Should journalists rethink objectivity? Stanford professors weigh in

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“Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity,” said Ted Glasser, communications professor at Stanford, in an interview with The Daily.

The murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed have opened a conversation around journalistic objectivity. Glasser believes journalists must step away from the blanket idea of objectivity to achieve social change — but not everyone agrees with him. Many journalists are now asking: Can journalism contribute to social change while maintaining its objectivity?

Objectivity became a prominent journalistic principle in the 1920s. According to the Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” objectivity emerged because the country’s faith in science was growing, so Americans felt journalism should also be a scientific process discerning objective truths rooted in facts and evidence.

According to Matthew Pressman, journalism assistant professor at Seton Hall University, objectivity caught on after massive newspaper closures throughout the U.S. Since there were fewer papers, wrote Pressman, each one had to serve larger audiences and thus more diverse viewpoints. To stay afloat, newspapers embraced objectivity as an effort to keep a wider audience happy.

But some, like political science assistant professor Hakeem Jefferson, consider objectivity in its current practice to be less focused on determining objective truths and more focused on giving equal weight to different viewpoints so the journalist appears fair.

“[Journalists] are so hell-bent on being ‘objective’ for both sides … they can’t tell the truth,” Jefferson said. 

Jefferson described journalists having to “pretend racial inequality isn’t normatively bad” or “Black people in this country [don’t] face a criminal justice system that’s grossly unequal” to appear objective in their reporting. Unsurprisingly, Jefferson said, journalists fail in their duty to be truth-tellers because of their duty to be objective.

The ethical guidelines of McClatchy, a publishing company which operates 30 newspapers nationally, state employees should avoid social media actions that “could call into question” their and their organization’s objectivity. Some McClatchy journalists wanted to support Black Lives Matter on social media, but feared the action could cost them their job. To that, a McClatchy vice president tweeted, “expressing that Black lives matter is not a political statement. It is a fundamental truth. It is not a violation of social media policy to tell the world that Black lives matter.”

The dilemma between “truth” and “objectivity” has brought attention to a new principle: “moral clarity.” New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen suggests in the piece “Why Are Some Journalists Afraid of ‘Moral Clarity?’” that journalists should seek moral clarity instead of the opinion A vs. opinion B reporting that Jefferson sees as what passes for objectivity today. Gessen adopts the definition of moral clarity from Susan Neiman, the author of a book on moral clarity.

According to Neiman, moral clarity arises after a writer assesses the facts and context of a particular situation, makes a moral judgment about it and includes that judgment in his or her article. With moral clarity, a journalist could make statements that, say, the criminal justice system is unfair to Black people or that racism is bad because the journalist holds that these claims are, at their root, fact-based claims — despite political polarization that could lead one to see the statements as biased.

Wesley Lowery, who has served as a national correspondent for the Washington Post, has been a prominent voice in the moral clarity versus objectivity debate. 

Lowery wrote in a tweet, “American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment…The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

Even so, Janine Zacharia, a communications lecturer at Stanford, is not persuaded by arguments for moral clarity. She told The Daily that she believes abandoning objective reporting would not be good for journalism. She gave an example where a journalist wants to write a story about white nationalists. If the prospective subjects of the article were to Google the journalist and see their past work or social media paint negative opinions about white nationalism, those subjects may not be willing to be interviewed for the story, fearing that the story would not be fairly written. Under such premises, Zacharia said, the stories and issues that journalists could bring attention to would dwindle.

Similarly, Communications Professor Fred Turner said in an interview with The Daily that objective reporting can be an impactful way to achieve social change. Turner argues that journalists in the 1960s, ostensibly working under the guidelines of objectivity, exposed the world to protests against the Vietnam War. In doing so, Turner said, journalists helped the anti-war movement grow.

Turner believes the same thing is happening today with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Each time people see one of these killings or see the protests,” Turner said, “it stops being a purely local matter and becomes a matter of public concern, and then it becomes something that we can all take action on.”

Journalists, he said, are partially to thank for spreading these stories. Because journalists report what they see, whether positive or negative, journalism is “by definition an activist occupation,” Turner said. Turner does not believe objectivity restricts journalists’ abilities to engage in social change. On the contrary, he said, “you must be objective — and that’s the key to your ability to be an activist for democracy: calling things as you see them, and staying objective, and staying out of the fray.”

Glasser disagreed. For him, objectivity and social justice are in conflict, and he urged that journalism “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.”

Jefferson said that objectivity is not often practiced equitably. In the real world, he said, only “people of color, queer people, women, and so on have their commitment to objectivity questioned.” This discrimination happens, he said, because society perceives objectivity as neutral, and people don’t associate straight, white men with identities that interfere with neutrality.

“There’s this assumption that if you really want objective journalism, just give me a staid, white person,” Jefferson said.

But that, Jefferson said, is obviously wrong: Like everyone else, a white man “comes to his work as a journalist with attitudes, beliefs, preferences and identities … that structure his own thinking about the world.”

Contact Zadie Winthrop at zadiewinthrop ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Zadie Winthrop is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.