Epistemologies: ‘Objectivity’ and perspective

Journalists often pursue the goal of “objectivity.” Of course, language isn’t neutral, and any human writer or reader inevitably has our own personal perspective. Even deciding which facts to mention requires personal judgment.

There are many facts, but not all facts are equal,” Brian Klaas wrote recently in the Washington Post.

“There was a tornado in Kentucky last week. There wasn’t a tornado in Minnesota. Only one is worth reporting. Reporters and editors make decisions about which facts to cover — and then it’s up to them to provide the reader with an appropriate sense of scale.”

Ezra Klein wrote in Why We’re Polarized (2020):

“The news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover—decide, that is, what is newsworthy.”

Someone holds a small triangular mirror in their thumb and forefinger. Their face is reflected in it, but their eyes are closed.
Image by Simedblack on Pixabay

“Neutral,” by the way, may be “boring and visionless, and that just loses them [media professionals] an audience,” Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in The Left Hand of God (2006).

So, for example, as Peter Levine pointed out in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2013), journalists may cover elections differently. “Who is going to win?” is a common guiding question. It reflects “one definition of news. It encourages not only regular polling, but also close coverage of the mechanics and strategies of political campaigns.” But a journalist might instead choose to “depict the public’s ‘struggle to find a middle ground’ by giving prominent attention to civil discussions among nonaligned citizens.”

In Nicole Hemmer’s 2016 book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, she discusses “objectivity” as a kind of epistemology.

“Some have argued that ‘objectivity’ describes a set of professional practices rather than a coherent worldview, but this understates the power of objectivity as a concept. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values—it was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In midcentury, American journalists who were invested in the ideal of objectivity claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, their deference to official information and institutional authority.”

Here, then, Hemmer says, is “a different way of weighing evidence”; you observe that you and someone else are on different ideological sides. You acknowledge that this other person has “a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different way of evaluating truth-claims.”

(I wrote more about Hemmer’s book for Medium.)

“Everyone has a frame through which we think, interpret, and speak,” wrote Lewis Raven Wallace in The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. “Once we are conscious of these frames, we can choose our stories and the values they reflect.”

Here’s where Wallace goes with that. Journalists who have marginalized identities should indeed feel permitted to write about issues affecting their own communities. “Oppressed people’s voices can no longer be excluded,” he says, “on the false pretense that we are biased in favor of our own humanity, that we are too close to the story.”

Today, more easily than ever before, “people can just skip stories they don’t want to hear, go only to website that reflect their own worldview.” The challenge implicitly posed to journalists, as Wallace sees it, is to help determine “how journalists can become people who don’t just impart facts, but who interact, engage, and ultimately bring meaning and shape to information.”

“While journalists are never neutral purveyors of ‘just the facts,’” he points out, “some will focus more on organizing facts while others will focus more on interpreting them or extrapolating solutions from them, and others will focus on building communities surrounding them.”

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