Why Striving for Objectivity in Journalism is Good

Yesterday, Jason Schreier of Kotaku tweeted the following:

Nobody at Kotaku has ever claimed or will ever claim to be objective. “Objectivity” is a silly thing to strive for.

I would link to the original tweet, but I can’t seem to find it; I don’t know if he deleted it, or I just fail at Twitter today. Nevertheless, the tweet sparked some discussion on the value of objectivity in journalism in general.

To be fair to Schreier, he’s right that no one can ever truly be objective; we all have our biases, no matter how we try to minimize them. However, to go so far as to claim that striving for objectivity is “silly,” well…I have some real problems with that.

Objectivity may be an ideal that we can aspire to but never truly reach…but that’s true of most things that are worth working towards. For example, as someone who draws, I strive to improve my grasp of anatomy and perspective. I know I’ll never be as good at drawing as I’d like to be, but striving makes me better; it’s why I’m a better artist now than I was ten years ago. I can only hope, if I’m still around, that I’ll be better still ten years from now.

In journalism, the pursuit of objectivity was that little voice in my head that made me question my own articles before sending them off to proofreading. It was the voice that made me ask, “Have I really given the side I don’t agree with a fair shake here? I should probably add that quote from that guy that I totally disagreed with; I almost forgot about it, but it presents the other viewpoint well.”

It’s the voice that made me question whether or not I was taking the words of someone I disliked out of context; really, in reporting, unless you just post the full transcript of an interview or meeting, it’s hard not to take someone out of context to some extent. But including the sentence before or after the juicy quote can often do a lot to make sure that you aren’t misrepresenting the person’s viewpoint. The concern for objectivity led me to ask questions like “This quote sounds awesome and really makes it so that the side I don’t like damns themselves with their own words, but is it really fair? It sounds more controversial then it is if I don’t include the next sentence, which moderates the sentiment.”

It’s also important to strive for objectivity during the note-taking process, before writing the piece. It’s easy to write down only the best comments from the side you agree with, and only the uninformed comments from the other side; then you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re being fair, because you only wrote down what people “really” said. Obviously, this is a pretty clear example of how you can sometimes lie more effectively with a skewed helping of truth than with any fabrication.

Even in pure opinion pieces, where you’re technically free from the burden of caring about objectivity, it’s been my experience that you write better if you never completely let go of it. If you write an opinion piece with no effort to acknowledge the valid points from the other side, there’s nothing wrong with that– it’s your opinion, after all– but you’re mostly preaching to the converted. If you want to sway people to your side, addressing people who believe differently from you with respect, and acknowledging their concerns as legitimate, stands a much better chance of convincing people to at least consider changing their stance. That doesn’t mean there’s never a time for a good, old-fashioned rant, but I think most journalists would prefer not to write an endless string of those.

It might seem odd, considering how often journalists are accused of being arrogant (and with good reason), but personally, I think the best journalism comes from a place of relative humility. After all, if you knew what the truth was, you could save yourself a lot of tedious note-taking and research and just write “Here is what you should think about this issue, because it is self-evidently true.” Instead, you have to give the reader as much relevant information as possible, in the hopes of giving them the tools to construct their own truth. You have to be humble enough to realize that those tools may lead them to construct a different truth than yours, and that’s okay, because no matter how much faith you have in your morals and intellect, you can never consider yourself the final arbiter of what’s right.

Thinking you’re free of the burden to even attempt to be fair requires a level of arrogance that can’t help but poison your work, no matter how talented a writer you may be; after all, if you do journalism (or anything like journalism), asking “the hard questions” doesn’t mean anything if you’re not just as willing to ask them of yourself as well as your subjects.

3 thoughts on “Why Striving for Objectivity in Journalism is Good”

  1. Yeah, I suppose I could have edited the post to include that, but I feel like I’m done with it. Since he spoke, other outlets have come forward with “we don’t strive to be objective” statements, so what he specifically said was less important; he’s far from alone.

    1. A great post as always.

      I was playing Tales of Xillia 2 recently, and Leia’s personal story in that really resonated with me in this regard. In it, she’s aspiring to be a journalist — though for a newspaper rather than for specialist press — and, through a bit of soul-searching and practical experience, discovers how she feels she is supposed to do it. Writing things from her own experience — opinion pieces as you describe above — is, she feels, important and valid, but when you’re reporting the news — things that didn’t necessarily happen directly to you — it’s important to consider, understand, acknowledge and even attempt to empathise with people you don’t agree with, too. That’s how you get a good story, and that is, I feel, at least partly what we’re talking about here.

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