is worth noting that non-partisan (i.e., objective) reporting
coexisted easily in the same penny
papers with such pungent sensationalism. “Neutrality
will sleep with anyone,” as the saying goes.
Right there at the creation of the modern press, paradoxes abounded.
Bennett and other penny publishers touted nonpartisanship, yet
on issues that were universally applauded the pennies were rabid
advocates. Bennett for example was always super patriotic and
always proslavery, both being conducive to pleasing his readers
and thus to producing profits.
the 20th century, the ideal of objectivity in news coverage
went from strength to strength.
But its adoption by newspapers
was more often linked to its utility as a marketing tool than
to any high-minded notions of serving the public interest. Adolph
Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, put the idea of objectivity,
which he called “impartiality,” at the center of
his strategy to revive the struggling paper in the late 1890s.
But Och’s “impartiality” was more a toning
down of sensationalism than a rejection of partisanship, and
it was transparently a marketing ploy.
he then surveyed the competitive landscape, Ochs saw the sensational
Hearst and Pulitzer papers,
the New York Journal
and the New York World, and felt that a cooler, more dispassionate
presentation of the facts would appeal to a more upscale, professional
readership. Ochs used the idea of impartial coverage to differentiate
his paper from the scandal sheets, and the Times adopted the
motto: “It does not soil the breakfast cloth.” Under
that banner the paper’s daily circulation jumped from 25,000
to 75,000 in 1989, and by 1921 it was 330,000, half a million
rise of the famous “inverted pyramid” form of
newspaper writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
was linked directly to publishers’ growing belief that
what readers – especially busy, educated, upscale readers – wanted
was “just the facts.” The story form that the inverted
pyramid smashed of course was narrative storytelling, the leisurely
picture painting that included scenes, characters, a plot, and
very often a satisfying conclusion in the form of a moral, spelled
out for readers directly at the end.
for example is the last sentence in a police blotter item from
The New York Sun in 1834. The
story reports on a woman whose
husband came home drunk and abusive once too often: “As
every sensible woman ought to do who is cursed with a drunken
husband, she refused to have anything to do with him hereafter – and
he was sent to the penitentiary.” Compare that to the final
sentence of a 1995 item from the Ann Arbor News, about a man
who assaulted a prostitute after she refused to have sex with
him: “Employees at the Ramada Inn Ann Arbor, 3750 Washtenaw
Avenue, said the man and woman checked in around 2 a.m. Friday.”
did this new kind of newspaper hewing to “objective” principles
get any closer to the truth than before? The Times’ coverage
of the lynching of blacks in the U.S. in the 1890s, suggested
for example is a line from an 1894 editorial in the Times,
which shows how the paper applied
the idea of “balance” to
reporting about lynching: “The
crime for which Negroes have frequently been lynched, and
ally been put to death with frightful tortures, is a crime to
which negroes are particularly prone.”
scholars including David Mindich, in his book Just the Facts,
have studied the Times’ coverage of lynching
in detail and found that in virtually all stories, the horror
of lynching was scrupulously balanced with the nearly equally
horrible crime of sexual assault. And somehow, although the evidence
was not often cited, the sexual assault was always known to be
perpetrated against a young white girl. The frightful image of
a marauding beast, feeding on society like an enraged Bigfoot,
always loomed behind the supposedly objective “inverted
pyramid” presentation of supposed plain facts.
A crusading black journalist of the time, Ida Wells, took it
upon herself to study dozens of lynching cases in detail and
published her findings in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice.
She found that rape was rarely the legally cited cause for the
lynchings. Plus, rape charges, when they were brought, were nearly
always filed only after the lynching was made public. And in
where rape was cited, evidence was often found that consensual
sex had occurred between the white woman and the black man.
despite a long and public campaign by Ida Wells directly aimed
at The New York
Times for the way it covered lynchings,
the convention for writing the lynching story remained in place
until well into the 20th century. The assumed fact of rape was
balanced against the known fact of a lynching. It was a case
of determining which of these two evils was the lesser, and which
the greater. Even more, lynching was sometimes referred to in
New York Times stories as a tragically misguided attempt to solve
a nevertheless worrying and genuine social problem, i.e., how
to tame the “savage” members of an “uncivilized
This was neutrality of an insidious kind.
Muckrakers, McCarthy, Vietnam
role that objectivity played in the reporting of major public
events of the 20th century
has been studied by many journalism
scholars. Some have concluded that, as it did with lynching,
the norm of objectivity often has allowed serious social wrongs
to continue unabated, while reporters misguidedly pursue the
goal of “balanced” coverage.
McCarthy, for instance, exploited the news media’s
insatiable appetite for charge and countercharge for many years,
while the press, eager to retail such inherent drama, rationalized
the reportage of “charge” and “countercharge” as “balance,” while
at the same time declining to seriously weigh the factual evidence
on both sides and reach its independent conclusions.
the other hand, journalism’s greatest contributions
to society have often been made precisely when the pretense to
objectivity has been dropped. The muckraking journalist’s
exposes of municipal and corporate corruption in the teens and
20s, for example, are considered to be standard-setting achievements
in the profession even to this day. Yet in pursuing specific
social wrongs with zeal, the muckrakers were the opposite of “objective” journalists.
the public tide began to turn against the Vietnam War precisely
when some journalists
abandoned the effort to “balance” what
they saw on the battlefield against the “spin” they
got in Army briefing rooms. Steeped in the facts and the reality
of the war, these reporters started to reach their own conclusions
separate from the ones fed them by spinners, and that made all
II. James Carey's Critique of Objectivity
The best contemporary critique of the ideal of objectivity in
news reporting comes from James Carey, a media scholar in the
tradition of Marshall McCluhan and a professor of journalism
at Columbia University.
Carey, the key point is that journalism began not as a profession
and critical democratic
institution but rather as a branch of
literature. As, in fact, an art – think Daniel Defoe, Samuel
Johnson, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman. It began as a popular
art that had a very particular way of gathering and presenting
facts as a way to make sense of this crazy world. Its technique
was story-telling, the use of scenes and characters and plots
to grab and keep a reader’s attention. “Journalists
were classically conceived as independent interpreters of events,” Carey
writes. “They were not viewed solely or even largely as
technical writers, who served as links between governmental and
other institutional elites and wider audiences.”
the contemporary journalist’s main job, according
to Carey, has transformed from this artistic and interpretive
role into essentially one of translation and simplification – that
is, translating the technical jargon of different government,
business, scientific, and social communities into the common
vernacular of readers and viewers. That is, transforming complex
specialized matters into simple, palatable, and above all, the
commercially marketable commodities called stories. It’s
in this sense that Carey calls contemporary journalism “technical
writing.” And it’s a perfectly natural, and in some
ways necessary, response to the development of our highly complex
industrial and multicultural world, the very world that Walter Lippmann
once fretted could ever be adequately covered by journalists.
Passive, Compromised Journalism
if we didn’t have
these legions of translators from specialized languages into
the vernacular, called journalists,
our complex world would be very much more opaque and daunting,
and possibly more dangerous, than it already is.
And yet, the transformation of the journalist from independent
interpreter of events into a technical repackager of specialized
facts into popular language came at a cost to journalism and
to society, Carey says. Because objectivity, the non-partisan,
neutral, offend-no-one professional code of the journalist-as-technical
writer, in practice became a recipe for least-common-denominator
writing. Objectivity insisted on seeing balance everywhere. But
balance is not everywhere in life; and so objectivity missed
specific objections to objectivity are threefold.
the objective journalist is passive. “The canons
of objective reporting turn the journalist into a professional
communicator,” Carey writes. “From an independent
observer and critic to a relatively passive link in a communication
chain that records the passing scene for audiences.”
the objective journalist’s independence is compromised.
When the journalist’s job is conceived as a neutral conduit
between the various institutions of society and the public, his
or her dependence on official sources of news is vastly increased,
even to the point of total dependence. This is not unrelated
to the rise of pseudo-events such as press conferences, “exclusive” interviews,
leaks, “off the record” conversations, and all of
the other means by which official news is controlled and packaged
in the course of its delivery to journalists. In such an environment,
the threat of removal of access of a journalist from his or her
official sources is tantamount to a threat of career destruction,
and is a mighty disincentive to independent analysis and criticism.
a business reporter for the Times, I found my sources were
unabashedly forthright about this.
Once, after I’d written
a story about Reuben Mark, the chairman and CEO of Colgate Palmolive,
I got a call from his communications director the day the story
appeared. The phone connection was scratchy and I asked where
he was calling from – it was a limousine, and he was sitting
next to Mr. Mark. Then he came straight to the point. “We
really liked your story today and we will work with you in the
future, as long as we like what you write. So we hope you keep
writing good stories like the one today. And as long as you do,
feel free to call Mr. Mark or me, any time you’d like,
day or night. And by the way, Mr. Mark would love to have lunch
with you soon. He wants to stay in touch.” Then he gave
me Mr. Mark’s home telephone number.
I put the phone down, I shook my head in wonderment. Six months
later, I’d heard the same speech from so many flaks
it was a matter of routine. And while it may not always be as
direct as that, do not be mistaken, that the balance of power
between sources and journalists these days in most realms tips
far towards the sources. Reporters are routinely and openly bribed
in this way. The perks of power – with access to the top
of the corporate or political hierarchy being prime among them – are
offered as a quid pro quo of favorable coverage.
Carey argues, the norms of objective reporting, by serving
and strengthening the fragmented
compartments of technological,
industrial, and multicultural society as professional communicators,
weakens the entire society. In such a society, he argues, a news
media is needed that unites society through “integrating
modes and styles of communication, of emotionally charged symbols
of national community and general, integrating ideas and values.” He
argues for a return of the storytelling mode, of news stories
that look for connecting threads and points of sameness between
culturally disparate groups and between the
local, state, national, and indeed international realms. He argues
for a journalism that serves all of society and not, as Lippmann
prophetically foretold, merely the most powerful institutions
and special interest groups in society. The sense of emptiness
we feel even after banqueting on 78 cable news channels and
a thousand other news sources, Carey suggests, is linked
absence in this diet of the nutrient that is the making visible
of the fact of our unity within diversity. News stories written
in the “objective” mode do just the opposite.
“One can be content with ‘giving the facts’ where
there are generally accepted rules for interpreting the facts
and an agreed set of political values and purposes,” Carey
writes. “Today no accepted system of interpretation exists
and political values and purposes are very much in contention.
Politics, culture, classes, generations, and international alignments
are not part of an intelligible mode of life, are not directed
by shared values, and cannot be encased within traditional forms
of understanding. Consequently, ‘objective reporting’ does
little more than convey this disorder in isolated, fragmented
III. A Practitioner's View
that I have given an historical overview of the concept of
objectivity, and summarized the
classical critique of it by
James Carey, let me offer a few thoughts on objectivity from
a practitioner’s point of view.
The first thing that strikes me, on the basis of my 27 years
as a working journalist, is that the ideal of objectivity in
journalism, like the ideal of love in marriage, or the ideal
of justice in society, is not an ideal whose essential nobility
or desirability is seriously questioned by anyone.
At the same time, however, like the ideals of love and justice,
neither is the definition of objectivity at all clear, nor shared
by all, nor has the route to achieving the goals attached to
any of the possible definitions of objectivity ever been clearly
defined in practical, repeatable terms.
We think of objectivity as meaning neutral. But also balanced.
Impartial. Non-partisan. Neutral. Accurate. Verified. Fair. Factual.
Unemotional. Detached. Scientific. Reasoned. Unbiased.
Each of these definitions implies a very different essential
quality or ideal, any two of which may be mutually exclusive.
For example, a news report could be factual but unbalanced; or
accurate but biased; or neutral but also unfair.
A Soothing Cliché
this illogic is one indication that we need to clarify our
language, which is a reflection
of our thinking, when we talk
such indication is the mantra-like nature of the cliché that
we journalists normally use to end every discussion that comes
around, finally, to exposing the many obvious flaws in the professional
code of objectivity.
“Of course it’s impossible to be objective,” we
say to each other. “But it’s better to try and fall
short, than not to try at all.”
is it? Surely there is a grain of truth to this. But reaching
moral destinations is not at
all like reaching geographical ones.
It’s a lot tougher to be a good parent, than it is to drive
to, and successfully arrive in, Chicago.
successfully arriving in Chicago, if you are trying to
be objective in the true and
pure sense, you need to frequently
check yourself that you are not rationalizing, not being
lazy, not skipping over the tough bits with a high-toned excuse.
you say to yourself as a journalist, “I fell short
but at least I tried,” you need also to immediately
I just rationalizing the fact that I’m sinning over
and over and over?” Any of us here who try to maintain
some kind of a spiritual or religious life will recognize
There is a tricky moral navigation, a continual process of brutal
self-judgment that is necessary for any practitioner of objectivity
to undertake, just as a tricky moral navigation is required of
anyone who undertakes to love well, to lead well, or to dispense
kiss is not just a kiss. It can be genuine or not. Heartfelt
or not. Deceptive or not. A betrayal
or not. But it will always
look the same from the outside. And it’s not always easy
even for the kissers to know themselves whether they are being
genuine or just a tiny bit deceptive, is it? A slippery slope
is always close by, and it’s a hard business to love truly
and honestly and well.
Or as the religious or spiritual person would say, to serve
so, it’s hard for journalists
to stay consistently aware just where they are in this process,
they are using or being used. Whether they are being honest brokers
of the truth, or pawns of larger forces peddling bought-and-paid-for
versions of truth.
the consequences to society are so great, which of these roles
the journalist is playing,
it’s vitally important
that the journalist try to remain as aware as possible at all
times, to avoid being used as a pawn. In a sense, to extend a
Walter Lippmann metaphor, the journalist is literally the last
line of defense against special interests, which are always essentially
trying to hijack all of society to serve their own commercial
or ideological ends.
Checking for Rationalization
It’s really important therefore to not only commit oneself
to fulfilling a checklist of goals that fall under the name of “objectivity,” as
a journalist, but also to continually ask if there is not some
rationalizing going on in one’s heart of hearts. Because
failure to reach the ideal sometimes sets in motion a chain of
events based on rationalizations that works entirely against
the original goal, while at the same time going completely unnoticed.
a practicing journalist both at The New York Times and at Bloomberg
News, I’ve faced innumerable deadlines of mere
minutes and even of seconds on international stories. I’ve
also faced many other external and internal pressures, especially
the pressure to beat the competition, to get the interview, to
advance the story, to get on page one, and so on. And I can tell
you, there is all the incentive in the world to succumb to rationalization.
say to yourself, “I’m on deadline, I did the
best I could to … be fair … be accurate … be
balanced … be factual …” etc.
as not, because the pressure is so great, as a reporter one
simply doesn’t have the time to digest every fact or
to test the line of argument that is professed by a source. So
one reaches for a story mold, a story frame, into which to cram
all the facts one is able to gather within the few precious minutes
you have to make the story. The “he said, she said” story
mold, as I described in the case of the telecommunications story,
is one such frame.
A Handy Shield
But as that story shows, when you use the cookie cutter story
mold, you can very easily be used by your sources. After all,
you are using a cookie cutter, but they may actually be thinking,
and planning, and strategizing. And so they may wreak the very
unfairness, imbalance, or partiality that you rationalize your
cookie cutter story mold is designed to prevent.
It really is time to ask in the journalism profession, are we
doing things the right way?
Objectivity is a handy Swiss Army knife for reporters who not
only feel besieged by the pressures of deadlines, but who also, quite
frankly, are extremely vulnerable to the very sources whose access
they need and seek every day.
deep down, the reporter knows that the sources have all
the chips. They have the information.
They have the power.
And so the sources, once one’s story comes out in the
newspaper or on TV, also have the ability to say to the reporter
editor and even to the whole world, “Wait, Mr. Reporter,
you got the story all wrong.”
As a result, most of the journalists I know, including me, are
always in a state of near panic that they have somehow failed
in the task of explaining or describing the material, often the
very complex technical material that their sources have given
them. They worry that they can be called on this at any time,
with possibly catastrophic results. The advent of the blogosphere
certainly has exacerbated this fear many-fold.
As a result of feeling this vulnerable all the time, reporters
naturally look around for a shield. And the most handy protective
shield of all is objectivity.
The Ultimate "Objective" Tool
of news sources themselves -- that is words placed inside quotation
marks or actual on-screen
TV interviews -- are
the ultimate tool of objective journalism and the ultimate shield
of objectivity. “But you yourself said it, and I quoted
you accurately,” the journalist can always say to the source.
But that doesn’t take into account the many alternative
possibilities that would still allow for the source to manipulate
the reporter – for example, the source might have been
lying on purpose.
is precisely one of the deep down self-checks – one
of those steps in the tricky internal moral process that a good
reporter must go through – before too quickly using the
cookie cutter mold of an “objective” story. You must
ask yourself “Am I being lied to?”
It’s a matter of routine that reporters feel or know they
are being lied to. Yet they take the quotes and pass them on,
unchallenged. And they rationalize this essentially corrupt practice – corrupt
that is from the point of view of the democracy that the media
purportedly supports -- any number of ways. “No time to
check facts under deadline.” “Well, it’s a
lie, but it’s directly from the mouth of the President
of the United States (or CEO, or other Important Personage),
which makes it newsworthy.” “Yes, it’s a lie,
but billions of dollars are being spent right now based on this
lie, which makes it a real and genuine story.”
And so on, and so on, and so on.
The Front Page
In my ten years as a reporter for The
New York Times, I got
on the front page a lot when I was working on the city desk,
the culture desk, and the business desk. And over time, I learned
a few tricks that always worked for getting a story on the front
page. One trick was to reach an important figure in person, or
on the telephone, such as a CEO or a prominent government official,
and to get that person to say something. Almost anything would
do. If that person said something dramatically different from
what he or she had said before, or something quarreling with
one of his or her public enemies, so much the better.
I called the CEO of the 7-Up company, which had recently come
out with a new product that
for the first time in the company’s
history was colored brown, like a cola, instead of clear. I called
him at home because I couldn’t get through his flacks at
his office. “That product is a flop,” he told me
frankly on the phone. “We were wrong to do it. We’re
the Uncola. It’s our version of Classic Coke. It was just
plain stupid.” That interview took me ten minutes and it
went straight on the front page of the business section.
way to get on page one was simply to find a story that involved
a certain amount of money.
That amount, I discovered,
was about $50 million. At The New York Times in the 1980s, I
discovered that $50 million was sort of a benchmark that meant
that whatever activity was involved, it was likely a “phenomenon” in
society and thus was real news. The number was particularly helpful
in the days I was covering the New York art market. If a painting
sold for less than $50 million, that was passé. But if
it sold for more than $50 million, something big was going on.
I used this same benchmark later as a business reporter, too.
If a corporation spent less than $50 million on an ad campaign,
that was routine. But if it spent more than $50 million, that
meant that whatever was being touted was going to be on enough
TV ads, in newspapers, and other media that pretty soon all society
would be singing that song or saying those words. I wrote about
Nike campaigns selling new sneakers, tobacco company campaigns
to counter anti-smoking efforts, and many other stories using
that $50 million benchmark.
Buying the News
As a business reporter, the first thing we used to do in the
morning, of course, was to read the Times and other major newspapers.
And if somebody out there in the real world had bought full page
ads in the papers, very often I was assigned immediately to cover
that as a news story.
the fact that full-page ads had been purchased in the Times
and other papers was not
always mentioned, especially in
the follow-up articles after the first story. For example, a
wealthy consumer health advocate once took a full page ad pushing
the idea that the fatty vegetable oils in processed foods were
just as big a cause of heart attacks as animal fats. He aimed
his ads directly at the country’s major food processing
companies that used tons of coconut oil and palm oil. He bought
ads one morning in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the
Washington Post. It cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But note that reporters at these papers wrote news stories about
his campaign, so that he had effectively bought himself not just
ads, but also full news coverage of his issue.
advertisement in the media costs a certain amount. And buying
news coverage also costs
a certain amount, which usually
but not always costs a little more. A skillful publicist can
get lots of news coverage just by staging attention-grabbing
events, i.e. on the cheap. But the surefire way to get news coverage
is to spend the money. Just as in the legal system, where money
buys high-priced lawyers and thus buys justice, just so in the
media system. Money can and does buy coverage of explicitly political
and commercial campaigns as “news.”
all of these cases, I could point to something “objective” that
I used to rationalize the story to myself as “real news.” For
example, I would say to myself, “the CEO himself said it.” That
makes it news. Or, “more than $50 million was spent.” That
means that amount of money objectively has a chance to push the
society one way or another, so it should be covered. And so on.
But the use of that objective standard implied at least two corollaries
of great importance. First, that the truth of the claims being
made in either case were not the major concern. The newsworthiness
was the main concern, and the truth or the lack of it, while
not irrelevant, was secondary.
Want to Know vs. Ought to Know
second corollary -- and on this I will end -- is that by choosing
to write these stories that
met these “objective” tests,
the decision was also made not to write about something else.
It’s in this sense that I say that objectivity leads to
a subtle but really powerful self-censorship.
by defining news as something that must objectively exist in
society and, further, that must
be so large as to have
millions of dollars and thousands and thousands of people buying
or acting in a certain way, the code of objectivity self-censors
one of the most precious and necessary of society’s treasures – that
is, new ideas, that while they may not yet have millions of dollars
or followers, nevertheless are potent with hope and possibility,
should conditions be right, to help society survive and thrive.
As Mia Doornaert, a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Der
Standaard, said recently, the untold story in the media is most
often a story not that the public wants to know, but ought to
is it, as the media critic John Nichols asked on NPR recently,
that Americans know more about
Laci Peterson than about their
failing social security system? Why is it that likely the single
most important fact to emerge from the presidential debate last
week -- that both candidates agree that the problem of nuclear
proliferation is the single most important issue facing the United
States and the world today – has hardly been whispered
about in the media in the two weeks since. Meanwhile of course
we have plenty to chew on when it comes to the horse race --
Bush’s scowls and sneers, whether John Kerry spent Christmas
in Cambodia, dueling polls on who won the presidential debates,
the professional code of objectivity, reporters strive to be “disinterested observers.” “Neutral recorders.” “Impartial
witnesses.” But the evidence of history and analysis shows
that journalists work within, and therefore serve with their
labor, a larger system that is anything but neutral or disinterested.
This is true whether the individual journalist is aware of this
fact or not. The larger system has very definite commercial and
sometimes ideological values and goals that the journalism, as
the commodity that is produced by that system, must serve.
A New Way
journalists became more conscious of the larger commercial
and social context in which they work; and more conscious,
the potential good they could do for society not by chasing
the big scoop but rather the solid important story; and if
steeped themselves in the details of matters truly worth exploring;
then yes, I can well imagine they would start to form some
firm and principled opinions of their own on public affairs.
would not be objective, but it would be useful.
then I can well imagine that these opinions held by reporters,
supported by factual expertise
and connected to the wider society
by the individual journalist’s engaged social conscience,
might start to deeply inform our news media.
There are problems, of course.
journalist who tries this may not last long at his or her place
of employment, under the
current system. Reporters are
skeptical of their sources, but editors are skeptical of their
reporters. “Says who?” is the editor’s perpetual
query, demanding of reporters that they “source” every
scrap of fact and claim. Thus any reporter who exerts his or
her independent expertise in writing or on air, is likely at
the least to be questioned, at most to be rebuked or censored.
Not to mention an equally serious problem, which is that a reporter
who too often challenges or quarrels with her sources will soon
lose access to those sources. She will then be replaced by a
neophyte to the beat who can be more easily manipulated once
again by the sources, whether they are in the corporate or government
In my own case, I am really happy writing articles in this new
and experimental journalistic style I here tentatively propose.
This style calls on journalists to dig even deeper for the facts
because they must not only fulfill the objective ideal in the
sense of verified facts. They must also finally make some judgments
on where they stand on the issue in question. They must form
opinions, which to earn credibility need the support of indisputable
Note, however, that my vehicle for distribution today is The
McGill Report, my own web site with a membership e-mail list
of 1,500, and not the mighty New York Times. Freedom to experiment
has its price.
used to joke when I was a New York Times reporter and people
asked what I thought about this
or that public issue, “I’m
a reporter. It’s not my job to think.” But now, I
am trying to.
Copyright @ 2004 Doug McGill