The objectivity, reliability and transparency of the news have become hot topics in recent years. Ours is the era of supposedly fake news, in which there is little consensus about how much we can trust. Social media and economic conditions in journalism have played a role in this. But so have other, less often acknowledged factors.
Clearly, journalists are often incentivised to hyperbolise and flirt with mistruth. The precise truth rarely sells best, after all. Scrupulous readers should always do their own fact-checking. But, even when the journalist is motivated by a desire to serve the public interest and writes honestly, questions about objectivity remain. In some ways, these questions even get harder to answer. To work out why, we first need to understand what journalists are actually trying to do and what we should want them to do.
It’s true that I moved house recently, but I don’t think that would have made for a very good story. Journalists have to do much more than report truth: they have to pick newsworthy truths. They also have to consider the whole truth. It’s true that Trump claimed that the election was stolen, but that he did so without evidence is necessary for a complete understanding of the story. Any article that fails to mention the lack of evidence wouldn’t be objective in the most meaningful sense of the word.
Also, the journalist with supposedly good motivations reports a particular kind of truth: the truth that serves the public good. This is the ethical impetus that gave rise to journalism in the first place: what should readers know for society to function as smoothly and justly as possible and to optimally prepare them for the future?
As readers, we have to consider two variables when assessing the usefulness of a piece of news: its truth and its importance (the degree to which the information it contains might be of relevance to the public good). This second, moral dimension is often overlooked in conversations about journalistic objectivity. But this is where the philosophical trickiness begins.
The key distinction here is between what journalists call soft news (largely entertainment focused news, that is not typically seen as important) and hard (important) news. Of course, the difference is a matter of degree, rather than of sharply defined categories, because cultural values will influence what people think is important. Where I’m from (Australia), sport is considered important enough that a special spot at the back of the newspaper is reserved for it. This isn’t true of every country. Likewise, the story of a black man being killed by a white cop might have barely made the papers in most places in the world fifty years ago. Now, it can be the biggest news story on Earth.
But this cultural and ideological subjectivity does not make the distinction between hard and soft news useless. We could think of it as akin to the distinction between young and old people. How exactly we define old will vary from population to population and era to era. Thirty-five used to be old and one day ninety-five might be considered young. The same is true of soft and hard news. The information currently deemed important enough to be broadcast far and wide may not be seen as important by the end of this century, though consensus as to which news is in the public interest might remain elusive. Yet the distinction remains a very useful one for thinking about the function of news and what motivates journalists (civic duty, entertainment, money, etc.). After all, we are not tempted to remove the terms old and young from our lexicons because we sometimes debate exactly how to apply them.
So let’s imagine a hard news story—as hard as a ninety-year-old is old. Even if the journalist only seeks to report the important story as truthfully as she knows how, a whole string of decisions must go into creating the article, radio segment or TV broadcast, including where to get her information, which expert opinions to cite (given space constraints), what information to include and what word limit to choose. The most important question, however, is what is worth writing about in the first place.
This is why, in its purest, public service form, journalism is, at bottom, moral philosophy in practice: it requires deciding what one’s readership ought to know. This is an important factor in reliability, transparency and trustworthiness. Can a major newspaper be considered objective if it fails to mention a huge government scandal, even if the articles it does choose to run are perfectly honest? Objectivity is about much more than facts.
We think talking about objectivity matters because we think objectivity can help us discern what is true and avoid being misled and that we will be able to make the world—or, at least, our own personal world—a slightly better place with the benefit of accurate information. But instead of asking merely whether an article is true, we should also ask whether it is telling us something important.
It can be helpful to think about these two questions separately. Re truth: is there a reason this author would lie or not tell the whole truth? Is there something about the way this platform operates that might make misinformation or disinformation more prevalent? Re importance: what are the author’s or publication’s values and how do they compare to mine? Given their values or political leanings, might they unintentionally omit the whole truth—because, say, there is some information that they don’t see as relevant, but that I do? Which social trends or movements might impact the alleged importance or prominence of this story and, consequently, what are people not writing about?
Thinking about the usefulness of information is much more helpful than analysing the amorphous concept of objectivity. The task of properly assessing an article’s journalistic objectivity is a thoroughly philosophical one. It requires following the metaphysical path (what exists, what is true of our physical world) and the ethical path (what is important) all the way to their ultimate convergence in meta-ethics, the branch of philosophy that looks at whether there are moral facts and what, therefore, it means to say that one person’s idea of what serves the public good is better than another’s.
Truth has recently become slippery in quite new ways. Knowledge is easier to come by now than at any previous time in history and people have high expectations as to how much they should know simply because we can know so much—and will know so much, if we can develop a sufficiently robust and dynamic set of user guidelines for our rapidly evolving communicative infrastructure, which facilitates both wonderful learning opportunities and is a terrifyingly powerful vehicle of mis- and disinformation. The stakes have never been higher. A piece of fake news can go viral in an hour, transfixing millions and sometimes spurring a few individuals on to extreme actions.
If we can get a grip on the technology and economics, we could go a very long way towards revitalising media by forging a shared epistemology that defines how we come to know facts about the way things are. But the more timeless challenge is to converge on ideas about the way things should be. It is our inability to agree on both those things that explains our inability to agree on what counts as truly objective journalism.
In journalism school, we don’t really deal with ideas about the way things ought to be and I don’t think we should. Students have their own ideas about which stories might serve the public good and journalism classes are limited in their ability to help someone refine convictions of this nature.
Instead, writers, readers, teachers and students should explore their own ideas about what information our societies should know most urgently. And we should be aware that we will always read through the tinted lens of such ethical convictions, even if we don’t consciously embark on this kind of exploration. We will just inherit them from our families, cultures and other cauldrons of ideology.
So you should think about this question, if only to appreciate how difficult it is. This will make you more empathetic with those with whom you disagree. But know also that thinkers have made progress on these problems and that, as a species, we seem to be slowly but surely figuring out what information is not just true but important—as humanity’s slow but steady march toward heightened collective wellbeing demonstrates.
Getting the facts right can only take us halfway towards achieving something like journalistic objectivity. Figuring out what we should know is the second, longer stretch of the journey. It’s tricky, but we can make it easier for ourselves by recognising the real, dual nature of the problem: what is true; and what is important?