Martin Baron: We Want Objective Judges and Doctors. Why Not Journalists, Too?

From a Washington Post opinion column by Martin Baron headlined “We want objective judges and doctors. Why not journalists, too?”:

Martin Baron was executive editor of The Post from January 2013 through February 2021 and, before that, editor of the Boston Globe for more than 11 years. His book, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” is to be published in October. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave March 16 as part of the Richman Fellowship at Brandeis University.

Objectivity in journalism has attracted a lot of attention lately. It also is a subject that has suffered from confusion and an abundance of distortion.

I’m about to do something terribly unpopular in my profession these days: Defend the idea.

Let’s step back a bit. First, a dictionary definition of objectivity. This is from Merriam-Webster: “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”

That’s of some, but limited, help in understanding the idea. Let me suggest thinking about objectivity in the context of other professions. Because as journalists, and as citizens, we routinely expect objectivity from professionals of every sort.

We want objective judges. We want objective juries. We want front-line police officers to be objective when they make arrests and detectives to be objective in conducting investigations. We want prosecutors to evaluate cases objectively, with no preexisting bias or agendas. In short, we want justice to be equitably administered. Objectivity — which is to say a fair, honest, honorable, accurate, rigorous, impartial, open-minded evaluation of the evidence — is at the very heart of equity in law enforcement.

We want doctors to be objective in their diagnoses of the medical conditions of their patients. We don’t want them recommending treatments based on hunches or superficial, subjective judgments about their patients. We want doctors to make a fair, honest, honorable, accurate, rigorous, impartial, open-minded evaluation of the clinical evidence.

We want medical researchers and government regulators to be objective in determining whether new drugs might work and whether they can be taken safely. We want scientists to be objective in evaluating the impact of chemicals in the soil, air and water. In short, we want to know with confidence that we can live in healthful conditions, without injury to our children, our parents, our friends or ourselves.

Objectivity among science and medical professionals is at the very heart of our faith in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the medicines we take.

In business, too, we want objectivity. We want applicants for bank loans to be considered objectively, based on valid criteria about collateral and borrowers’ capacity to repay debt — not on biases about race and ethnicity. The same goes for credit cards, where access to the consumer marketplace should rest on objective standards and not on prejudices or flawed assumptions about who qualifies as a good risk and who does not.

The concept of objectivity in all these fields gets no argument from journalists. We accept it, embrace it, insist on it. Journalists investigate when we find it missing, particularly when it leads to acts of injustice.

And today — in an era of misinformation, disinformation and crackpot conspiracy theories that poison our politics and threaten the public health — we rightly ask leaders of all sorts to face up to “objective reality,” or what we commonly call truth.

Of course, objectivity is not always achieved. Judges, police and prosecutors don’t always act without bias. Scientists sometimes succumb to wishful thinking or manipulate data in a dishonest pursuit of professional glory. In business, bias has inflicted profound, enduring damage on marginalized communities by barring full participation in the economy.

But failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need for them. It does not render them outmoded. It makes them more necessary. And it requires that we apply them more consistently and enforce them more firmly.

Most in the public, in my experience, expect my profession to be objective, too. Dismissing their expectations — outright defying them — is an act of arrogance. It excuses our biases. It enshrines them. And, most importantly, it fails the cause of truth.

Increasingly now, journalists — particularly a rising generation — are repudiating the standard to which we routinely, and resolutely, hold others.

These critics of objectivity among journalism professionals, encouraged and enabled by many in the academic world, are convinced that journalism has failed on multiple fronts and that objectivity is at the root of the problem.

Various arguments are made:

First, that no one can be truly objective — that we all have opinions. Why not admit them? Why hide them? We’re not being honest if we do.

Second, that true objectivity is unattainable. Our views shape every choice we make in practicing journalism — from the stories we select to pursue, to the people we interview, to the questions we ask, to the ways we write stories. So, if genuine objectivity is beyond reach, the argument goes, let’s not pretend we’re practicing it and let’s not even try.

Third, that objectivity is just another word for false balance, false equivalence, neutrality, both-sidesism and “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. According to this argument, objectivity is nothing more than an effort to insulate ourselves from partisan criticism: When the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction, we deceitfully suggest otherwise.

Ultimately, critics consider the idea of objectivity antithetical to our mission overall: The standard is a straitjacket, the argument goes. We can’t tell it like it is. The practical effect is to misinform. Moral values are stripped from our work. The truth gets buried.

Many journalists have concluded that our profession has failed miserably to fulfill its responsibilities at a perilous moment in history. Their evidence is that Donald Trump got elected in the first place, despite his lies, nativism, brutishness and racist and misogynistic language; that Donald Trump still maintains a strong grip on Republican politicians and so much of the American public; and that so many American voters refuse to accept basic facts, that they reject reason and logic and evidence, and get swept up in outlandish conspiratorial thinking.

Had we not been constrained by standards like objectivity, critics believe, we would have been more faithful to our profession’s truth-telling mission. American politics might be different. People could better sift truth from lie.

There is also the view that we have never actually been reliable truth-tellers. That what we call “objective” is, in fact, subjective.

Objectivity’s detractors note, with merit, that American media have been dominated by White males. Historically, the experiences of women, people of color and other marginalized populations have not been adequately told — or told at all. What White males consider objective reality isn’t that at all, they say. It’s really nothing more, in their view, than the world seen from the White male perspective.

That’s the criticism. So, where did this idea of objectivity come from? And how did it become a journalistic standard in the first place? The origins are a bit murky, but they are typically traced to about a century ago.

In 1920, Walter Lippmann, a renowned American journalist, published “Liberty and the News.” He was one of the most influential advocates for the idea of “objectivity” in journalism. In that brief collection of essays, he sought to advance the concept.

For context, here is what he had to say about his own era. It should have a familiar ring.

“There is everywhere an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled.” He saw an onslaught of news that comes “helter-skelter, in inconceivable confusion” and a public “protected by no rules of evidence.”

He feared an environment where people, as he put it, “cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions … what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”

“The cardinal fact,” he said, “is the loss of contact with objective information.” And he worried that people “believe whatever fits most comfortably with their prepossessions.”

His diagnosis was much like what causes us so much worry today: Democratic institutions were threatened. He saw journalism as essential to democracy. But to properly serve its purpose, journalism — in his view — needed standards.

“Without protection against propaganda,” he wrote, “without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation. … There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

Lippmann was seeking a means for countering the propaganda of his time. He well understood the tools for manipulating public opinion. He himself participated in the propaganda machine of the Woodrow Wilson administration. He saw how propaganda of the early 20th century carried the world into the slaughter of World War I, and how public sentiment could be influenced and exploited through calculated effort. And he called this propaganda emanating from government the “manufacture of consent.”

Lippmann recognized that we all have our preconceptions. But he wrote that “we shall accomplish more by fighting for truth than by fighting for our theories.” And so he called for as “impartial an investigation of the facts as is humanly possible.” Which is where the idea of objectivity came in: as impartial an investigation of the facts as is humanly possible.

Our job as journalists, as he saw it, was to determine the facts and place them in context. The goal should be to have our work be as scientific as we could make it. Our research would be conscientious and careful. We would be guided by what the evidence showed. That meant we had to be generous listeners and eager learners, especially conscious of our own suppositions, prejudices, preexisting opinions and limited knowledge.

So, when I defend objectivity, I am defending it as it was originally defined and defending what it really means. The true meaning of objectivity is not the straw man that is routinely erected by critics so that they can then tear it down.

Objectivity is not neutrality. It is not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. It is not false balance or both-sidesism. It is not giving equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction. It does not suggest that we as journalists should engage in meticulous, thorough research only to surrender to cowardice by failing to report the facts we’ve worked so hard to discover.

The goal is not to avoid criticism, pander to partisans or appease the public. The aim is not to win affection from readers and viewers. It does not require us to fall back on euphemisms when we should be speaking plainly. It does not mean we as a profession labor without moral conviction about right and wrong.

Nor was the principle of objectivity “meant to imply that journalists were free of bias,” as Tom Rosenstiel, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and former executive director of the American Press Institute, and Bill Kovach, a former top editor, wrote in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” “Quite the contrary,” they noted. The term arose “out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.”

As Rosenstiel and Kovach pointed out, “the method is objective, not the journalist,” and “the key was in the discipline of the craft.”

The idea is to be open-minded when we begin our research and to do that work as conscientiously as possible. It demands a willingness to listen, an eagerness to learn — and an awareness that there is much for us to know.

We don’t start with the answers. We go seeking them, first with the already formidable challenge of asking the right questions and finally with the arduous task of verification.

It’s not that we know nothing when we embark on our reporting. It is that we don’t know everything. And typically we don’t know much, or perhaps even most, of what we should. And what we think we know may not be right or may be missing important pieces. And so we set out to learn what we do not know or do not fully understand.

I call that reporting. If that’s not what we mean by genuine reporting, what exactly do we mean?

I believe our profession would benefit from listening more to the public and from talking less at the public, as if we knew it all. I believe we should be more impressed with what we don’t know than with what we know — or think we know. In journalism, we could use more humility — and less hubris.

We of course want journalists to bring their life experiences to their jobs. The collective life experiences of all of us in a newsroom are an invaluable resource of ideas and perspectives. But every individual’s life experience is, inescapably, narrow. Life experience can inform us. But, let’s be honest, it can also limit us. There is an immense universe beyond the lives we ourselves have lived. And if there are constraints on our ability to understand a world beyond our own, we as journalists should strive to overcome them.

I made a statement in my retirement note to staff in early 2021 that reflects my belief: “We start with more questions than answers, inclined more to curiosity and inquiry than to certitude. We always have more to learn.”

This gets at a point that my longtime friend and competitor, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of the New York Times, eloquently articulated in a speech in 2021. I wholeheartedly embrace his perspective.

Dean said: “My theory, secretly shared by many editors I know and respect, is that one of the major crises in our profession is the erosion of the primacy of reporting.”

“There is not enough talk about the beauty of open-minded and empathetic reporting and the fear that its value will fade in an era where hot takes, quick analysis and riffs are held in such high esteem. …”

“Certainty,” Dean said, “is one of the enemies of great reporting.” And he called upon reporting to be “restored to the center.”

Dean quoted Jason DeParle, the New York Times’s superb reporter on poverty in America: “The great lesson of reporting,” Jason said, “is that the world is almost always more complicated and unlikely than it seems while sitting at your desk.”

None of these statements argues for false balance. They argue for genuine understanding of all people and perspectives and a receptivity to learning unfamiliar facts.

None argue for ignoring or soft-pedaling the revelations of our reporting. They are arguments for exhaustively thorough and open-minded research.
None of them are arguments against moral values in our work. Of course, we as a profession must have a moral core, and it begins with valuing truth, equal and fair treatment of all people, giving voice to the voiceless and the vulnerable, countering hate and violence, safeguarding freedom of expression and democratic values, and rejecting abuses of power.

All of them, however, suggest we avoid self-appointment as moral authorities. All are arguments against stories that are precooked before a lick of research is conducted, where source selection is an exercise in confirmation bias and where comment is sought (often at the last minute) only because it’s required and not as an essential ingredient of honest inquiry.

All argue against a madcap rush to social media soapboxes with spur-of-the-moment feelings or irrepressible snark and virtue signaling.

All of them are arguments for acknowledging our limitations — for simultaneously opening the aperture of journalism and going deeper. That is the simple demand of objectivity and what, to me, is its unarguable point.

To those today who say that the media needs to be explicitly pro-democracy, I would say this: Every newspaper I’ve ever worked for always has been. They have been vigorously protecting democracy for decades. How is it possible that you failed to notice?

One of the ways those news organizations protected democracy was by holding government and other powerful interests accountable.

When The Washington Post broke open the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon, along with his aides and allies, portrayed The Post’s journalists as liars and political opponents. In the end, their reporting was vindicated, and ultimately the Nixon administration was held to account for abuse of power, criminal behavior and obstruction of justice.

When the New York Times first published the Pentagon Papers, the secret official history of the Vietnam War, it was accused of treason and threatened with criminal prosecution on the grounds that it had revealed classified information. So was The Washington Post, which began publishing the Pentagon Papers shortly afterward. But what was the government really trying to conceal from the public? How it had deceived American citizens about the war and its progress. The Times and The Post stood their ground on behalf of informing the American public.

When the Boston Globe in 2002 exposed a decades-long coverup of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church, we were taking on what was then the most powerful institution in New England. There was every chance that the large Catholic population of the region would react by canceling subscriptions. But we did our work anyway, exposing how the Church had betrayed parishioners and its own principles. The repercussions continue today — within dioceses throughout the world and within the Vatican itself.

Today, the question is commonly asked: Was the media, in adhering to traditional standards, up to the task of covering a government led by Donald Trump, with his pattern of mendacity and anti-democratic impulses?

And yet virtually everything the public knows about his lies and his abuse of power is because of the work of mainstream news organizations.

There is no profession without flaws. There is not one that always fulfills its highest ideals. Journalism is, by no means, an exception. We have often failed, embarrassingly and egregiously. We often did harm: Through errors of commission and errors of omission. Because of haste and neglect. Because of prejudice and arrogance.

But our failures were not ones of principle. They were failures to live up to principle.

We can — and should — have a vigorous debate about how a democracy and the press can serve the public better. But the answer to our failures as a society and as a profession is not to renounce principles and standards. There is far too much of that taking place in today’s America. The answer is to restate our principles, reinforce them, recommit to them and do a better job of fulfilling them.


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