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Weekend reads: On objectivity
Is it time to scrap the old journalistic ideal? (Nope.)
Journalism is in crisis — and those of us working in the imploding industry are acutely aware of it.
Traditional revenue models have collapsed. Outlets are shuttered all the time. TV news struggles to find an audience. Few newspapers and magazines are thriving. Competition for eyeballs online is fierce. Local news is, in many regions, becoming obsolete. Investigative reporting is underfunded. Public trust in media has fallen off a cliff. Reporters are heckled in public and harassed online. Many in the media are overworked, underpaid, and burned out from covering a global pandemic. And deeply concerned about the direction that our profession is going.
It’s obviously time to ask ourselves some tough questions. We should start with this one: Why don’t people trust us?
The short answer is: It’s because of significant failures in our coverage on stories like Brexit, Trump, the protests of 2020, and the pandemic.
People tell me they don’t trust the media because much of the reporting feels overtly political — biased against one side, and overly credulous of the other — and because it is not infrequently proved inaccurate after the fact.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the dominant view within journalism.
In media circles, there are in fact deep disagreements over the importance of objectivity at all, with many arguing for a new standard of “moral clarity.”
Wesley Lowery, who famously articulated the case against objectivity, as it has traditionally been practised, in The New York Times, believes the old way must go.
And The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has wondered why some journalists are afraid of the “moral clarity” model, asking, “What’s so terrible about moral clarity?”
My big question here is: Who gets to decide the correct moral take on any given story?
And: What if we are wrong?
As Hate, Inc. author and fellow Substacker Matt Taibbi has pointed out in the past, the job of establishing accurate facts alone is hard enough — without also trying to pass moral judgment. He notes in an essay, “The American Press is Destroying Itself,” that:
The traditional view of the press was never based on some contrived, mathematical notion of “balance,” i.e. five paragraphs of Republicans for every five paragraphs of Democrats. The ideal instead was that we showed you everything we could see, good and bad, ugly and not, trusting that a better-informed public would make better decisions. This vision of media stressed accuracy, truth, and trust in the reader’s judgment as the routes to positive social change.
He adds: “People depend on us to tell them what we see, not what we think.”
An interesting case study for this issue occurred recently, which Jesse Singal wrote about this week for Common Sense. A starter for the Duke University women’s volleyball team said she was the target of repeated racist slurs at a game against Brigham Young University. The press was overly credulous, and as Singal notes, “the national response to this heinous allegation was swift and righteous.”
But after much press coverage, and a full investigation from BYU, it appears that the incident may not have actually happened.
Here’s the statement from BYU:
We reviewed all available video and audio recordings, including security footage and raw footage from all camera angles taken by BYUtv of the match, with broadcasting audio removed (to ensure that the noise from the stands could be heard more clearly). We also reached out to more than 50 individuals who attended the event: Duke athletic department personnel and student-athletes, BYU athletic department personnel and student-athletes, event security and management and fans who were in the arena that evening, including many of the fans in the on-court student section.
From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event.
Singal has some compelling thoughts on what this all means:
If any of these journalists had demonstrated an iota of curiosity or skepticism—if they’d practiced journalism as it was meant to be practiced—they could have had a major scoop. Instead they acted as stenographers, with terrible results.
Everything that happened here fits into a growing problem in mainstream newsrooms: the injection of political values even into straight reporting, undermining the very purpose of journalism.
Among activist journalists, the basic idea is that appeals to “objectivity”—meaning that the journalist will seek out crucial information and act as a neutral arbiter—doesn’t advance social justice. Instead, these journalists are making the same errors they decry from the past, but in the opposite direction. Journalists used to ignore accusations of racism? Well, now the default should be to accept them at face value. Prior generations of (mostly male) journalists didn’t take sexual assault seriously? Well, now we should #BelieveWomen, and journalists themselves should proudly tweet #MeToo. Let’s not worry too much about the fact that believing things reflexively, or participating in activist movements, has typically been anathema to old-school journalism. Leave those concerns to the rapidly aging dinosaurs who will soon be departing our newsrooms.
This all came up again in a different context last week, at an event hosted by the Columbia Journalism School.
The panel was moderated by the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Kyle Pope, and included professors David Greenberg and Andie Tucher, as well as the previously mentioned journalists Wesley Lowery, Lewis Wallace, and Masha Gessen.
David Greenberg, author of a deeply thoughtful essay, “The War on Objectivity in American Journalism,” in the Liberties journal, will be on the Lean Out podcast this week to discuss the issue — and to offer some thoughts on the Columbia event, which I encourage everyone to watch.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this reflection on “moral clarity” (also known as “moral certainty”) from David Greenberg’s essay:
Those newly fashionable phrases should make us pause, not only because they were first popularized by Bush during the war on terrorism, but also because determining the correct moral posture on a political or policy issue is almost always difficult and certainly beyond the capacity of a daily journalist working at digital speed.
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