One of the great myths of modern journalism is that it is possible for journalists to report facts and make judgments in an objective manner. This myth has come under increasing attack in recent years as the mass media’s continued hostility to the Trump administration has become ever more fevered. Nevertheless, many both inside and outside the profession cling to the idea that “objective” reporting is possible.
We hear about this ideal frequently from journalists themselves — not surprisingly — who fancy themselves as investigators and researchers who are above ordinary human biases. Instead, they merely communicate information, making it digestible for the common man, and telling the reader all the most important information about a topic.
This idea dates back at least as far as the 1920’s, and is often attributed to Walter Lippmann who explains this ideal of objective journalism at length in his 1922 book Public Opinion.
The problem begins with an ignorant citizenry, which requires “objective” arbiters of information. Lippmann concludes, as summarized by Jørn Henrik Petersen,
the general citizenry had neither the time, the ability nor the inclination to inform itself on important questions. Society was too complex, the power of stereotypes too great, man’s immediate environment toodominant. The remedy – at least in Lippmann – had to be boards of experts who could distill the evidence and offer the residue facts
“Since the real effects of most laws are subtle and hidden,” Lippmann contends, “they cannot be understood by filtering local experiences through local states of mind. They can be known only by controlled reporting and objective analysis.”
But how is this “objective analysis” to be achieved? The answer for Lippman lies in making journalism more scientific, and in making facts “fixed, objectified, measured, [and] named.”
It is not a coincidence, of course, that Lippmann is writing this in the early 1920s. This was the late Progressive Era, and as such it was the age of “scientific motherhood” and an endless society-wide drive to convince Americans to hand over all important decisions to “experts.” Consequently, mothers were to abandon control to parenting “experts,” parents were to hand over their prerogatives of educating children “experts,” and the economy was to be controlled by “experts” in public policy.
Journalism historian Richard Streckfuss notes that Lippmann was jumping on the same bandwagon:
Lippmann’s use of the words objective, science, and scientific are significant. Adapting scientific methods for human affairs – including journalism – was central to the thought of the decade.
Lippmann’s influence on the profession’s aspirations has never really waned. To this day, the Lippmann model leads to continued efforts at greater objectivity including the promotion of methods like “precision journalism,” popularized by Philip Meyer. Meyer notes that journalists often stray from the Lippmannian ideal, largely due to the difficulty of collecting information. Meyer believes the solution to this
is to push journalism toward science, incorporating both the powerful data-gathering and -analysis tools of science and its disciplined search for verifiable truth.
This ideal remains quite popular among journalists. They continue to fancy themselves as experts at providing objective and balanced information on critical pieces of information and as the only ones who can be trusted with providing an unbiased viewpoint.
Not Even Scientists Are Objective
This philosophy, however, is faulty even at its most basic foundation. Lippmann, as a proponent of scientific objectivity, was himself embracing a fanciful idea of scientific inquiry and objectivity. This view that the physical sciences were above bias was almost universal in Lippmann’s day. But in recent decades, numerous cracks have shown up in the facade of scientific objectivity among even physical scientists. Thanks to the research in the fields of the “sociology of science” and the “economics of science,” there is increasing documentation illustrating what should have been obvious all along — namely that scientists are not immune to the effects of their own personal biases.
For example, scientists and researchers commonly assert that scientists are not meaningfully affected by the fact that, say, they receive large government grants or rely on certain public policies to make a living. Or, they insist that a scientist would be not be diverted from a relentless pursuit of “truth,” even if the truth revealed were to call into question the theories on which that scientist has based his or her entire career. In other words, we’re told to believe that a scientist’s ego or material needs have no effect on how he conducts himself. This is plausible, it is implied because scientists are imbued with a special level of integrity and devotion to scientific inquiry.
Believing this, of course, requires a nearly heroic level of naivete as well as ignorance about the economic underpinnings of scientific research — or the social pressures under which scientists function.
There is no doubt that many scientists try to be objective. But this doesn’t mean they actually are objective.
On the other hand, scientists have a better claim to objectivity than journalists. In many fields, scientists are constrained by whether or not their scientific knowledge is actually useful. Prescription drugs either work or they don’t. New building materials and new chemical solutions either work or their don’t.
Many physical scientists are thus limited in how they might indulge their biases by the successful application of their discoveries and conclusions.
Journalism, of course, has no such check on its own work, and thus we see the fundamental flaw in Lippmann’s attempt at making journalism “scientific.” There’s no practical measure of whether or not a news story has been communicated scientifically or not.
Journalists Increasingly Admitting Objectivity Is Unattainable
Thanks to journalism’s profound and obvious hostility to the Trump administration, it has become increasingly difficult for the media to continue to claim it embraces the Lippmann model of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
This departure from the scientific ideal has become so clear in the last decade, in fact, that even mainstream journalists have started to openly discuss it.
For example, in 2015, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone authored an op-ed in The New York Times titled “‘Objective Journalism’ Is an Illusion.” Taibbi was writing on the occasion of the retirement of John Stewart from The Daily Show and contended that part of Stewart’s popularity could be explained by the fact Stewart did not pretend to be an objective journalist. Unlike most journalists who hide behind a facade of objectivity, Stewart was upfront about his biases.
Although many journalists are still in denial about this, the overwhelming majority of those who consume media are well aware that biases are rampant, from all directions. Thus Taibbi concludes:
We live in a society now where people want to know who a journalist is before they decide whether or not to believe his or her reporting.
Trying to hide one’s bias is thus only courting suspicion from readers.
Others have departed from the ideal of objective journalism as a means of defending the mass media’s lopsided hostility to the Trump administration. This is partly why Rob Wijnberg at The Correspondent concludes that “‘not taking a position’ means being not only a mouthpiece for power but a conduit for lies.” Wijnberg abandons the ideal of objective journalism because, for him, that means going too easy on the forces of evil. It’s better to emphatically oppose the bad guys (i.e., Donald Trump) rather than be limited some arcane ideal of scientific reporting.
Whatever the agendas of Taibbi and Wijnberg might be, they’re more honest about the realities of journalism than the powerful talking heads at CNN or FoxNews who would have us believe objectivity is possible in journalism. Regardless of one’s political leaning, variations on the slogan “We Report. You Decide” have always been based on fantasy.
Framing and Agenda-Setting: Objectivity Has Never Existed
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with what has, for decades, been studied in political science departments or mass media departments. Concepts like “agenda-setting” and “framing” have long characterized any serious scholarship on how media works. It is absolutely impossible to engage in journalism without engaging in both of these activities.
Given that there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many resources available to journalists, it becomes necessary for news organizations to engage in agenda-setting. After all, news organizations can’t report everything, so they must decide what gets reported on. While it’s true that this doesn’t dictate to viewers and readers what to think about a certain issue, it nevertheless dictates to viewers and readers what they will think about. If a news organization carries 50 stories about the Mueller investigation, but only devotes a single story to US-funded bombing of children in Yemen, then the media is setting the agenda. Viewers will tend to place great emphasis on one story while largely ignoring the other.
Meanwhile, limited resources also mean news organization must engage in “framing.” This affects the focus of a story, and what aspects are covered. It also affects what “experts” are called into to discuss an issue. For example, if the media is reporting on foreign policy, it can frame the issue by featuring mostly retired military personnel who tend to take the side of the military establishment. This is a very different situation than if the media were to feature a large number of anti-war experts in the discussion. Moreover, even if the media were able to achieve a perfect balance between these two points of view, it would still be engaging in framing. After all, few issues contain only two possible ways of interpreting and analyzing the issue. By choosing only two sides, however, the media is portraying other points of view as either unimportant or as “extreme” and outside the realm of serious discussion.
Thus has it always been. This isn’t to say that no journalists have tried to be objective. Many have. And many have thought they have achieved objectivity. But the realities of framing and agenda-setting mean that even those who attempt objectivity are bound to fail.
Indeed, the real scandal here may not be the fact that many journalists continue to indulge their entrenched ideological biases while claiming to be objective. Perhaps the real problem, all along, has the been the fact that so many Americans have been so gullible as to even entertain the notion that the information they receive through the news media is objective or free of bias. Nowadays, it’s extremely difficult to believe there was ever really a time that Americans watched the networks’ evening news and went away thinking “golly gee whiz! I guess I now have an even-handed purely factual re-telling of the world’s events!” In the age of Walter Cronkite, it’s possible some people thought that way. Hopefully, those days are over.