Objectivity is a word that, in reference to journalism, is not as dry as it sounds. Its antonym, subjectivity, has been grounds for harsh reprimand. For many, a subjective reporter is an untrustworthy source of information.
In the world of journalism ethics, Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, spends a great deal of intellectual effort teasing out the history and future of objectivity. As it happens, he teaches my ethics seminar this semester and so my neurons have fired in the direction of objective journalism as well.
Past standards, he explained this week, hold a definition of objectivity that is not achievable. For a long time the expectation of journalism was only a factual, accurate recording of an event. No commentary, perspective, interpretation or speculation allowed. In that world, journalists could not have pre-formed perspective or opinion-driven interpretation. That, of course, was impossible.
That is not to say that reporters should allow their opinions to bias their writing, but they do have opinions. That is also not to say that journalists’ perspective should be featured in their story, but they will certainly use it to form their questions.
The old objectivity pretends that journalists have the ability to be emotionally sterile and intellectually nonjudgmental. Stephen has therefore introduced a new objectivity, a pragmatic one.
His “pragmatic objectivity” is one that recognizes journalists have feelings and opinions. But it also expects those sentiments to be nuanced and flexible. It is an objectivity that is more suited to practical application. Stephen clinched the presentation of his new concept by likening it to the scientific method. This got me hook, line, and sinker.
The scientific method starts with a hypothesis, then puts that conjecture to the test with experimentation. The resulting data is discussed and helps form a conclusion and ultimately the basis for a new hypothesis. A scientist starts with a conception, an opinion if you will, and allows it to be influenced by empirical proof.
The spirit of objective journalism is exactly the same. Journalists, like all humans, begin with a host of perceptions and opinions. From there, they proceed to investigate, interview, and fact-gather. The resulting synthetic information is the journalist’s rational output.
In Stephen’s new form of objectivity, the journalist doesn’t have to abandon all former judgements and feelings before beginning. Rather, an objective journalist must be willing to step back from a judgement and critique it. And most importantly, he or she must be willing to admit when they’re wrong.
Just as scientists modify original hypotheses if the data proves otherwise, journalists must be willing to accept that their judgements are a product of incomplete experience. As more experiences, or data, present themselves, original perceptions should be reassessed.
Pragmatic objectivity not only leaves room for the humanness of journalists, it also prescribes a method for them to produce trustworthy product. As the Pew Research Center indicates in their presentation of the principles of journalism, the method needs to be objective, not the journalist.