November 29, 2016
All journalists, from their first day in class or on the job, are taught a sacrosanct principle that’s spoken of in reverential tones and repeated as if part of a monastic ritual: objectivity.
It’s almost as if working journalists must become the Fair Witness of science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In the futuristic novel, a Fair Witness is “rigorously trained to observe, remember, and report without prejudice, distortion, lapses in memory, or personal involvement.” So strict are their professional rules that they may only comment on what they have observed, and make no extrapolations or assumptions until they have seen, heard or felt something themselves.
This rigor sounds exactly like what is demanded of journalists under the classic definition of objectivity, the ideal toward which many reporters strive on a daily basis. With the profusion of fake news, propaganda and opinion masquerading as truth in the digital arena, the need for journalists who can discern fact from fiction would appear to make objectivity all the more essential now.
However, the fair witness and the concept of perfect objectivity share another commonality: They’re both fiction.
Heresy? No. I argue that we simply cannot be objective. Every one of us, no matter how hard we try, comes to every situation with our own set of individual experiences and beliefs, all of which shape the act of observation.
It is the journalism corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, established by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, it states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle with absolute precision. “Either way, your observation of either position or momentum will be inaccurate and, more important, the act of observation affects the particle being observed,” explains article in the Guardian.
Let me emphasize the part of Heisenberg’s principle that I believe is relevant to journalism and specifically reporting: the act of observation actually affects how a subject is observed and perceived.
Why? This happens simply because each of us observes situations through our own unique lenses, which are developed by our experiences and polished by our beliefs and biases.
When I say biases, I do not imply that journalists come to a topic with preconceived notions, nor do I accuse them of having an actual slant, the type that would draw condemnation from politicians or disaffected members of the public. By biases, I mean a person’s natural set of predilections through which he or she views the world in the simplest, most comfortable or comforting way.
Then, there are structural biases that journalism as a profession imposes, which the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brent Cunningham describes in his July 2003 article: “Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy.”
So, if we accept that those biases do exist, then we can agree that it is impossible to be completely objective about a topic and our approach to it.
Because as Michael Schudson argues, objectivity “is at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing,” how can journalists get close to achieving the ideal, given the limitations imposed by their own humanity? Is the ideal worth maintaining?
If objectivity is sought to provide a stronger presentation of facts to help readers judge truth for themselves, then fidelity to facts, balance and impartiality matters. The question is how best to use those standards in everyday journalism by evolving our concept of objectivity.
Cunningham points out how objectivity, as classically conceived, can actually inhibit journalists by a) forcing them to rely on official sources too much, leaving them exposed to public relations spin and b) keeping their own expertise from being brought to the fore.
He cites the case of Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley, whose editor asked him to attribute to a source a conclusion Riley had drawn after months of reporting. Riley’s expertise was unique – he had spent six months digging through the particular court files involved, so there may have been no greater expert on the matter than he was. Yet, because of the rules of objectivity, his editor refused to accept him as an authoritative source.
I ran into this challenge often as a journalist for Reuters News, where impartiality and freedom from bias are enshrined in the Reuters Trust Principles and overseen by a board of some of the world’s most “eminent people from the world of politics, diplomacy, journalism, public service and business.”
Make no mistake: I did and still do vigorously support and uphold those principles, as they give Reuters a unique power and competitive advantage over most news organizations: the most reluctant, dangerous or skeptical sources knew they would be treated fairly by Reuters because of its long-held reputation for impartiality.
That being said, my colleagues and I would often have to keep our unique expertise out of our stories because of the strictures of objectivity.
As the bureau chief in Sri Lanka, I routinely spoke to everyone that mattered in the country, just as any of my fellow bureau chiefs across the world did as part of their day-to-day work. So, my colleagues and I routinely had unique insights gleaned from countless conversations with diplomats, businesspeople and government leaders, and many of those same people sought us out for our perspectives and authoritative knowledge.
But when it came time to put that expertise into print, I rarely could find a source who knew what I knew and could say it on the record. So, instead of sharing that knowledge directly with readers in plain English, I’d have to present it within the limiting orthodoxy of news writing style and leave the conclusions between the lines for the adept reader to discover.
It was only when Reuters experimented with different formats, such as monthly political risk reports, that I could say exactly what I knew and believed. Readers were happy and no one complained of bias, precisely because Reuters had made it clear that what I was saying in that format was a forecast based on my expertise – not a news story subject to the ordinary expectation of objectivity and impartial recitation of facts.
In a digital news environment where we suffer from an abundance of news stories, including poorly sourced if not outright false ones, I argue that expertise and authority should be the new paradigm to replace strait-laced objectivity.
Fairness and fidelity to facts, two crucial underpinnings of the objectivity model, are inherent in expertise and authority. An expert has already dismissed those ideas which do not hold up to factual scrutiny, and that faithfulness to the provable in turn grants him or her authority. With that authority, a journalist can question any institution or set of facts within his or her area of expertise.
The best part of substituting expertise and authority for objectivity is that expertise and authority are self-governing and identify a person’s “bias” from the outset.
Whereas a reporter tied to the unreachable ideal of objectivity is constantly exposed to attacks by interested partisans, the expert-authority journalists are protected by their bodies of provable experience and can counter attacks on their integrity through their command of the facts. That’s the self-governing aspect of the expert-authority model: such journalists derive their power from accuracy and reputation, so they are well-motivated to stay above reproach.
This approach will require educating readers and bringing back the clear labeling of news, analysis and opinion that used to be provided on newspaper or magazine pages, but is all too often lost on the Internet. By defining the terms, journalism will be served by both removing the artificial impediments of an impossible ideal and entering into dialogue with readers with an up-front declaration of the author’s perspective. Readers will then know how to process what’s been written.
So, let’s leave Heisenberg and the Fair Witness in the realms of physics and science fiction. Here’s to the Fair Expert.
Bryson Hull is a Chicago-based communications consultant, writer, and editor who serves a diverse client base. He spent a decade overseas with Reuters News and Bloomberg, working in nearly 20 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He has covered financial markets spanning foreign exchange to oil and gas, and conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan.