The Myth of Objectivity

Recently, a Portland television station ran their traditional 11 o’clock news tease during the commercial break of one of my favorite shows. The lead story made me laugh, cry and gasp all at the same time: "Kitten Thrown From Moving Car."

Of everything that happened that day in the Portland-area, in Oregon, the United States and the world, the unfortunate fate of a tiny kitten was the lead story. Someone – probably a

group of people – sat around a table at the television station and made the decision that the kitten should be the top story that night.

The fact is that someone had to make that decision, and they had to base it on some set of values. In this case apparently a combination of the old media adage "If it bleeds it leads" and the general love of any story animal-related won out.

But what it illustrates on a more absurd level is that decisions made by the news media are inherently subjective. With time constraints in broadcast media, and space constraints in print media, editors and reporters have to be subjective. They must decide what stories to run, how much time and space each story will take, and what order to present those stories in. They decide who to interview, what info to present, and how the story is structured.

So what bothers me the most is the mainstream media’s insistence that their highest value is objectivity, when there is an inherent need for subjetivity. Editors and reporters must be subjective when pursuing a story, and that is why bias will always be a relevant issue to discuss.

Historically, the ideal of "objectivity" isn’t even one hundred years old. And the ideal wasn’t promoted for some altruistic reason. Following on the heels of the partisan press (We can thank the Whig Party for The Oregonian here in our great state. Some of us probably long for it to return to its historical roots in many ways!) and "Yellow Journalism", in the early 1900’s publishers realized that by being partisan they eliminated half their potential audience. So what was a good capitalist newspaper to do? Ah, yes, try to appeal more broadly to all segments of the public. Promote that your paper is "objective" when it comes to reporting the news.

So it came to pass that objectivity was established as a journalistic ideal, not for some high-minded reason, but because it sold more papers.

Today, however, journalists insist on hanging their hat on objectivity as their defense against charges of bias. They claim they are serving this higher master, when in fact the master is the bottom line.

And this is not a bad thing. I’m as capitalist as they come, papers should maximize profits, sell more advertising and make as much money as they can. But perhaps a return to the good old days of the partisan press wouldn’t be so bad. Then at least media outlets could admit their bias and let the market decide who succeeds and who fails. Don’t you think it would be freeing for CNN to finally say "Yes, we are a liberal media outlet"? I think admitted liberal Ted Turner might sleep better at night. And Fox News could avoid having to answer criticism that it is "conservative" if it were simply able to say "Yep, we lean right." That sigh of relief you hear is from Roger Ailes.

But the American public has been fed a steady diet of arguments that the media is and must be objective, when the reality is that such an ideal is impossible.

If all our media outlets admitted their bias, though, where would Americans get news that isn’t promoting a particular position? A discussion for another blog entry…so stay tuned.

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  • JTT

    Perhaps, if we returned to a partisan press, then we might only hear what we want to hear and not what we need to hear. There might have been a reason for the “objectification” of the press…no one person or position holds a monopoly on what’s fit to print.

    • And who decides what we “Need To Hear”? As anon and the article point out, the Press IS partisan.

      There are a couple of problems with your argument, JTT. First, with the way things were for a very long time in this country, and to a certain extent even now, the major press organs (the big 3 networks, the papers, and a handful of national news magazines) DID hold a monopoly on what’s fit to print. And their “objectivity” has been suspect for some time, especially in the 20th Century (most people will trace it back to the end of WWII and the cold war, I suspect it can be traced as far back as the End of WWI and the flirtation of the Lost Generation with Socialism and Communism).

      The answer is not to elevate our media onto pedestals as paragons of unsullied, unslanted truth, but hold them accountable for their more egregious slants and skews. And in a society that values freedom of speech and of the press, there’s only one acceptable way to hold them accountable — market forces. There’s a reason it has always been called a free market of ideas — and that’s the beauty of the resurgence of independent media outlets and the blogs — everyone can now have a booth in the marketplace. The truth, and every view of it, is actually MORE likely to get out, because EVERY partisan idea has a chance to sell itself. It’s up to you as the consumer to judge the quality of the product.

      • Kevin Curry

        Market forces are definitely the way we can influence content. A future Oregon Catalyst entry I am contemplating relates to that and how we can be better media consumers generally.

  • Face it – we are in a world of partisan press. Those that attempt to be objective do it full hilt and disclaim alot of their own biases prior or after the report.

    Name one time that the Oregonian was against a tax or pushed for more accountability before endorsing a tax increase.

  • Second time reader, first time commenter here. Nice post. You happen to have hit upon one of my favorite subjects, which means I could hardly help but bang out a response. I posted that over on my site (here), but my conclusion gets at my overall view on this:

    “The main thing, there’s still value in continuing and encouraging “objectivity” in the mainstream media, just not as the term currently exists. The ideal is that they’ll be conscientious about weighing both sides of an issue and being conscious of questions of equal time, or balance. At the same time, a reporter is just a human being, one whose job entails going to a given event, talking to this or that public official, weighing the evidence and telling us what they see. Given that they, as a human being, will find things important that some of their readers won’t, and given that even the most skeptical editor can only think of so many caveats and additional angles for them to pursue, there’s always going to be a perspective of some kind on the work. Provided one knows what they’re reading, or rather who they’re reading, I count that as sufficient to acknowledge the biases that exist.”

    “But the notion of a middle ground, the attempt to build a bare bones narrative from which we can all view and judge events, that’s simply too important to abandon.”

    Come by the site any time. All are welcome. I only ask that you play nice if and when you comment.

    • The question is, how many of those currently employed in the media really give a rip about objectivity? I’m convinced that the only way to really give equal time to both sides is to allow both sides to speak for themselves, not through a monolithic, oligarchic MSM that controls the flow of information, but through a variety of alternative media and forums. Again, that’s why I find the blogosphere and the internet so exciting.

  • Whoops. The link didn’t seem to take. I’ll try again (here – does this site’s comments take html? Do I have to flip a switch?), but, if it doesn’t appear, just hop over to My Very Brain and it’ll be somewhere near the top under the title, “Media Bias: First Contact with Oreogn Catalyst.

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