Journalists Need Less Objectivity

By Robert Jensen

Published in Media Ethics · October, 2000

[This article also appeared in Newsday, October 11, 2000. p. A-41.]

IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to understand why readers and listeners get frustrated with the news.

One day reports say experts predict that global warming will melt the polar ice caps and flood the world’s coastlines. The next day the story is that other experts say there is no global warming; go ahead and buy beach property.

Follow-up stories report that the ice is melting, but it doesn’t matter because we’ll figure out a way to fix it. Maybe. There are a lot of conflicting, and often jumbled, news reports that float by us every day.

As the public struggles to make sense of the news, it’s not surprising that it beats up on journalists for their sins. There is more than enough ignorance, pride and sloth to go around in newsrooms, but the public most often lands on one critique: Journalists are biased. Most often its claim is that the bias is left-wing, an assertion that suffers from only one major problem — a complete lack of evidence to back it up.

The real problem is that reporters aren’t biased enough honestly. The journalistic norms of neutrality and objectivity so constrain reporting that much of the news ends up seeming — or actually being — contradictory or incoherent. The solution: We need journalism that is more biased to help readers get at the truth.

In this sense, biased just means honest. It doesn’t mean that journalists should be slavishly partisan or paid agents for one party, group or cause. Nor should journalists ignore facts so they can write a story to fit their personal politics. Instead, journalists should be biased toward the frameworks of analysis that emerge from honest and engaged reporting, on the powerless as well as the powerful. Instead of saying, “We have no opinions,” journalists could say, “Listen, we’ve spent time studying this, and it seems pretty clear to us that the world works this way, and that’s the framework we’re using to report.”

Too much contemporary journalism simply reproduces the worldview of people with power. If news media bosses would give journalists the latitude to be honestly biased, journalists would be a lot happier and write better stories, and the public would have some basis for critically evaluating the news, instead of being asked to pretend that it is all objective.

Take two examples, one technical and one ideological; one contemporary and one historical.

When reporting on the question of global warming, journalists often adopt the dueling-experts format: Some scientists think the warming is happening and is a serious problem, while others disagree. Readers are left to fend for themselves, without the background or expertise to evaluate the claims.

The problem is that most reputable climatologists agree that the warming rate is of serious concern, and that it is primarily the result of human activity. What disagreements exist are mostly about details, not about the existence of the phenomenon or its importance. Most journalists who write about the issue are well aware of this fact. But the news industry’s obsession with “balanced” reporting leads to stories that misrepresent the science and mislead the public.

Some reporting problems are more about ideology. Take the Vietnam War, which many Americans still believe the
United States lost, in part, because of journalists who were hostile to the U.S. government. In reality, the vast majority of American journalists accepted the government’s basic policy goals; it was a lack of truly critical analysis that sent their reporting off the rails.

The coverage would have been far different if U.S. reporters had been ideologically free to report the obvious fact that American planners resisted a political settlement of the war and waged it because they knew that opponents of the Saigon government would run away with any free election — a fact admitted even by President Dwight Eisenhower in his memoirs.

If journalists could have openly offered that framework of analysis, instead of toeing Washington’s line, then reporting on the problems of the U.S. war effort would have been more intelligible to the reading public. The U.S. military failures that the press did describe would have made more sense in the context of an honest account of the political situation in Vietnam.

When such contradictory and incomplete reporting is the norm, it’s hardly surprising that readers don’t trust the press. Journalists mistakenly think the path to credibility is to play the neutrality and objectivity game even more severely, but it’s not working. Journalists — and the folks who pay their salaries and run the game — need to realize that credibility will follow from telling the truth, not only about the world around us but about journalism itself.