July 29, 2003
The end of objectivity?
Interesting op-ed from Robert Bartley's WSJ.com - Thinking Things Over column. Is there such thing as true objectivity in journalism? I think it is a practical impossibility. Though the effort to be "fair and balanced" is a noble one, as Fox News has showed us, the question is fair and balanced according to whose perspective? I think there is greater danger in the pretense that our journalism is truly objective, because it suggests that readers can abandon a healthy skepticism--the same moral hazard faced by investors who think investing is (or should be) risk free. There is bias, corruption, manipulation, and mere honest differences of opinion out there--and always will be. The danger is pretending that it doesn't exist or that it can be managed, regulated, or edited away entirely. Caveat emptor, caveat reader. From Bartley:
Though an opinion journalist myself, I'm certainly not against attempts at objectivity. Indeed I believe the ethic is a more powerful influence than disgruntled readers and viewers often seem to believe; it's simply not true that journalists conspire to slant the news in favor of their friends and causes. Yet it's also true that in claiming "objectivity" the press often sees itself as a perfect arbiter of ultimate truth. This is a pretension beyond human capacity.
Especially so given the demands of modern technology. With instant radio, television and now the Internet taking over bulletin-board news, newspapers have to make their mark explaining not just events but their meaning. This is manifestly a matter of opinion.
The opinion of the press corps tends toward consensus because of an astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions. This self-selection is hardened by peer group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is by now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers. To take politics as a test, in 1992, a sample of top Washington reporters and editors voted 89% to 7% for Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush.
So an editor trying to put out objective reports has to contend with a newsroom dominated by a single viewpoint. Bringing some discipline to this process is no easy task, especially since the editor probably also subscribes to the dominant view. Some editors are better than others in instilling discipline, and some news organizations are better than others in building and sustaining a culture that supports their efforts at objectivity.