Lowery on Objectivity

Here I want to address Wesley Lowery’s interesting take on journalistic objectivity in more detail. Here is what Lowery wrote on June 3, in response to the New York Times running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton about the protests titled, “Send In the Troops”: “There are so many black people who I love and care about who work at the NYT, and they deserve so much better than to have their own employer endangering not only their lives but the lives of their friends and families and millions of other Americans. American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” (I’m editing slightly for formatting throughout.) A key thing to notice here is that Lowery puts the term “objectivity” in quote marks. (For far-future readers: The context here is the mass protests that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd.)

I mentioned Lowery’s remarks in my June 22 column defending journalistic objectivity. When I wrote the piece, I was not aware of Lowery’s June 11 follow-up comments on Twitter: “I think a lot of people are projecting a lot onto a quote that was the second tweet of a thread specifically about the Cotton op-ed and assuming it to mean something it does not. ‘Moral clarity’ is, first and foremost, about objective facts. Nazis are bad—objective fact. Black lives matter—objective fact. Climate change is real—objective fact. President Trump is a liar—objective fact.” This squares very well with my conception of objectivity. In this view, objectivity is fundamentally about an orientation to the facts, and there is no conflict between moral clarity and objectivity. Indeed, the two are inseparable; the idea that the facts matter is a moral view.

I want to turn now to Masha Gessen’s really nice article that picks up on Lowery’s insistence on moral clarity. (This pointed me to Lowery’s June 11 remarks.) I do think Gessen gets off on the wrong foot in suggesting that some journalists think that moral clarity is “terrible.” I don’t think any journalist actually thinks that. I think various journalists share my concern that some journalists might (as I put the point) “confuse moral clarity with prejudicial obstinance.”

Gessen observes that news outlets, in covering the protests, can choose to either “amplify the state” or “raise up voices that have been marginalized throughout history.” Gessen notes that a publication can opt “to do both.” I think this is a false choice when it comes to writing a news story. A good reporter will convey the entire picture, not simply by reflecting the views expressed by various parties during interviews, but by digging beneath people’s claims and putting the claims in context. The point of a news report is to convey to readers what is really going on, at a deep level, not, fundamentally, to “amplify” or “raise up” the agenda of one party. Of course, the facts very often support one cause over another, as a journalist is aware. And of course a journalist will face any number of difficult judgment calls about what to include and what to omit.

Gessen is largely concerned with how to handle a paper’s editorial pages, and here Gessen raises some important issues: “In making editorial decisions, [a paper] defines what it sees as the sphere of legitimate controversy, a term coined by the historian Daniel Hallin to describe what news outlets find suitable to publish.” (I referred to this as “Overton’s Window.”) Gessen continues: “Until recently, ideas such as defunding or abolishing the police fell outside the sphere of legitimate controversy—in Hallin’s terminology, they fell into the sphere of deviance, which meant that the papers did not amplify or even acknowledge them. But the idea of using the military to crush protests used to seem deviant, too.” This is a bit of a trick, I think; “defunding” the police, which means roughly to reduce the budget and scope of activity of the police, is a fundamentally different aim than abolishing the police. Going on a diet is hardly on par with not eating at all. But the broader point remains about choosing which views to consider.

Gessen quotes Susan Neiman as saying that moral clarity entails “looking at all the facts, looking at all the context.” This makes moral clarity practically synonymous with objectivity.

Gessen also quotes some of Lowery’s remarks from March 2: “Knowing where my own biases are / who I believe is right/wrong on an issue is what enables better and more fair questioning and reporting. Being honest with readers begins by being honest with ourselves. So often the questions that get the best/most insightful answers are posed from a place of moral clarity. Questioning someone powerful from a place of ‘neutrality’ often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing (see: dapper Nazis).”

I think Lowery is largely right here about neutrality. After seeing the video of George Floyd’s death, there was no way I could be neutral with respect whether the killing was justified. It clearly was not. (Note: A judge needs to maintain legal neutrality when hearing the case.) So a journalist hardly should focus a story on the cops’ rationalizations for killing Floyd. But if a journalist hears of a new case of police killing someone, the proper place to start, with respect to whether the killing was justified, is neutrality. Sometimes the evidence is not in, and a journalist should not make assumptions prior to evaluating any of the relevant facts.

I’ll repeat my concern from my column: “One of my concerns about the new brand of activist journalists is that in their rush to do what they already ‘know’ in their hearts is right they may obscure rather than bring to light the relevant facts and thereby ultimately undermine authentic justice and human well-being. The line between righteous moralizing and self-righteous partisan pandering can, in practice, become thin and easily breached.”

I quite like Gessen’s framing here: “Moral clarity is a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity.”

Gessen follows this up with a ridiculous statement: “There cannot be arguments about facts.” I think what Gessen means is that we should accept clearly established facts. That’s obvious. The problem is that facts often are not clearly established. Take the retraction of papers about hydroxychloroquine. Or the scientific controversy over “COVID toe.” In the case of the police killing of Elijah McClain in Colorado, one of the officers claimed McClain reached for the gun of one of the officers. Although I find that very hard to believe, so far as I’m aware there’s no decisive evidence either way. (The broader context is that police had no good reason to hassle McClain in the first place.) People reasonably debate complex facts all the time, in every field of study. Part of being objective means recognizing when the evidence for some fact is overwhelming, when it is merely suggestive, and when it is inconclusive. The facts are what they are regardless of what we think about them. Objectivity pertains to how we learn about facts, and often that is an extremely difficult and challenging process.

Gessen offers some interesting examples of what is up for debate. Gay marriage used to be up for debate, now it isn’t. I agree gay marriage is the right policy and there’s no point further debating it in this country at least in the context of mass media. “Whether Americans should have access to universal, taxpayer-funded health care is currently subject to debate; with any luck, in ten years, it will not be,” Gessen writes. Here I disagree. Regardless, what is up for widespread debate in a given culture obviously is not the same as what is factually true. Whether or not the U.S. passes “universal” health care, and whether or not people actively debate it, is independent of whether the policy, in fact, is just and supportive of human well-being (considering the long term and the full context).

Now I turn to Lowery’s June 23 op-ed for the New York Times, “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.”

Lowery, again, pushes back against a certain corrupted view of objectivity: “Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses. And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors.”

I take his point. I merely add that what he is addressing is not actually objectivity, properly conceived. Indeed, what he is actually advocating is more objective news reporting, journalism that takes better account of the full range of relevant facts.

Lowery favorably quotes Alex S. Jones, who contrasts “he-said/she-said reporting” with “authentic objectivity.”

Lowery makes a great point here: “Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.” I simply add the caveat: A journalist needs to make sure that the reported “facts” actually are facts and that other relevant facts have not been left out. Sometimes journalists simply get the facts wrong, or they fail to include obviously relevant facts, and they should be called out for that.

Lowery advocates abandoning “the appearance of objectivity” in favor of “being fair and telling the truth.” As I’d put the point, journalists should be objective, not hide behind an illusion of objectivity.

Then Lowery goes off the rails by arguing that, because newsrooms are driven by “subjective decision-making,” “No journalistic process is objective. And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.” Here Lowery makes two mistakes. First, he takes the inescapable optionality within news reporting as evidence against objectivity. But it isn’t. As I’ve said, a hundred reporters each would write the same story in a hundred different ways, yet each could be objective in its approach (or each could be non-objective). Objectivity entails recognition that certain decisions are morally optional—and certain decisions are morally necessary. Second, Lowery seems to presume here that moral judgments cannot be objective, which undermines his entire case against moral clarity.

Lowery’s errors carry over into his misunderstanding of bias. He suggests reporters must embrace rather than seek to overcome their biases, as the latter would lead to “public thoughtlessness.” That’s totally wrong. Having a moral point of view is not a bias, provided one’s moral point of view is deeply informed by facts and aimed at a sensible end (broadly, human well-being). A bias is a tendency or habit or temptation to believe something in the absence of facts or in contradiction to the relevant facts. A bias is always something that is dangerous and always something we should seek to overcome. Again, bias does not mean having a point of view; it means having a point of view rooted in fallacy and prejudice.

I like Lowery’s focus on accuracy and on “diligently seek[ing] out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree.” In effect, he is setting up guardrails against bias (properly understood).

Lowery is exactly right that reporters should avoid “simply rewriting a law enforcement news release.” Indeed, that extends to news releases from any source.

Lowery then has a thoughtful discussion about the Cotton op-ed; this is well worth reading (I have nothing to add here).

Lowery makes a great observation about the dynamics of social media: “Individual reporters now have followings of our own on social media platforms, granting us the ability to speak directly to the public. It is, then, no coincidence that after decades of pleading with management, black journalists are now making demands on Twitter.”

Although I quibble with Lowery’s conceptualization of objectivity and bias, I think he basically gets the substance right. He has become an important voice of our era. Read his work.


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