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How Trump should change the way journalists understand “objectivity”

Tom Rosenstiel on the ongoing reckoning among political journalists.

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President Trump stands behind a podium while answering questions during a press briefing at the White House.
President Donald Trump answers questions during a press briefing on April 4, 2020, at the White House.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The American media ecosystem has become saturated with misinformation and noise because the press remains committed to a set of norms that are ill-adapted to the digital age. As I argued here and here, the obsession with “objectivity” in particular has led to an obsession with “balance” or “fairness” that makes it easy for bad-faith actors to get away with pushing falsehoods.

One of the most prominent examples of this is how cable news outlets treat people like Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. The thing about Conway is that she’s a liar. Everyone knows she’s a liar. Yet CNN and MSNBC continue to give her a platform to spread those lies because they see their job as giving government officials — even ones who eschew the truth — a platform. And that’s how bad-faith actors exploit press norms and keep flooding the information space with nonsense.

Some of the most interesting thinking on this topic has come from Tom Rosenstiel, a media scholar and the executive director of the American Press Institute. Rosenstiel recently responded to a terrific essay by reporter Wesley Lowery, who argued that newsrooms are facing a long-overdue reckoning over the very meaning of objectivity.

Lowery’s point — and it’s a good one — is that objectivity has come to mean presenting neutral arguments to an imaginary reader who is “invariably assumed to be white.” And the problem isn’t that objectivity varies according to race, but that this assumption means “the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the white gaze.”

Rosenstiel, who has co-written a book on the ethics of journalism in the digital age, agreed with Lowery, but used his piece as an opportunity to clarify what “objectivity” has traditionally meant for journalists and how it’s “been turned on its head.” For Rosenstiel, journalistic objectivity was never intended to mean neutrality or balance; instead, it meant something like the pursuit of truth using objective methods. Because journalism is conducted by human beings and therefore can never be truly objective, their methods have to be instead. A journalist’s duty is to write “what they can prove” — and if they can prove one side is lying and the other is telling the truth, that’s what they should write.

I reached out to Rosenstiel by phone to talk about that distinction and why the prevailing misunderstanding of objectivity matters.

On one level, this is a very inside-baseball exchange on contemporary journalistic ethics. But it’s also a discussion about how to tell the truth in a media environment that rewards engagement and clicks above all else — a problem that implicates us all.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Most people think journalists should strive for “objectivity” in their reporting. What has that word traditionally meant in our field?

Tom Rosenstiel

At first glance people think it means neutrality, but it doesn’t. And it really never has. That is a marketing gimmick that has led to a kind of undergraduate-level debate about postmodernism and truth, in which people are asking, “Can anyone ever really be objective?”

But if we think about this a little more deeply, we realize that a lot of great journalism has a point of view. We give Pulitzer Prizes for opinion journalism and magazine journalism and editorial writing. And virtually all journalism, even in so-called legacy publications, eventually arrives at some point of view.

What I’m trying to stress is that as news is increasingly everywhere and people can get the facts on their own or from wherever they want, journalism’s responsibility goes deeper. It involves sense-making, it involves providing more context. This is what we have to do now more than ever. Remaining “neutral” is not the goal.

The thing is, journalists were never just reporting facts. They were always choosing which facts to report. What I said in my Twitter thread is that once we acknowledge this, then we have to ask, “What does objective actually mean”? The concept that migrated to journalism in the early 20th century was that journalists themselves could never be objective. It was gradually accepted that the news isn’t mechanistic because it involves people making judgements about what to cover and how to cover it.

Sean Illing

So when this ethos of objectivity first migrated to journalism, the idea was that reporters should function like empirical scientists, relying on a set of methods and practices designed to eliminate personal biases.

Tom Rosenstiel

Yes. It’s gotten more sophisticated over the years, but the idea was that our methods could be objective precisely because we couldn’t be. So in the same way that in social science we developed random selection of a sample or methods for testing the statistical significance of something, journalists developed practices for conquering their innate biases — or at least that was the idea. The more you can adopt an objective method, the better your work will be.

The notion that journalistic objectivity means, “I have no opinions, I have no consciousness,” is so patently absurd that it’s a straw man. The only people making this argument were those who didn’t understand the concept.

Sean Illing

Well, one of the points in your thread is that the original meaning of objectivity has been “turned on its head.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Tom Rosenstiel

When a lot of journalists start out now, they think, “I shouldn’t be biased in my reporting.” They don’t really have a method. We don’t teach a lot of method in our journalism education. We don’t teach it like ethnography or anthropology, with a lot of method. We teach it with the apprenticeship model. “Go out and write some stories, and I will edit them,” just as if you were in a newsroom and you learn to do it through practice. So there’s a lot of practice and not a lot of theory in the way we teach this.

Sean Illing

All of this makes sense, and I take you to be saying that journalism ought to be about the pursuit of truth, not neutrality or fairness. But I’ve been writing for a while now that there are problems with the incentive structure that makes this damn near impossible. I’ll sum it up for readers.

My worry is that the model of journalism developed in the 20th century just doesn’t work in the 21st century. The internet has diminished the power of gatekeepers, and that means there are no referees anymore, no controls on the flow of information. The increased competition for eyeballs and clicks has created an environment in which bad-faith actors “flood the zone with shit and misinformation that gets amplified by news outlets competing for the same audiences.

I don’t see a solution to this problem. Do you?

Tom Rosenstiel

I think that’s a pretty good diagnosis of part of the landscape. Yes, the zone has been flooded. And you’re right that the press, by and large, are no longer gatekeepers over what the public knows.

To a very large degree today, we are annotators of what they have already heard. So to annotate to them effectively, to help them sort out truth from fiction, we have to have processes and context. It involves explaining why we should know about this person or why this is being reported, and here’s the basis for it and here’s how many people we interviewed and here’s why we granted anonymity to this person or that person, and so on. The job today is really to provide guideposts for people who have too much information in front of them.

Sean Illing

There’s an idea, probably gaining steam, that journalists should eschew objectivity in the conventional sense and just lean into their subjectivity — and be totally transparent about that with their audiences. And it’s an understandable impulse because, as you’ve explained, journalism is now much more competitive, and that means it’s more consumer-driven, so audiences are more likely to support places that feed them exactly what they’re looking for.

Why do you think this is a dangerous road to travel down?

Tom Rosenstiel

This would be the same kind of simplistic misunderstanding where people think, “Oh, journalists can never be objective. Objectivity is bogus. Journalists are deluded.” The flip side of that is, “Okay, the only authentic journalism is journalism of opinion, where I just tell you what my biases are and I write what I think.”

The guidepost of journalism, whether it’s highly interpretive, whether it’s a book, whether it’s a magazine piece, or whether it’s a quick news story, is that journalists should only write or publish what they can prove, not what they believe.

There are plenty of people who can tell me what they believe without evidence, but journalism should be an evidence-based enterprise, not an opinion-based enterprise. There are lots of opinion out there that have nothing to do with journalism — that’s just speech.

If we think that the solution to a flawed understanding of objectivity is to just be subjective, what’s going to happen is we’re going to drive people further apart. And the reporters themselves, when they go out on a story, are going to reconfirm their prejudices time after time, because they’re going to be so imbued with, “What do I believe is true here? And now I’m going to seek out evidence to prove what I already think.”

A long time ago somebody said to me, “Write down what you think the story is before you go to report it, and after you’re done reporting, if all you’ve come back with is exactly what you set out to find, you didn’t do a very good job of reporting.”

Sean Illing

I hear from journalists all the time that there is a lot of great truth-seeking journalism out there, but in such a fragmented media environment, it often fails to break through when we’re dealing with such insulated audiences. So I really want to press you on this point. What are journalists supposed to do in an incentive structure that rewards engagement, not truth?

Tom Rosenstiel

Part of the problem has been that the first generation of the internet was built around engagement. And by engagement, I mean patrons and clickbait. This has created a bipolar dopamine culture that grabs our attention by either pissing us off or making us euphoric.

We’re entering a phase now where the future, to the extent that journalism has an economic future, is going to be much more based on consumers saying, “This is valuable, I’m going to pay for it, I’m going to join, I’m going to contribute, I’m going to subscribe, I’m going to subsidize this.” It won’t be 100 percent of the economic engine of news, but it’ll probably be the majority. It could be two-thirds. It could even be up to 75 percent. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal are examples, but this will happen locally at some level. [Author’s note: Vox has recently launched its own reader contribution program.]

Ultimately, news organizations are going to have to broaden their audience. You can’t just have aging white liberals for your audience anymore. To do that, to create that kind of value, you’re actually going to have to produce more work that creates knowledge and value for people, that puts things into some usable sense.

Sean Illing

I think a people may be confused by a distinction you’re implicitly drawing here, so let’s tease it out. From your point of view, what’s the difference between striving for truthful reporting and striving for factually accurate reporting?

Tom Rosenstiel

Factually accurate reporting is necessary but insufficient. Something can be factually accurate and substantially untrue at the same time.

Sean Illing

Can you give me a practical example of what you mean?

Tom Rosenstiel

If I quote Neo-Nazis saying a bunch of stuff that is technically accurate (meaning they actually said it), but a total distortion of reality, then I’ve quoted them accurately telling their lies. A strictly factual journalism can muddy the truth, in other words.

A classic example of this is when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported during the 1996 Olympics that Richard Jewell was probably the Olympic bomber, which turned out not to be true. They never acknowledged that they did anything wrong, because they said, “We accurately reported what the police believed at the time.” So unlike CNN and NBC and a lot of other news organizations, they never settled with Jewell’s lawyers. They insisted that they were accurate. They were accurate and substantially untrue. [Author’s note: After a lengthy legal saga, the Georgia court of appeals ruled that the AJC “accurately reported” that Jewell was a suspect.]

So you need to provide context. You need to say, “Why do the police believe this?” And after the police had found out that Jewell couldn’t actually have made the phone call and also placed the bomb, no one physically could have done those two things within the time frame, that’s context that gets you toward the truth.

Likewise, if Trump says something and it’s not true and you’ve quoted him, you’ve been factually accurate as to what he said, but it’s also important to point out how what he said is not only not true, but he’s repeated it 28 times and it’s been pointed out 27 times, and by now, if he doesn’t know this is untrue, he’s strategically lying.

Sean Illing

You’ve said openly that you’re worried about journalism’s viability in this already weakened state. Are you still optimistic that we’ll adapt to this era and correct course before it’s too late?

Tom Rosenstiel

If you go into any major news organization right now, they all have major issues — not just economically but also culturally, in terms of racial and intellectual diversity and default biases. That’s all real and true. But there isn’t anyone who seriously thinks that they should replace the front page of those publications or the lineup of NBC News with a lot of opinion and pure subjectivity.

This is obviously what’s happened to cable news, but I’m not worried that our major institutions are going to fall prey to that in the next six months, or something like that. I do worry that journalism can destroy itself from within, because to the average person, what they think of as journalism is what they see on television. The work that they see a journalist do is the ranting of cable anchors. And so journalism can destroy itself from within if that becomes the public model.

Sean Illing

It’s journalism as theater, and I guess I’m not as sanguine as you because I think that model has spread well beyond cable news.

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, I do worry about that. To the average person who’s never seen a journalist work on a story or has never been part of an interview like this — that’s journalism. But that’s not what most people see, and it’s not the impression they have of journalism in their head. And yeah, that’s a problem.

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