Sunday, October 23, 2016

Journalism: Objectivity, False Equivalence, and Extremism

The craziness of the current presidential campaign provides plenty of opportunities to ponder over the role of journalists in our society.  We know that there are any number of partisan sources of news and commentary on all sides of every issue, but we also would hope that there are media sources whose job it is to be objective and call a lie a lie and a fool a fool.  There seems to be little of this objectivity to be found in current reporting.  Why is that?

Journalists worry quite a bit about objectivity in their profession.  A wikipedia article tries to define what the term means.

“Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities.”

The listed attributes of journalistic objectivity are inconsistent with each other.  Can one be disinterested and factual at the same time?  In describing a political dispute, can one be factual and nonpartisan at the same time?  Factuality requires effort; the other three attributes do not.  The easy way out seems to be to skip the factuality and just report statements made by each side of an issue.  But if that is the practice, then of what value are journalists?

Shawn Otto addresses this issue from the perspective of reporting on science-related issues, but his thoughts are relevant to journalism in general.  His discussion is contained in his book The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.

Otto begins by conveying a startling admission from a well-known journalist for one of the major networks.

“It should be noted that many journalists argue that their job is not to establish truth, but simply to relay information fairly.  This laissez-faire, hands-off view has come to dominate mainstream political journalism.  David Gregory, NBC News’s chief White House correspondent during the George W. Bush administration put it quite clearly in his defense of the White House press corps for not pushing President Bush on the lack of credible evidence of Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and the inconsistencies in Bush’s rationale for invasion before the United States entered Iraq.  ‘I think there are a lot of critics who think that….if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job,’ said Gregory.  ‘I respectfully disagree.  It’s not our role.’”

Otto then respectfully asks whose role is it if not that of the press.

“How are the people to make well-informed decisions about momentous policies without accurate, reasonably objective information and a questioning of the powerful, asking for evidence?”

Journalists have long struggled with the issue of objectivity.  Often, they have been restricted by “journalistic conventions” as to what is considered standard and ethical practice.

“Journalism students are taught that every story is subjective, that it is impossible for a reporter to filter out their own biases, and that responsible reporters will acknowledge this.  In fact, they are told, to present a story as objective is fundamentally dishonest.  This notion is widespread.  Publications’ reporter guidelines contain it.  ‘There is no such thing as objectivity,’ the former NBC journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote.  ‘Any reporter who tells you he’s objective is lying to you.’  Students are taught that the best they can hope to achieve is to be fair and balanced.  The Society of Professional Journalists dropped ‘objectivity’ from its code of ethics in 1996.”

Otto, of course, disagrees with this mode of thinking.   

“Of course we are each subjective in our perspective, but there is such a thing as objectivity: a statement about reality that stands independent of our subjective qualities and is verifiable by others.  And such objectivity is attainable in reporting.  The belief in, and search for, objective truth might have motivated journalists such as David Gregory to have the confidence that it was ‘our role’ to push President Bush to produce evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the United States invaded.  Is that a partisan position?  No.  Would it have been political?  Yes, and that is what responsible journalists do: they hold the powerful accountable.”

What we are left with is journalistic practice that is part intellectual cop out, part journalistic laziness, and part fear of offending any group that might result in a loss of revenue.  Political reporters think they need access to politicians.  They fear the loss of access if they give the politician a hard time.  It is too easy to just play nice and blame it on “accepted policy.”

“Very often, there is, in fact, objective knowledge that is readily available, and the misapplication of a reporter’s well-meaning view that there is no such thing as objectivity can become a recipe for disaster.  Cumulatively, this view becomes a danger to democracy, because it makes reporters vulnerable to easy manipulation by public-relations campaigns.  We are left with mainstream journalists (i.e., not those on talk radio or other purposely slanted news outlets) who often simply present ‘both sides’ of controversial issues, which gets us nowhere, doesn’t help the public make informed decisions, and plays into the hands of powerful vested interests.  Yet this has become the expectation and politicians become distrustful of journalists who don’t use such a he-said she-said approach.”

This refusal to seek objective truth can cause great damage.  This source cites an example indicating that the problem has existed for a long time.

“Another example of an objection to objectivity, according to communication scholar David Mindich, was the coverage that the major papers (most notably the New York Times) gave to the lynching of thousands of African Americans during the 1890s. News stories of the period often described with detachment the hanging, immolation and mutilation of people by mobs. Under the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to balance these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. Mindich argues that this may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.”

Otto provides an example of the application of “balance and fairness” in the treatment of scientific issues.

“When a television news program presents a split screen with a scientist on one half representing the knowledge accumulated from tens of thousands of experiments performed by thousands of scientists, and then presents a charismatic advocate with an opposing opinion on the other half, as if the knowledge and opinion carry equal weight, this creates false balance.  It skews democracy towards extremes by giving equal weight to both opinion and knowledge.”

Otto’s reference to “false balance” has been more typically referred to as “false equivalence.”  Paul Krugman inveighs frequently against this journalistic practice.  Consider an example from his note The King of False Equivalence in which he disposes of the notion that Paul Ryan is a serious policy wonk with credible economic policies.

“….Ryan is not, repeat not, a serious, honest man of principle who has tainted his brand by supporting Donald Trump. He has been an obvious fraud all along, at least to anyone who can do budget arithmetic. His budget proposals invariably contain three elements:

1. Huge tax cuts for the wealthy.
2. Savage cuts in aid to the poor.
3. Mystery meat – claims that he will raise trillions by closing unspecified tax loopholes and save trillions cutting unspecified discretionary spending.”

“So how has he been able to get away with this? The main answer is that he has been a huge beneficiary of false balance. The media narrative requires that there be serious, principled policy wonks on both sides of the aisle; Ryan has become the designated symbol of that supposed equivalence, even though actual budget experts have torn his proposals to shreds on repeated occasions.”

Journalism’s attempt to be “fair” leads to the rendering equivalent of fact-based analyses with outrageous claims that are not based on facts.  This allows lies to be told and propagated indefinitely with the assistance of the imprimatur that derives from being sourced in mainstream media.

Otto concludes:

“….journalism becomes an implicit advocate for extreme views, weighting them and presenting them to the public as if they had equal merit with tested knowledge.  Journalism this fuels the extreme partisanship we see in public dialogue today, and feeds into the hands of the very power that journalists exist to challenge—vested interests who seek to circumvent evidence and undermine the democratic process to achieve a desired outcome.”

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