The Tangled Web of Objectivity: Two Prevailing Views

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Note: This article was originally on the journalism-and-policy blog Lippmann Would Roll. Written by Matthew L. Schafer and Dr. Regina G. Lawrence, the Kevin P. Reilly Sr. chair of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, it expands on a previous post, focusing specifically on objectivity.

by Matthew L. Schafer and Regina G. Lawrence

A recent study of Sarah Palin’s “death panel” remark as played out in United States’ healthcare debate illuminates the tangled practice that is variously described as “journalistic objectivity.” Through the study of around 800 articles, editorials, and letters to the editor we found two distinct ways of handling the death panels claim, both of which could be called “objective,” but only one of which actually tells readers the facts.

Procedural objectivity reflects a conventional conception of objectivity, in which the journalist quotes Republican Politician A, and then quotes Democratic Politician B. Through such a presentation of competing voices, the journalist – so the story goes – is able to inform the reader about a particular controversy without interjecting his or her own determination as to the validity of the statements of either Politician A or Politician B.

“Reporters attempt to balance information ‘on the one hand’ with information ‘on the other hand,’” Joanne Rodgers of Hearst Newspapers wrote. “There is security and comfort in this formula. It provides at least a patina of ‘fairness.’”

But procedural objectivity actually may only obscure the issues and frustrate political accountability, as reporters ‘balance’ the charges and countercharges of political opponents to the detriment of public understanding of who is responsible for what—or what is factual and what is not. But adherence to this form of objectivity gives the reporter a plausible deniability. Indeed, if the reporter never digs deeper and debunks a politician’s claim, then they never risk being wrong.

“Since a reporter is not in reality completely objective, it is important, especially for controversial subjects, for the reporter to at least consider information and opinions from sources who may be opposed to the mainstream…viewpoint,” one journalism textbook reads.

As such, the traditional journalism pedagogy seems to err towards the side of procedural objectivity, the safer path.

Substantive objectivity operates quite differently. Here, the reporter actually does the research and presents the facts about the subject that politicians are speaking to, which may require the journalist to call the politician “wrong.” Thus, the reporter isn’t being objective in style by quoting dueling sides, but rather objective about the facts–that is when verifiable fact is available that runs contrary to a political assertion.

Thus, there seem to be two distinct forms of journalistic practice that one could call “objectivity.” Surprisingly, in the newspaper industry’s examination of Palin’s death panel claim, these two notions of objectivity did not always appear independently from each other. Instead, in many cases, the journalist would use a combination of the two.

Sixty percent of the time journalists refused to call death panels false. Journalists labeled the claim false or debunked it 40% of the time – which seems somewhat high considering the emphasis of journalism schools on procedural objectivity.

More importantly, however, is the number of times journalists decided to do both. By our measures, journalists labeled the claim false (substantive objectivity) but also included politicians selling competing views as to the claim’s validity 30% of the time. Thus, in what amounts to no small portion of the total articles we examined, journalists had their cake and ate it to.

This is counterintuitive. Logic would seem to dictate that stories in which the reporter labeled the claim false in his or her own words would be unlikely to contain this kind of he said/she said reporting—that is, if procedural and substantive objectivity are mutually exclusive modes of reporting.

Yet, there appears to be no relationship between whether a reporter labeled the ‘death panels’ false in his or her own words and whether that same reporter reported ‘both sides’ of the ‘death panels’ debate. Indeed, just because a reporter dismissed the ‘death panels’ claim as false, in other words, did not mean she would not seek ‘balance’ by including the views of the claim’s proponents.

For example, an August 16 front-page article of The Baltimore Sun illustrates this type of journalistic limbo.

“In fact, there is no such [end-of-life counseling] requirement…,” Paul West wrote. “But Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, defending Palin’s claim last week on Fox News, said ‘[death panels are] within the context of what people are seeing in some of the legislation that is floating around out there….”

Even more surprising perhaps, is how cavalier some journalists were in debunking the claim without including any clarification as to why the journalist determined that the claim was indeed false. In 72% of stories that labeled the claim false, the journalist simply made that declaration without offering any supporting evidence.

“President Obama, struggling to discredit bogus charges that his healthcare overhaul would create ‘death panels,’” Christi Parsons and Andrew Zajac wrote in an August 19th article that ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Parsons and Zajac offered no clarification as to why the claim was “bogus.” Without empirical evidence we can’t say with certainty that this approach is not as effective at informing the public, but it would seem that this is likely the case.

We also found subsets to each type of objectivity.

For example, we found that a reporter could (or did) practice substantive objectivity in four different and distinct ways: labeling the DP claim “false” in the reporter’s own words, clarifying provisions of the health care bill, citing the judgment of nonpartisan fact-checkers, and including in their stories only sources who called the claim false without quoting any proponents.

Some of these approaches – one would assume – would be more comfortable to journalists than others. For example, a reporter could presumably achieve the same effect (debunking the claim) not by calling the claim false themselves but by simply citing a fact-checking organization like Politifact (which came out early against the veracity of the death panels claim), while at the same time not sacrificing the type of neutral moderation (i.e. procedural objectivity) that they were taught in journalism school.

Yet, as reported above, even these stories that called the claim untrue often went on to report it in he said/she said fashion. Labeling it false did not, it seems, merit departing from traditional rituals of objectivity.

Objectivity as traditionally described is too loose of a term to truly capture the different way one may report “objectively.” The next step in our own research will be to test these methods of reporting empirically to see what readers draw from them.

It is important to make note of a few points. First, describing objectivity as a journalist’s goal to be completely detached from the topic of the day is not a useful way to understand objectivity. Objectivity is not a state of being – it is an approach to journalistic practice; that is, journalists are not objective, but instead practice objectivity.

Second, the use of substantive objectivity is not always so cut and dry as we discussed above; some claims simply lend themselves to debunking more than others. Indeed, the sky is blue. So, substantive objectivity is more called for when reporters are faced with claims that it is brown.

It’s unclear what motivates journalists to choose one approach over another. The answer is likely a combination of many competing considerations. It is clear, however, that there is no consistently employed industry-wide routine. Instead, it’s a patchwork of different approaches that may (or may not) really inform the public about the facts.


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