Quick Hit: The Myth of Objectivity

Suzie at Echidne’s has a must-read post today on the myth of journalistic objectivity. Read it with OBESITY CRISIS!!! reporting in mind, and it’ll knock your socks off. 

Journalists make some exceptions for columns and features, but for news, they are supposed to put aside feelings, biases, beliefs, experiences, cultural norms, values – everything that makes them an individual. But what if people can’t catalog everything that has influenced them? What if a residue of prejudice remains? What if they can’t tease apart mixed feelings?
         Stories are more than lists of facts; journalists describe what they perceive. They often interpret what others say. They use their judgment to decide which issues and events to cover, whom to quote, which quotes to use, what material to include, what images to shoot, how to edit it, how to play the story, etc.
         They are not scientists staring into a petri dish. News coverage influences stories. How can journalists be objective when they are part of the action?

Also, on working in a newsroom where her superiors worried she was pushing some kind of nutty feminist agenda:

They thought that being a feminist made me biased. It didn’t occur to them that not being a feminist was also a political stance. No one is neutral. You challenge the system, or you support it, even if it’s just with your silence and inaction.

Emphasis mine. Discuss!

23 thoughts on “Quick Hit: The Myth of Objectivity”

  1. I’m a little torn on this, because the obvious abandonment of objectivity fragments papers even further. “Well, you can’t trust the because it’s ” It’s already incredibly difficult to tease out the “truth” and I do think there’s a place where things are firmly rooted in . . . something. Not objectivity, since there isn’t such a thing, but . . . emotional distance? Acknowledgment of positions and perspectives would be an awesome start – are you in a position of privilege? Journalists often acknowledge when they’re not likely to be told the truth (usually by outside governments like China, natch), but they don’t always acknowledge even obvious language/culture barriers (Iraq, for example). It would grow irritating to read “as a white middle-class male, I . . .” in most columns.
    Interesting post!

  2. Feminism? GAACK!!! Cannot respond properly to post. Had nightmares about Sarah Palin last night. Is anyone else terrified?

  3. Anita, I think I see what you’re getting at, but I’m also reminded that a lot of good reporting comes from times when reporters *do* feel emotionally stirred by what they’re covering (e.g., Anderson Cooper in New Orleans). But I think Suzie’s main point is right on — the idea that straight white men are assumed to be objective by default, and everyone else is assumed to be partial by default, rests on the assumption of the straight white guy as the Universal Man and everyone else as a deviation.

  4. Wow, this was timely. Last night I couldn’t sit in the living room, because Dad had Hate TV on again (aka politics/news, the only thing he watches, but I don’t have the stored up sanity points for that shit). Finally I dragged my guitar downstairs, hoping I could coax him into giving me a lesson, because I was sick of sitting in my bedroom and staring at the wall (Mom had the computer).

    Instead we ended up having a long talk about politics and world issues and crap. Which is nice yet not-nice and usually leaves me feeling fired up and frustrated, and last night was no exception. Dad tries to listen to my point of view, but he’s got that brain disease that a lot of people seem to have (is it just me or is this disease particularly commonplace in men I know? is it somehow tied to male privilege or is it just my imagination?) where he decides he knows what I’m talking about before I’m finished and interrupts to counterpoint before he gets a good idea of what I’m on about… it’s funny to me because he would probably be surprised at all the things we agree on that he thinks we don’t. Though we do disagree on some pretty fundamental stuff too, not the least of which being (surprise!) feminism!

    We got talking (again) about abortion, and I said basically, “Look, the issue isn’t even abortion really, the issue is unwanted pregnancies. The fact is, the options all suck, and we need a better way to deal with family planning, and women need to have the same sexual freedoms as men.”

    Which is about when he goes nuts with the eye-rolling and groaning and diatribes. He does NOT understand the concept of sexual freedom. He doesn’t even, I don’t think, know what I’m talking about when I say that, but since I’ve never been able to get a word in edgewise once I mention it it’s hard to explain it. ;)

    I then tried to talk to him about sexual equality in terms of how our current system defines men unfairly, figuring at least he would understand unreasonable pressures society puts on men to be something ridiculous and stupid. I was wrong. I started with clothes, asking him if he would wear a pink shirt to work. He said he had two… um…. yeah, I’ve seen them, they’re pink-ish, but not PINK, and I meant PINK. So, okay, colors are out, so I decide to move on to a different spectrum in clothes. I told him I could wear a suit any damn time I please, but he’d get called all sorts of deviant things if he wore a dress, even as a costume. He said “well yeah, that’s just WEIRD.” Okay, so I won’t reach him there.

    So I decide to go with the simplest thing I can think of, which is that little boys think being called a “girl” is the direst of insults, whereas if you called a little girl a “boy” she’d just laugh in your face, since you might as well have called her a potato. But I never got there, because he started a new train of thought entirely and then went to bed.

    Conversations with Dad are sometimes strange. I’m glad we talk, but I don’t always feel like we’re talking the same language.

    Anyway, sorry, that’s not the part that ties into this post really. What ties in is that he thinks because he watches CNN and Fox News that he’s getting an “unbiased” view.


  5. They are not scientists staring into a petri dish.

    And to top it off, those people aren’t objective, either. They stare into that petri dish with expectations.

  6. The idea of objectivity comes up a lot in law, too, with its myth of the “reasonable person” and so-called neutral fact-finders. I think one of the most awesomely brain-rattling realizations in my adult life (explored in depth in a class called “economic justice” that I took in law school – changed my life, it did) was that nobody is neutral, even me.

    I actually have a job wherein I act as a “neutral fact-finder” which kind of puts me in a weird place and makes me think about this issue pretty much every day. I approach it by acknowledging and openly admitting my bias, so that the people who make decisions on my work can take that into account when deciding whether to rely on my findings. It helps that the particular framework within which I am fact-finding is statutorily biased in the same way that I am (aka liberally construed in favor of the claimant).

  7. I have a masters in journalism. One of the courses everyone was required to take was ethics. I remember my ethics professor saying that if you have biases or opinions, you should recuse yourself from reporting on a story or general topic.

    I asked him how an intelligent person could fail to form opinions on issues and events, especially after doing a bunch of research into them and talking to most of the major players involved. He never had a satisfactory answer for me.

    Admitting your biases doesn’t mean you must twist the words of people you interview or ignore facts. It means that people know where you are coming from, which I always find is important when weighing someone’s words and making up my own mind. Sometimes a “bias” means I trust the person more.

    I wouldn’t want someone without deep knowledge of electricity to be wiring my house. I wouldn’t want someone who gave equal weight to any of several surgical techniques to be cutting me open, and frankly, I’d rather hear news from someone who knows about the topics they are reporting on, and, as folks are pointing out, it’s impossible not to form an opinion on a topic that you know about.

    So, you might start out without an opinion, but if you do enough research to put a decent story together, you will form an opinion.

    I’ve got to say, if there was a daily newspaper I could get that reported the news from an avowedly feminist perspective, I might actually start buying newspapers again.


  8. SugarLeigh, we call that Male Answer Syndrome, the phenomenon where men assume that they know the answer to everything because they’re men.

  9. I asked him how an intelligent person could fail to form opinions on issues and events, especially after doing a bunch of research into them and talking to most of the major players involved. He never had a satisfactory answer for me.

    GAH. That’s it exactly.

  10. It means that people know where you are coming from, which I always find is important when weighing someone’s words and making up my own mind.

    Yes! Exactly. The assumption of objectivity forecloses any critical analysis, too – how can you dissect something if it’s objective? We’ve been taught to accept certain things as neutral facts that most certainly are not – in the media, in the law. And that’s how we end up with bullshit societal constructs like “fat people are unhealthy” and “women are emotional while men are rational.”

  11. As a freelance writer, I straddle the line between writer and journalist. I do a lot of my work for a daily paper, where I also have a monthly column. I struggle every day with this question, because I assuredly do have opinions and biases, and I don’t know how it would be possible to completely obliterate those.

    I wish that U.S. media would surrender its total BS cover of “objectivity” and cop to the biases it has, much in the way that European papers do. If you live in the UK and want news from a lefty position, you read the Guardian. Everybody knows that and nobody thinks anything about it. I quickly learned from my British friends that you can tell a lot about a person from which paper they subscribe to and/or read.

    Which means that Sarah Palin, who reads all of them, is a hard nut to crack. ;)

  12. There was a really amusing rant in the Guardian a while ago about how AWFUL blogging was because everyone hides under anonymity and so you never know what biases anyone has or how they’re involved in what they write about and there were loads of comments pointing out that this was hardly a unique ‘problem’ with blogs. How many journalists bother to put (ps. the guy running this company is my best friend/I went to university with that politician/my wife works in that field) their biases on show?

    I get so fed up with people going ‘but you can’t really talk about… rape/misogyny/catcalling/discrimination because you’re a woman and so you’re not able to look at it objectively’. WHY is it always the white male who is ‘objective’ and everyone else who’s ‘irrationally biased’ *shakes head sadly*

  13. This is one of the points of my dissertation — just how biased medical studies can be. Our society equates scientific with unbiased, and that is SO not true. There are a few people who really try to follow the data, even when they don’t like the answer, but they are few and far between.

    This is one of the big arguments that crop up time and time again in feminist research methods — everyone is biased so quite trying to pretend that they are not.

  14. Essen, writers for my local alt weekly do that sometimes — they’ll put in a parenthetical “Full disclosure: I worked for this company back in the day” or whatever next to the relevant chunk of info.

    Maybe I’ll write up something for my LJ userinfo (or my blog, if I ever bother updating it) describing my biases and how I’m involved in what I write about. I like that kind of honesty. It also seems like it’d be much easier to sustain over time — you don’t have to do increasingly complex contortions to try and remain “objective”, or even to agree with the same opinions you had last week or last year.

    Which is one of my current grumps about politics. Is no one allowed to change his/her mind? What’s wrong with a simple statement like “Yes, I used to support that, but I looked more deeply into the issue and I no longer support it”?

  15. We all have biases, because we don’t live in a vacuum.

    Actually, even if we *did* live in a vacuum, we’d probably still have them.

    @ Nicole – don’t your newspapers have acknowledged biases like UK papers do? How do you know which ones to avoid otherwise?!

  16. I’m a journalist for a daily paper.

    Objectivity doesn’t mean you report as if you were a robot.

    Objectivity means you don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by a source or sources to promote their ideas and opinions as absolutes while minimizing the voices of thse who disagree with them.

    I’m a gay woman with leftist leanings, and I coordinate a religion section for a newspaper in the Bible belt. I ask questions, challenge people when I think they’re shoveling shit at me and then ask more questions. I’ve got a number of sources who are sure that people like me are going to hell. I’ve yet to have any of them insist I’m not being objective.

  17. This reminds me of Linda Ellerbee’s tale of doing a report on abortion for NBC news in And So It Goes. She was worried that her own experience with having had an abortion would make her too biased to do the story.

    In the end, the hate mail the piece generated was roughly equally divided between “Obviously you’re pro-abortion” and “Obviously you’re anti-abortion”. She decided this meant she had done a good, objective handling of the subject, because she’d pissed off both sides :)

  18. Actually, the first essay I ever had to write for a Gender Studies class was discussing the gender-charged ways that ‘scientists staring into a petri dish’ reported on what they saw, or what they thought they saw. It was pretty interesting to write, to say the least. And with it came the realisation that nothing, not even supposed scientific fact, was created in a vacuum.

  19. @ Nicole – don’t your newspapers have acknowledged biases like UK papers do? How do you know which ones to avoid otherwise?!

    No, our newspapers do NOT have acknowledged leaninggs. Most of the newspapers in America are owned by a very small group of people; like 5 people. It is one reason why Americans appear so foolish to the rest of the world: our news sources are, for the most part, pro-corporation propaganda. Most major cities in America have ONE newspaper, rather than two or more as was the case a hundred years ago. There is literally NO voice in America for labor, all the newspapers are Capital-owned and favor that viewpoint. Only a total radical like me even sees this as a problem.

    The most intelligent/progressive Americans get their news over the internet from foreign sources. I find that Indian newspapers often report more fully on American politics than our papers do. The BBC is not only head and shoulders, but an entire human length above our news services.

  20. KMTBERRY — which Indian newspapers in particular? I know they do some fantastic reporting, but I haven’t been able to read consistently.

  21. I’m delurking to say thanks to Kate for posting this. I think a couple of people are equating “objectivity” with “fairness.” One thing I was trying to say was that we may not understand everything that’s going on inside our own heads. Thus, we may not always realize when we’re being manipulated, for example. That’s why it’s so good to have different perspectives.

    Btw, my old newspaper seems obsessed with stories of women losing weight, which fall under the heading of “fitness.” But it no longer has anyone covering health news. Thus, losing 40 pounds gets in print, but there’s no story on a groundbreaking clinical trial on ovarian cancer in our city.

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