By Theodore J. Glasser
By objectivity I mean a particular view of journalism and the press, a frame of reference used by journalists to orient themselves in the newsroom and in the community. By objectivity I mean, to a degree, ideology; where ideology is defined as a set of beliefs that function as the journalist's "claim to action."
As a set of beliefs, objectivity appears to be rooted in a positivist view of the world, an enduring commitment to the supremacy of observable and retrievable facts. This commitment, in turn, impinges on news organizations' principal commodity the day's news. Thus my argument, in part, is this: Today's news is indeed biased as it must inevitably be and this bias can be best understood by understanding the concept, the conventions, and the ethic of objectivity.
Specifically, objectivity in journalism accounts for or at least helps us understand three principal developments in American journalism; each of these developments contributes to the bias or ideology of news. First, objective reporting is biased against what the press typically defines as its role in a democracy that of a Fourth Estate, the watchdog role, an adversary press. Indeed, objectivity in journalism is biased in favor of the status quo; it is inherently conservative to the extent that it encourages reporters to rely on what sociologist Alvin Goulder so appropriately describes as the "managers of the status quo" the prominent and the elite. Second, objective reporting is biased against independent thinking; it emasculates the intellect by treating it as a disinterested spectator. Finally, objective reporting is biased against the very idea of responsibility; the day's news is viewed as something journalists are compelled to report, not something they are responsible for creating.
This last point, I think, is most important. Despite a renewed interest in professional ethics, the discussion continues to evade questions of morality and responsibility. Of course, this doesn't mean that journalists are immoral. Rather, it means that journalists today are largely amoral. Objectivity in journalism effectively erodes the very foundation on which rests a responsible press.
By most any of the many accounts of the history of objectivity in journalism, objective reporting began more as a commercial imperative than as a standard of responsible reporting. With the emergence of a truly popular press in the mid-1800s the penny press a press tied neither to the political parties nor the business elite, objectivity provided a presumably disinterested view of the world.
But the penny press was only one of many social, economic, political, and technological forces that converged in the mid- and late-1800s to bring about fundamental and lasting changes in American journalism. There was the advent of the telegraph, which for the first time separated communication from transportation. There were radical changes in printing technology, including the steam-powered press and later the rotary press. There was the formation of the Associated Press, an early effort by publishers to monopolize a new technology in this case the telegraph. There was, finally, the demise of community and the rise of society; there were now cities, "human settlements" where "strangers are likely to meet."
These are some of the many conditions that created the climate for objective reporting, a climate best understood in terms of the emergence of a new mass medium and the need for that medium to operate efficiently in the marketplace.
Efficiency is the key term here, for efficiency is the central meaning of objective reporting. It was efficient for the Associated Press to distribute only the "bare facts," and leave the opportunity for interpretation to individual members of the cooperative. It was efficient for newspapers not to offend readers and advertisers with partisan prose. It was efficient perhaps expedient for reporters to distance themselves from the sense and substance of what they reported.
To survive in the marketplace, and to enhance their status as a new and more democratic press, journalists particularly publishers, who were becoming more and more removed from the editing and writing process began to transform efficiency into a standard of professional competence, a standard later several decades later described as objectivity. This transformation was aided by two important developments in the early twentieth century: first, Oliver Wendell Holmes's effort to employ a marketplace metaphor to define the meaning of the First Amendment; and second, the growing popularity of the scientific method as the proper tool with which to discover and understand an increasingly alien reality.
In a dissenting opinion in 1919, Holmes popularized "the marketplace of ideas," a metaphor introduced by John Milton several centuries earlier. Metaphor or not, publishers took it quite literally. They argued and continue with essentially the same argument today that their opportunity to compete and ultimately survive in the marketplace is their First Amendment right, a Constitutional privilege. The American Newspaper Publishers Association, organized in 1887, led the cause of a free press. In the name of freedoms of the press, the ANPA fought the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 on behalf of its advertisers; it fought the Post Office Act of 1922, which compelled sworn statements of ownership and circulation and thus threatened to reveal too much to advertisers; it fought efforts to regulate child labor, which would interfere with the control and exploitation of newspaper boys; it fought the collective bargaining provisions of the National Recovery Act of the mid 1930s; for similar reasons, it stood opposed to the American Newspaper Guild, the reporters' union; it tried unsuccessfully to prevent wire services from selling news to radio stations until after publication in the nearby newspaper.
Beyond using the First Amendment to shield and protect their economic interests in the marketplace, publishers were also able to use the canons of science to justify indeed, legitimize the canons of objective reporting. The publishers were comforted by Walter Lippmann's writings in the early 1920s, particularly his plea for a new scientific journalism, a new realism; a call for journalists to remain "clear and free" of their irrational, their unexamined, their unacknowledged prejudgments.
By the early 1900s objectivity had become the acceptable way of doing reporting or at least the respectable way. It was respectable because it was reliable, and it was reliable because it was standardized. In practice, this meant a preoccupation with HOW the news was presented, whether its FORM was reliable. And this concern for reliability quickly overshadowed any concern for the validity of the realities the journalists presented.
Thus emerged the conventions of objective reporting, a set of routine procedures journalists use to defend the quality of their work. For the journalist, this means interviews with sources; and it ordinarily means official sources with impeccable credentials. It means juxtaposing conflicting truth-claims, where truth-claims are reported as "fact" regardless of their validity. It means making a judgment about the news value of a truth-claim even if that judgment serves only to lend authority to what is known to be false or misleading.
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As early as 1924 objectivity appeared as an ethic, an ideal subordinate only to truth itself. In his study of the Ethics of Journalism, Nelson Crawford devoted three full chapters to the principles of objectivity. Thirty years later, in 1954, Louis Lyons, then curator for the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard, was describing objectivity as a "rock-bottom" imperative. Apparently unfazed by Wisconsin's Senator Joseph McCarthy, Lyons portrayed objectivity as the ultimate discipline of journalism. "It is at the bottom of all sound reporting indispensable as the core of the writer's capacity." More recently, in 1973, the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, formally enshrined the idea of objectivity when it adopted as part of its Code of Ethics a paragraph characterizing objective reporting as an attainable goal and a standard of performance toward which journalists should strive. "We honor those who achieve it," the Society proclaimed.
So well ingrained are the principles of objective reporting that the judiciary is beginning to acknowledge them. In a 1977 federal appellate decision, EDWARDS v. NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY, a case described by media attorney Floyd Abrams as a landmark decision in that it may prove to be the next evolutionary stage in the development of the public law of libel, a new and novel privilege emerged. It was the first time the courts explicitly recognized objective reporting as a standard of journalism worthy of First Amendment protection.
In what appeared to be an inconsequential story published in The New York Times in 1972 on page 33 five scientists were accused of being paid liars, men paid by the pesticide industry to lie about the use of DDT and its effect on bird life. True to the form of objective reporting, the accusation was fully attributed to a fully identified official of the National Audubon Society. The scientists, of course, were given an opportunity to deny the accusation. Only one of the scientists, however, was quoted by name and he described the accusation as "almost libelous." What was newsworthy about the story, obviously, was the accusation; and with the exception of one short paragraph, the reporter more or less provided a forum for the National Audubon Society.
Three of the five scientists filed suit. While denying punitive damages, a jury awarded compensatory damages against The Times and one of the Society's officials. The Times, in turn, asked a federal District Court to overturn the verdict. The Times argued that the "actual malice" standard had not been met; since the scientists were "public figures," they were required to show that The Times knowingly published a falsehood or there was, on the part of The Times, a reckless disregard for whether the accusation was true or false. The evidence before the court clearly indicated the latter there was indeed a reckless disregard for whether the accusation was true or false. The reporter made virtually no effort to confirm the validity of the National Audubon Society's accusations. Also the story wasn't the kind of "hot news" (a technical term used by the courts) that required immediate dissemination; in fact ten days before the story was published The Times learned that two of the five scientists were not employed by the pesticide industry and thus could not have been "paid liars."
The Times appealed to the second Circuit Court of Appeals, where the lower court's decision was overturned. In reversing the District Court, the Court of appeals created a new First Amendment right, a new Constitutional defense in libel law the privilege of "neutral reportage." "We do not believe," the Court of appeals ruled, "that the press may be required to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth." The First Amendment, the Court said, "protects the inaccurate and disinterested reporting" of newsworthy accusations "regardless of the reporter's private views regarding their validity."
I mention the details of the EDWARDS case only because it illustrates so well the consequences of the ethic of objectivity. First, it illustrates a very basic tension between objectivity and responsibility. Objective reporting virtually precludes responsible reporting, if by responsible reporting we mean a willingness on the part of the reporter to be accountable for what is reported. Objectivity requires only that reporters be accountable for HOW they report, not what they report. The EDWARDS Court made this very clear: "The public interest in being fully informed," the court said, demands that the press be afforded to freedom to report newsworthy accusations "without assuming responsibility for them."
Second, the EDWARDS case illustrates the unfortunate bias of objective reporting a bias in favor of leaders and officials, the prominent and the elite. It is an unfortunate bias because it runs counter to the important democratic assumption that statements made by ordinary citizens are as valuable as statements made by the prominent and the elite. In a democracy, public debate depends on separating individuals from their powers and privileges in the larger society; otherwise debate itself becomes a source of domination. But EDWARDS reinforces the use of official sources, official records, official channels. Tom Wicker underscored the bias of the EDWARDS case when he observed recently that "objective journalism almost always favors Establishment positions and exists not least to avoid offense to them."
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Objectivity also has unfortunate consequences for the reporter, the individual journalist. Objective reporting has stripped reporters of their creativity and their imagination; it has robbed journalists of their passion and their perspective. Objective reporting has transformed journalism into something more technical than intellectual; it has turned the art of story-telling into the technique of report writing. And most unfortunate of all, objective reporting has denied journalists their citizenship; as impartial reporters, journalists are expected to be morally disengaged and politically inactive.
Journalists have become to borrow James Carey's terminology "professional communicators," a relatively passive link between sources and audiences. With neither the need nor the opportunity to develop a critical perspective from which to assess the events, the issues, and the personalities he or she is assigned to cover, the objective reporter tends to function as a translator translating the specialized language of sources into a language intelligible to a lay audience.
In his frequently cited study of Washington correspondents a study published nearly fifty years ago Leo Rosten found that a "pronounced majority" of the journalists he interviewed considered themselves inadequate to cope with the bewildering complexities of our nation's policies and politics. As Rosten described it, the Washington press corps was a frustrated and exasperated group of prominent journalists more or less resigned to their role as mediators, translators. "To do the job," one reporter told Rosten, "what you know or understand isn't important. You've got to know whom to ask." Even if you don't understand what's being said, Rosten was told, you just take careful notes and write it up verbatim. "Let my readers figure it out. I'm their reporter, not their teacher."
That was fifty years ago. Today, the story is pretty much the same. Two years ago another study of Washington correspondents published a book by Stephen Hess called The Washington Reporters. For the most part, Hess found, stories coming out of Washington were little more than a "mosaic of facts and quotations from sources" who were participants in an event or who had knowledge of the event. Incredibly, Hess found that for nearly three-quarters of the stories he studied, reporters relied on no documents only interviews. And when reporters did use documents, those documents were typically press clippings stories they had written or stories written by their colleagues.
And so what does objectivity mean? It means that sources supply the sense and substance of the day's news. Sources provide the arguments, the rebuttals, the explanations, the criticism. Sources put forth the ideas while other source challenges those ideas. Journalists, in their role as professional communicators, merely provide a vehicle for these exchanges.
But if objectivity means that reporters must maintain a healthy distance from the world they report, the same standard does not apply to publishers. According to the SPJ, SDX Code of Ethics, "Journalists and their employers should conduct their personal lives in a manner which protects them from conflict of interest, real or apparent." Many journalists do just that they avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest. But certainly not their employers.
If it would be a conflict of interest for a reporter to accept, say, an expensive piano from a source at the Steinway Piano Company, it apparently wasn't a conflict of interest when CBS purchased the Steinway Piano Company.
Publishers and broadcasters today are part of a large and growing and increasingly diversified industry. Not only are many newspapers owned by corporations that own a variety of non-media properties, but their boards of directors read like a Who's Who of the powerful and the elite. A recent study of the twenty-five largest newspaper companies found that the directors of these companies need to be linked with "powerful business organizations, not with public interest groups with management, not with labor; with well established think tanks and charities, not their grassroots counterparts."
But publishers and broadcasters contend that these connections have no bearing on how the day's news is reported as though the ownership of a newspaper had no bearing on the newspaper's content; as through business decisions have no effect on editorial decisions; as though it wasn't economic considerations in the first place that brought about the incentives for many of the conventions of contemporary journalism.
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No doubt the press has responded to many of the more serious consequences of objective reporting. But what is significant is that the response has been to amend the conventions of objectivity, not to abandon them. The press has merely refined the canons of objective reporting; it has not dislodged them.
What remains fundamentally unchanged is the journalist's naively empirical view of the world, a belief in the separation of facts and values, a belief in the existence of a reality the reality of empirical facts. Nowhere is this believe more evident than when news is defined as something external to and independent of the journalist. The very vocabulary used by journalists when they talk about news underscores their belief that news is "out there," presumably waiting to be EXPOSED or UNCOVERED or at least GATHERED.
This is the essence of objectivity, and this is precisely why it is so very difficult for journalism to consider questions of ethics and morality. Since news exits "out there" apparently independent of the reporter journalists can't be held responsible for it. And since they are now responsible for the news being there, how can we expect journalists to be accountable for the consequences or merely reporting it?
What objectivity has brought about, in short, is a disregard for the consequences of newsmaking. A few years ago Walter Cronkite offered this interpretation of journalism: "I don't think it is any of our business what the moral, political, social or economic effect of our reporting is. I say let's go with the job of reporting - and let the chips fall where they may."
I am inclined to side with Dewey. Only to the extent that journalists are held accountable for the consequences of their action can there be said to be a responsible press. But we are not going to be able to hold journalists accountable for the consequences of their actions until they acknowledge that news is their creation, a creation for which they are fully responsible. And we are not going to have much success convincing journalists that news is created, not reported, until we can successfully challenge the conventions of objectivity.
The task, then, is to liberate journalism from the burden of objectivity by demonstrating as convincingly as we can that objective reporting is more of a custom than a principle, more a habit of mind than a standard of performance. And by showing that objectivity is largely a matter of efficiency efficiency that serves, as far as I can tell, only the needs and interests of the owners of the press, not the needs an interests of talented writers and certainly not the needs and interests of the larger society.
This article originally appeared in the February 1984 edition of Quill, the publication of the Society of Professional Journalists. Glasser teaches journalism at Stanford.