Two cheers for objective journalism

[Note: This brief opinion piece was originally written for CQ Research. It was supposed to be half of a pro & con online mini-debate, but the con side never showed up and the project was abandoned. EW]  

Nowadays, the whole idea of objective reporting is so roundly discredited as the fig leaf for a dishonest, ideologically tainted paternalism, that it’s hard to believe anybody would want to put in a good word for it.

I do. Paradoxically, today’s explosion of targeted, fiercely opinionated online advocacy has created a greater need than ever for a constantly replenished reservoir of facts. Objective journalists will never get the last word, but we need their help with the first words, the ones that the analysts, commentators and bloviators can refer to as they wrangle over what we all should think and do.

By objective journalism, I mean fact-driven reportage in which publicly significant information is gathered, verified and related for the purpose of exposure and explication, not persuasion.

Accordingly:

– The reporter attaches great importance to factual accuracy.

– The reporter tries to be fair-minded, and believes that allowing personal convictions to tilt his or her work is wrong.

– The reporter’s objective is to furnish an ideologically diverse public with the factual ground from which informed discourse can proceed.

A bit of context. Objective journalism has never been more than one journalistic tradition among others, and it has never held unchallenged sway even in this country, let alone abroad.

It arose during the 19th century as metro dailies sought neutral informational forms that were broadly palatable to the mass market melting-pot that advertisers wanted aggregated. It got a boost in the 1920s as newspaper journalists began to define themselves as professionals with a public duty to report with independence and intellectual honesty.

The objective tradition has never flown solo. A rich strain of partisan journalism has thrived since colonial times, while the personal essay has an even older pedigree. Much of the 19th century popular press disdained objectivity’s bone-dry empiricism; tabloids developed story-telling as an alternative paradigm and peddled lurid tales from the teeming cities. Magazine journalism (in print or on TV) never bothered with objectivity, and is the ancestral home of narratives driven by commitment and passion.

All are valid forms, all have their place in contemporary discourse. But the enduring appeal of credible news sources (where do you turn when the storm is bearing down?), the proliferation of fact-checking operations, the rise of wiki’s as an informational form that combines factual authority with procedural humility, all suggest that the job of learning what’s important, figuring out what’s true and what isn’t , and relating those findings without fear or favor remains a noble and necessary enterprise.

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4 thoughts on “Two cheers for objective journalism

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