hannah-Jones makes the mistake of seeing racism at work everywhere. Is it now impossible to quote Martin Luther King Jr. about judging people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? The notion that the typical “white” person is as upset over some smashed windows as the murder of a black man is ludicrous, unjust, and contrary to easily accessed facts (such as the fact that many thousands of white people joined the recent protests). Also ludicrous is to ignore that a major part of white terror campaigns against blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans has consisted of white mobs destroying the property of members of those groups. That said, Hannah-Jones obviously is correct that different people have different experiences and that America’s long history of racial oppression (of blacks and others) helps to set the context of our world.

Hannah-Jones continues, “The only thing that any human being is not [sic] objective about are things that we don’t know enough about to have formed an opinion. And as soon as you know enough about something you have an opinion about it. So, I agree, I’ve long said there’s no such thing as objectivity. I do believe we have to be fair, and the only way you can be fair is to understand what your biases are in your reporting and report against them.” The part about working against one’s biases is fine. The first part presumes that one cannot be objective about anything about which one has an opinion. Obviously that is false. For example, it is my opinion that two plus two equals four, and it is also objectively true that two plus two equals four. The question is whether our personal views align with the facts or not. Further, whether a given person is operating under some bias or not is a matter of objective fact. It is impossible to recognize a bias without thinking objectively about biases.

Morgan Givens, producer of 1A, also was on the show. By way of background, on June 6 Givens Tweeted: “Black lives matter. There’s a white supremacist authoritarian in the White House. The notion of ‘objectivity’ is based in white supremacist doctrine meant to uphold a white supremacist system that refuses to face the truth of itself.” He also retweets another comment, “Objectivity is a pillar of white supremacy.” His remarks are self-contradictory. Is it an objective fact that Trump is a white supremacist, or is that just Givens’s subjective opinion, no more or less justified than anyone else’s subjective opinion about Trump? The actual complaint seems to be that some people have abused and misused the concept of objectivity as a cover for bias and oppression. Well, is it an objective fact that they did so, or is that just Givens’s subjective opinion? That some people misuse the concept of objectivity hardly justifies throwing out objectivity.

On the show, Givens makes clear (at least by implication) that he does believe in objective facts. He says, “When you have the understanding of what white supremacy is and how it functions as a system, you cannot help but see that truth [about Trump]. And the problem that I am seeing, . . . when people point at me and say how can you say that, I’m looking at them like, how do you not have the knowledge of the institution in which you work so that you cannot see it. How do you not have the historical awareness and the subjectivity . . . and the knowledge that makes it so that you can actually remove yourself as much as possible intellectually from the white supremacist system in which we all function, to actually name it. And the reason that that caused such a furor . . . is because the inability to call out fascism is directly linked to journalists’ inability to call out white supremacy in the United States because the two are so inextricably tied. And so I stand by what I said, because it’s the truth. And the truth cannot be held hostage or captive for those who do not know it yet, and for those who have not done the reading yet, and for those who do not understand that it is a constant life battle to unlearn what this white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system has taught us.”

So there it is. Here is hard-left, neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist dogma masquerading as absolute “truth.” Here let me just say that there is much that is objectively true in what Givens says and also much that is objectively false. But these are very large debates for another time. The good news is that he does acknowledge that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, an implicit recognition of objectivity properly conceived.

Givens continues, helping to clarify what he means by objectivity: “And so unlearning that means that we have to also unmask the things that make it so we cannot call the truth the truth. That means we have to point to guidelines that say, black journalists need to be silent in the face of what they know to be true, and then also acknowledge that these guidelines are based in a white supremacist idea of objectivity.” It is unclear to me whether Givens is saying that objectivity per se is fraudulent or that white supremacists have subverted objectivity. Regardless, the sensible way to state Givens’s point is that pseudo-objectivity must be pushed aside to achieve authentic objectivity. So stated, the point is perfectly sound.

The discussion above takes us to the 16 minute mark of this 47 minute podcast.

A bit later, Sandoval-Palos makes a great comment: “If I point out something that I know to be demonstrably correct and accurate, then you can’t say that I’m biased for having said that.”

Hannah-Jones says, “Our role [as journalists] should actually be a getting at the truth, and providing context and analysis so people understand what this [a set of specific facts] means.”

Hannah-Jones also says, “I believe all journalism is activism, in that we see our job as holding powerful people accountable. That is not a neutral position.” I completely agree with this.


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