Dropping the Myth of Objectivity in Journalism
A dialogue between two student journalists
Features / November 19, 2018
After decades of vehemently defending the objectivity of the news, journalists are starting to talk more openly about their own biases. Two writers from The Runner had a talk about why this is only starting to happen now, how journalistic biases can be claimed by ethical journalists, and what makes dropping the objectivity myth important.
Aly Laube: People are talking about fake news. People are arguing a lot about what the truth is, whether there’s such thing as objective truth in the media that you can trust, how you can identify good journalism—all of those things have been talked about for a long time, especially since Trump started publicly attacking journalists.
As journalists, we kind of have to acknowledge the fact that we carry our own intrinsic biases, and that there is no such thing as complete objectivity in the news. It’s something that we talk about a lot in journalism school but I don’t think a lot of people do talk about that. I think there’s this idea that journalists are frauds because we claim to be objective even though it’s very clear that we’re not.
What do you mean when you say “bias” when it comes to journalism? What is bias to you?
AL: The way that we see the world as people influences what we see in the stories that we take, what we see as valuable in the world. If I were an upper-class, straight, white man who was very invested in economics and understood economics and came from a family that valued those same things, I might have very different political beliefs, and I would support totally different policies because my values would be different, so I would likely cover those stories.
Braden Klassen: I think you have a good point when you say that it comes from your own background. I think, for a lot of people, their idea of bias is more geared towards somebody having an agenda, and I don’t think that that necessarily is always the case. Like you said, you can only write well about what you know, and just because you’re writing about a specific topic doesn’t mean you have some specific intention or motivation behind that. It’s just what you’re capable of doing.
Do you think journalists can be objective at all?
AL: I don’t think objectivity exists—not really, especially not in the media.
There’s so much information out there that you have to be selective in what you present to your audience. By the very action of deciding what is and isn’t important, that’s a subjective decision. You can’t really escape that. Which quote you think is most impactful, that’s subjective. Who you choose to talk to is subjective. All these things you put together for an article depends on how you see things, where you place value, so I don’t think it’s really possible.
I think journalists should strive for objectivity and strive to not allow their biases to inform their writing altogether, unless it’s an opinion piece, but I don’t think a completely objective article is even possible.
BK: I agree. There’s a difference between the objectivity of facts and how those facts are represented. The process of taking a fact and turning it into something that you can communicate to people inherently introduces subjectivity to it. You can have a story with three facts and it’s the simplest thing to write, but you still have to introduce order to those facts. You still have to present them in some kind of linear fashion, and that alone is your decision. So as journalists, we always have to be trying to be as close to the truth as possible in our reporting, but it’s never possible to do it with 100 per cent certainty.
AL: Statistics, numbers and figures, and the ways that they’re presented, those things can be manipulated. Most people see those things as facts because, technically, it’s true. You ask five people “yes or no” and three said yes and two said no. That’s a fact. But the questions you ask, the way you present that, what you omit, the way that you measure things, that’s also all kind of subjective. That also influences the way that you would read that information.
BK: There are articles like, “Millennials have higher issues with mental health,” and it could be because incidents of people reporting their problems has grown, as opposed to there being some sort of epidemic of mental health problems. People could just be more open about it. It’s the same thing with sexually motivated violence and hate crimes—higher rates of reporting do not necessarily indicate higher rates of occurance, just that people are more likely to talk about it. It’s the classic mistake of confusing correlation with causation, and it’s easy to manipulate and present as “evidence.”
How has the portrayal of journalistic biases changed over time?
AL: I think that journalists being attacked and forced to defend themselves recently has kind of segregated the media in a big way. The reporting that’s being done about Trump and about his government has sort of forced people to be up front about their beliefs and to take a stance in opposing something. I think that’s easier for journalists now because he represents a threat to democracy for them, so they feel more comfortable with being outright about calling him names or saying, “This is a lie,” and putting their cards on the table.
I think that an increase in diversity in the newsroom is a huge thing. Again, 20 years ago, you’re going to have mostly straight, white guys in the newsroom who are talking about issues that pertain to straight, white guys who don’t necessarily disagree with each other very often, whose readership probably isn’t going to disagree with them very often, and now there’s a lot more contradiction. By the sheer act of having so many different writers with so many different opinions in the same workspace, that contrast makes the diversity of opinions so much more obvious.
BK: I think people’s expectations of what the function of the press is has changed over time too. A dry delivery of facts, data, etcetera, that’s essentially what I think the news should be, but more and more people are being able to choose which sources they get their news from, which sort of writers they want to follow, which issues they wish to follow. Because of the digital age and advertising in media, newsrooms have had to adapt to that in order to survive and continue to make money.
People are more critical, and assume that there’s some political slant to any sort of publication, which isn’t true, but it’s becoming more true as people make money off of that kind of stuff, like online subscribers. It’s becoming lucrative to regurgitate people’s opinions back to them and present that as news or truth or fact. I think that’s a departure from what the actual democratic function of what news is, but it’s also what’s keeping the industry alive, which can be frustrating.
AL: What I think makes professional journalism so important is that there is a set of standards and principles that you have to follow.
BK: Exactly. There are laws that support this in some countries, even.
AL: Here in Canada, you can’t be libellous. You can’t deliberately go out of your way to slam somebody if there’s no basis, no proof. Journalists record their conversations. They make sure they have facts, or at least evidence of something being said if they’re going to quote it; having editors look at your writing to make sure that it reads well, that it’s accurate, and organized in an easily consumable way.
These things are really important. Having a professional system to go through before an article gets published is really crucial. That doesn’t make it objective. It just makes it as objective as it can be.
BK: We’ve got, on one hand, the BBC, and on the other hand we’ve got InfoWars. That’s kind of the difference you’re describing here. There are legitimate standards that journalists need to uphold, otherwise you can just say anything.
Either way, you can make money from doing it, or gain popularity. People will actually take some things that Alex Jones says as fact, and it’s kind of dangerous. Is Alex Jones a journalist?
AL: He’s not a journalist, I don’t think. I might call him a reporter.
BK: He reports things. Who else is going to talk about the lizard people? We need him. We need the fifth estate.
AL: He’s an engaged community member. That’s what he is.
But if you’re going to be a journalist, you have to do your due diligence. That’s the entire point of going to school for journalism. You learn how to be good at not running your mouth and misguiding people and misrepresenting information. Those are things you cannot do as a journalist.
When I talk to people about this, as someone who works in a newsroom, I get frustrated sometimes because I understand how many different levels an article has to go through before it goes to print, and I think that a lot of the time the general public, especially in the fake news era, has this understanding of journalism that’s like, “Joe Schmoe goes to an event. He takes a few very selective voice clips. He goes back to his computer. He click-clacks for 20 minutes and then he presses ‘publish’.” That is really not the way that it works.
I think people assume that individual journalists have the agency to say whatever they want, when in reality, it’s the individual journalist, it’s the many editors that they inevitably have, it’s their coworkers and peers that set those standards as well, it’s the people that they talk to, and it’s their training. There are so many other things that go into an article being published, and so many different steps to make sure that misleading things are not being published.
BK: And your credibility is on the line too. It’s their job and they’re a professional. They gather facts and they verify evidence.
AL: Exactly, because if you get found out as a journalist who’s publishing lies, your job is in the toilet. Now you don’t have a career anymore. Congratulations. You published one article that was fake and now you’re screwed.
There’s so much care that goes into professional journalism. Most of the journalists I’ve met want so badly for their work to be good. They want to inform people in an accurate way. They want to be part of democracy.
BK: And it’s competitive, too.
AL: Super competitive. And you put so much work into it. Are people imagining that journalists are just a bunch of angry, nothing-to-lose crazy activists?
BK: Kind of—that they’ve got axes to grind and they sort of sit around all day thinking about how to shit on Doug Ford. I mean, I think I spend a little bit of my day doing that, but not all day.
Just be honest. If it’s your opinion, put it in the opinion section. Don’t represent your opinions as facts.
AL: You can totally write an opinion piece. Journalists write opinion pieces. If you do have an axe to grind, you can grind it.
BK: Yes, but grind it in the axe-to-grind section, not in the nice, already sharp axes that don’t need no grinding section.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.