On The Plus Side, At Least There’s No Reason To Hold Any Illusions That American Journalists Will Even Try To Be Ethical Journalists In The Foreseeable Future…

It looks like honking will do as much good as anything else.

Former executive editor for The Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr. and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward interviewed over 75 media leaders to assess how the industry views the concept of “objectivity.”

The message they got was that objectivity was over-rated, and what really matters is diversity. Sure, that makes sense. Not really, but it was predictable.  Journalists, Downey and Heyward were told,  should include their own beliefs, biases, and experiences to convey “truth.” Journalistic objectivity was either unrealistic or undesirable.

“Objectivity has got to go,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief at the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s objective by whose standard? … That standard seems to be White, educated, and fairly wealthy,” said Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor at the Associated Press. USA Today editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll said that she allows  reporters to write about their own experiences, so long as the stories aren’t “too biased.”

[That’s signature significance for editorial incompetence. Any bias is too biased.]

And so on. “What we found has convinced us that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news,” writes Downie Jr. “This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.”

No, this appears to be the unmistakable signs of irreversible ethics rot. Downie and Heywood. career-long dwellers in the professional journalism bubble would be the last people to acknowledge this, but the fatal flaw with the concept that journalists should inject their own conclusions and world views into reporting is that journalists just aren’t that smart, educated, analyticalally or capable of the responsibility they are assuming. They can report facts. Their conviction that they can decide much beyond that without distorting and deceiving is pure arrogance and fantasy.

The media shouldn’t strive for neutral language, New York Times executive editor Joseph Kahn told the interviewers. If there is undisputed evidence of racism or falsehoods, journalists should be direct with readers, he said.

Yeah, we’ve seen what the Times calls “undisputed evidence.”

“[I]ncreasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world,” Downie Jr. says. “They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.”

Got it. Thanks, Len, Andy. Now we know why we can’t trust the news media, and better yet, we know that we shouldn’t trust them, until they accept their own limitations and dispose of their hubris.

And we won’t be holding our breath.

8 thoughts on “On The Plus Side, At Least There’s No Reason To Hold Any Illusions That American Journalists Will Even Try To Be Ethical Journalists In The Foreseeable Future…

  1. Humans never were that great at epistemology, even though it’s not that difficult. All journalists need to do is pick something they think people will care about, explain why they might care, explain what is happening and what will likely happen and how people came to those conclusions.

    For example: “Politicians are considering a new traffic law. People care about it because it will affect how they drive. Some people like it because they expect it will make driving safer in such-and-such a way. Others dislike it because they think it will make driving more dangerous in such-and-such a way. Civil engineers who study driving predict it will make driving safer in the long term but may have some dangers as people adjust, and here’s why they think that and the assumptions they rely on to make that prediction.” Ta-da!

    To those worried about “bothsidesism”, there is an easy method for making it clear that one side is majorly flawed while remaining objective: simply identify a way in which that side’s perspective or approach seems internally inconsistent, inconsistent with observations of reality, or in violation of one of the four constructive principles (investment, preparation, transcension, and ethics) and let them make fools of themselves trying to explain why it’s not. If you need anything other than complete intellectual honesty to dissuade people from sympathizing with a group, that’s a sign that the group might actually have a valid perspective or interest somewhere, even if finding it requires stripping away thick layers of idiocy.

  2. The message they got was that objectivity was over-rated, and what really matters is diversity.

    You mean making sure voices from conservatives, middle America, and the working class are represented? Apparently not that kind of diversity. Like that scene in The Blues Brothers, they’ve got both kinds – country and western.

  3. As individuals, we each think we are inherently objective, and biases are learned. The truth is that we are inherently biased and objectivity is a skill we need to acquire. The particular biases we have may be learned, but the tendency to be biased is innate, and we start picking up biases the moment we are born.

    So, if objectivity is something we can learn, then it needs to be taught to us. I remember in grade school having to choose whether a statement was an “opinion” or a “fact.” Is that included in most curricula anymore?

    Interestingly, “diversity” can be a pretty good tool for learning something about objectivity: you have an idea that you think is “the truth.” Did you think about it from this other point of view? or from that perspective? Does it still seem objective? Can you see your bias? However, that doesn’t make diversity a replacement for objectivity.

    Diversity acknowledges that “there’s your story and there’s my story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” Which is fine as far as it goes; it depends on how far apart the stories are, how big “the middle” is, and how important it is to know the exact truth, or something close to it, and whether the truth is somewhere much, much closer to my side than yours. Diversity can’t replace objectivity if we actually want to know the truth.

  4. I wonder if these same journalists view the practice of industry funded research ( oil, tobacco) with the same sense that “truth” will be forthcoming.

  5. I dabbled in journalism as an undergrad. Admittedly, that wasn’t exactly last week: the newsroom was stocked with manual typewriters, if that gives you a rough idea. There was no journalism department, and, I believe, only a single introductory course–which virtually no one on the staff of the newspaper took. A bunch of my colleagues turned out okay, though: three that I worked with ended up in senior management positions: one with the Wall Street Journal, one with the International Herald Tribune, one with Newsweek.

    I did some day editing, mostly on the arts page; I had a weekly column, and I did a little news reporting. I never sought an upper-level editorial position. It’s possible, perhaps even probable, I could have been arts editor if I’d really wanted the job; I didn’t.

    But I did have a lot of conversations about journalism with some people who were subsequently to be very successful in that business. The consensus was that objectivity was a goal, but one it was impossible to achieve. The reasons for this were two-fold. First, you can’t entirely suppress your own life experience, perspectives, and (yes) prejudices. Second, you inevitably interpret the significance of events. If X happened and Y also happened, there are manifold ways of framing the story, using variations on the theme of “despite” or “therefore,” for example. Even saying “X and Y” instead of “Y and X” often betrays a bias.

    The solution wasn’t to pretend to be objective, but rather to examine one’s own subjectivity. To use a hot topic in sports of late as an example: the winning field goal in the AFC championship game was set up by a personal foul penalty in the closing seconds. It was, depending on one’s personal perspective, either protecting the quarterback and a penalty that gets called virtually all the time, or a ticky tack foul that needn’t (shouldn’t) be called, especially under the circumstances. Both perspectives have some legitimacy, but even describing the call as “controversial” carries connotative meaning. Ultimately, though, ardent fans of either team are likely to view the events according to result rather than the event per se.

    What we were told, all those many years ago, was to examine our own perspectives, then invert them, imagining what people who disagreed with us would think. Then, write the story about the points of agreement.

    In other words, we were encouraged to examine our subjectivity as a means of counteracting it. Now, it appears, that paradigm has been completely inverted. Subjectivity is to be flaunted, while at the same time the claims to “truth” are bellowed louder than ever.

    I did my MA in England. This was before the internet, and I didn’t have a TV, so my news sources were BBC radio and a local commercial station… and newspapers. I alternated back and forth between the Telegraph and the Guardian; the former leaned right and the latter leaned left. It became something of a game for me to guess what one would say about a story I’d read in the other. But both newspapers were reputable. Yes, there would be a little difference in the reporting, but if you only read one or the other, you’d be fine.

    I don’t follow the English press enough to know if that’s still true, but it sure as hell isn’t on this side of the pond. Pat Moynihan’s famous line that “everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” seems quaint now. We can’t read the New York Times or the New York Post, can’t watch MSNBC or Fox: we’d never get the full picture that way. And few of us have the time or the energy to seek out all the available sources.

    Journalism has let us down, and the primary reason for that is that journalists have let us down.

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