Journalistic Objectivity Through a Christian Lens
In tumultuous times, the mission of the media should be to stand as a beacon of understanding, through factual knowledge, as well as an analyzer of information being produced at large. However, as we are in what some dub the “post-truth” era (a political concept to describe the lack of shared objective standards for truth), the tension between business models and journalistic integrity has taken on a new visibility to the public eye. The debate around what can truly be called “objective writing” has been around since my first semester in my journalism major. I’ve also seen it in action from my experience writing for a few different newspapers. The intersection of history, politics and religion all culminate in the way journalistic objectivity has been defined and redefined. To narrow down what the concept of journalistic objectivity, as well as post-truth will mean going forward, I propose that using a Christian lens to view these questions through humility, empathy, and
justice, is a holistic answer to the problem at hand.
From early on in my “Media in a Changing World” class freshman year, my professor brought up how there’s a good chance that the romanticization of objectivity in journalism just came out of a marketing strategy to be more appealing to a wide range of advertisers and audiences.1 This shattered my freshman brain because I had held such an idealism from when I first learned about muckraker journalists exposing monopolies and photojournalists like Lewis Hine exposing child labor conditions. True journalistic objectivity to me was always
first about morals and truth-seeking, the “slimy business side” was just an inevitable byproduct. Ironically, this could not be farther from the truth. From the genesis of journalism in the 17th century to the origin of muckrakers in the 19th, the majority of newspapers were
unapologetically partisan because they were founded and funded by political parties.2 It was only with the emergence of the Penny Press and its affordability to the middle class that independent journalism got its start and created new niches for commercial, educational and
religious publications.3 With this newfound freedom, many journalists leaned all the way into a sensationalism that would ultimately lead to the Yellow Journalism era and later reform by muckrakers and professional standards of fairness and accuracy. Others simply added to the familiar “beats” of newspapers today: crises, crime, the economy, sports, etc.4 When the ability to disseminate information at high speeds caused a need to make content at the same rate, reporters eventually had to grapple with the limitations of journalism, and of themselves. If journalists are just one pair of eyes looking out at the world, how will they convince the public of their trustworthiness?
In my Media Ethics class from sophomore year, I learned that the modern concept of objectivity in journalism was first equated as a “scientific method” for reporters. It was first popularized by Walter Lippman with the logic of “There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.”5 However, as there is no system beyond the encouragement of following a code of ethics, (the most popular being from the Society of Professional Journalists: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent)6 or the threat of a news organization being sued for libel, the decision rests on the journalist. In class, we considered different philosophies journalists can use to guide their ethics such as: always aligning one’s decisions with a universal law (Kant’s categorical imperative), striving for compromise between competing ideas (Aristotle’s golden mean), looking for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people (Mill’s Principle of Utility) or viewing issues solely from morality and not from one’s social standing (Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance). The conclusion being that journalists can operate from a variety of philosophies and the perceived “standardization” of objectivity merely comes from the more obvious hallmarks of modern journalism such as using a neutral tone and third-person perspective.7
As a Christian, I took this as an opportunity to reexamine the way my beliefs were reflected in how I understand objectivity. From writing for my high school and hometown newspapers, where I was solely writing human interest pieces, I knew the greater motivation was to ultimately paint whatever organizations or individuals I was covering in a good light. As I was covering generally mundane community events there never really seemed to be an issue, unless I got a quote from someone that seemed a little too “real,” arguably “gossipy” and essentially slanderous to people that I hadn’t interviewed. I simply knew those quotes wouldn’t go over well with my editors and would cause more harm than good, so I left them out. I think this “golden rule” logic: not including any quotes that I wouldn’t be okay with being quoted with myself, was the basis of my unofficial code of ethics (granted I had no economic pressure to do otherwise). It also highlights the reality that, in fields such as medicine, law, military service and even journalism, “professional secrets” can be morally kept for various reasons, especially in the case of the reporter-source relationship. Yet this is the tradeoff of truth, someone or something will always come at the expense of it being revealed, it is up to us what we’re willing to sacrifice.
Out of my Literary Journalism class last semester, we dove into the usage of the reporter as a character in their own stories. Experimented with in different ways since the dawn of journalism, the first person account has often been discredited due to its acknowledgment of the subjective experience of journalists. As much as objective practices became a standard through the 20th century, when the tumult of the 1960s reached American journalism, a sobering reflection about the effects of absolute objectivity on the human condition broke through. Even though it had been evident decades prior with “objective” reporting about lynchings in the 1890s,8 making a “balanced issue” out of blatant injustice as well as ignoring the plights of other marginalized communities. At times when writers attempted to make their footprint visible and participate in immersion journalism (the method of embedding oneself into a new environment), it was met with mixed reviews because these newfound insights would be tinged with the skepticism of uncontrollable bias that the “scientific method” of journalism was supposed to limit. The issue being, as a journalist covers their piece, they acquire a deeper knowledge of the individuals they build relationships with in a (ideally) strictly contractual agreement. Journalists have to toe the line between being therapists and investigators; they must simply report what they see and cannot give assistance to those they cover until after the story is over. Active empathy, in some ways, is seen as the rival of objectivity and accuracy, a line that cannot be crossed for journalists.
In my own experience writing for my college newspaper, I had to ride the line of becoming too attached to stories, or more accurately people’s concerns with how I’ve reported. I wrote about research and technology, so it was nowhere near as scandalous as some of my fellow reporters leading investigative stints into university funding or local law enforcement, but it weighed on me all the same. Commitment to accuracy is not always the same as a commitment to empathy. Take the example of an ESL speaker who is quoted in their broken English. The quote is accurate, but the message that is meant to be communicated isn’t and can therefore be a barrier to the overall understanding of the individual. This is what I encountered when having to make decisions on how to portray those I interviewed. The fear is always that journalists don’t want to be accused of being public relation specialists for “going easy” on those they cover, because that must mean they don’t actually look for the truth.
From the Christian perspective, there is a duty on us to understand the news, to understand the world around us and facilitate conversations that include the Christian worldview. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Solidarity is a consequence of genuine and right communication and the free circulation of ideas that further knowledge and respect for others.”9 As purveyors of the Truth that we know and live, we are called to engage with the world as it is, not as we imagine it to be. The task, as daunting to the secular world as it is to us, does not have to be entirely on our shoulders. Our access to information has sequestered us in a bottomless desire to be aware and correct. It is evident that this desire cannot be fulfilled through the mental fatigue of citizen journalism (where everyone has a platform and is a journalist). Simply put, our own subjectivity is the problem that comes up in thinking science alone is the most objective take on the world. I argue the most objective take is the one that considers there is a view outside of what can be perceived. So what do we do with that? We must either stop idolizing subjectivity, or stop idolizing certainty.
In the same way that double-blind studies, where both participants and the researchers are unaware of the placebo, are viewed as the most reliable in many fields of science, the acknowledgement of subjectivity can play a similar role. Although more difficult to apply in the areas of social research, I propose the “double blind” of journalism is an acknowledgment that both the reader and the journalist aren’t aware of all the factors at play in a news story, how it ultimately affects an audience and how it fits into the greater scope of a time period. I believe an interior and exterior posture of humility is key. “By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation.”10
Commitment to accuracy is not always the same as a commitment to empathy.
I used to think that to be the best journalist was about being the most objective person in the room, by balancing every opinion given to me—I’m the one who gleaned meaning. However, as time went on, I knew deep down no matter how many interviews I conducted, I wouldn’t ever know people’s true intentionality, i.e. their hearts. As God is our Creator who is Truth and makes every “subjective” creature, in this world we will always be subjective, as we are always below and He is always above. We only grow more objective as we move closer to God and His view, because it causes us to forget ourselves. This spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity is in our hands; we can either reject that there is truth outside ourselves, or embrace it. As Christians this is our call, not to run after little facts or conclusions (which are a means), but to the Truth (which is our end). This is the movement of love.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2495