Analysis of the major news-media’s declining credibility tends to revolve around the idea that objective journalism is being drowned out by foreign propaganda and ‘fake news’ spread by an inexhaustible legion of useful idiots via social-media. Though Democrats and Republicans disagree over whether it was the fault of Russians or the liberal elite, both narratives are unified by a singular premise that non-objective news has made it too hard for the stupid public to recognize the objective news. Of course, this assumes that such a thing as ‘objective journalism’ exists and that should raise the question — is there such a thing as objectivity in journalism? Where exactly is the line and, more importantly, who gets to draw the line between objective and non-objective news? And does journalistic objectivity even matter if enough of us just dispute the media that displeases us regardless of (alleged) objectivity?
Does Journalistic Objectivity Exist?
“The imaginary and the rational-the visionary and objective vision — hover close together”
– Donna Haraway
Most would agree that some kinds of information like measurements, records, and events that either did or did not occur are inherently objective enough to be communicated without much risk of misleading others. This would generally include any information available in public records — like the fact that Chuck Schumer received $102,988 in contributions from weapons giant Lockheed-Martin in 2018 — and measurements like that Three Mile Island is just 2.5 miles long, as well as historical events like the fact that the Allied Powers turned down a proposal by Stalin to attack Hitler before WWII on August 15th, 1939. Since numbers, dates, events, and the like can be verified not just by other journalists but by virtually anyone, this sort of objectivity is least problematic. Factual accuracy must obviously be a minimum requirement for media to even be considered as journalism but accuracy in fact, in itself, is hopelessly inadequate as a standard of journalistic objectivity or the credibility of news because media, as it actually exists, is never a raw feed of carefully-labeled numeric data...
The Poverty of Factual Accuracy
Not only does factual accuracy fail to account for most facets of real media, facts that are technically correct can be (and frequently are) used to support conclusions based on faulty reasoning. As an example, it would be technically correct to report that rates of shark attacks rise along with revenue from ice-cream sales and, by the simple omission of further context, that might imply that sharks like the taste of people who eat frozen-treats or that Big Ice-Cream is terrorizing the public with sharks. None of the facts in such a report would be false and yet clearly it would be just as untrustworthy as any ‘fake news’ story based on mistaken or made-up “facts.” That, of course, is a very simple, silly example but it serves to illustrate that, however accurate or verifiable or numerous, the facts are still a house of cards that is always one case of bad reasoning away from ruin.
But factual accuracy’s inadequacy becomes even more palpable considering that facts can be used to distort reality as easily as they can be used to communicate it. In the wrong hands, this sort of factual quackery can be tailored to suit just about any narrative as Zachary Goldfarb demonstrates in an article that appeared in the Washington Post, titled How We Misread the Numbers That Dominate Our Politics — :
I want to tell you the story of a president [who] came into office during a massive financial crisis, with the economy losing 800,000 jobs per month, and he turned things around. He created more than 5 million new jobs and saved the jobs of teachers who were at risk of being laid off. The manufacturing industry roared back, adding 460,000 workers. And after its worst decline ever, the housing market started to rebound, with home prices rising and the government helping millions of people avoid foreclosure.
Now I’d like to tell you the story of another president [who] also came into office during a massive crisis, but he hardly made things better. He created just 325,000 jobs over his term. More than 100,000 teachers were laid off, while the manufacturing industry lost 635,000 positions. Home prices slumped to a nine-year low, and 3 million homes went into foreclosure.
In both cases, the president in question is Barack Obama and, in both cases, the facts are accurate but each of these equally factual accounts conjures a reality that antagonizes the other. In these, as well as other useful examples in his article, Goldfarb shows just how strikingly malleable fact-based ‘objectivity’ can become in the insidious presence of confirmation bias and attribution errors (i.e. did the president affect the jobs of millions all by himself or were other factors at play too?). None of this is to say that facts are unimportant, of course. The point is that factual accuracy can’t even prove instances of news are more than literal nonsense, much less whether the news is objective or trustworthy.
Physics — arguably the most objective field there is — provides another good reason to be skeptical of journalistic objectivity. Among scientists who study subatomic particles, it is common knowledge that, as far as physicists can tell, it seems to be impossible to observe anything at all without interacting with it and, even if only very slightly, changing it. This is because of how perception works. When vision appears in the eye, it is no magical streaming-service but light particles rapidly striking the retina in specific patterns determined by the geometry of surfaces off which the light is scattering. And not only is this how vision works but also scientific instruments— telescopes, microscopes, or the like may alter the input and expensive widgets like electron-microscopes can even re-create the process with machine-like precision but, in the end, all of it is still just photons running into stuff. Ultimately, to see any part of reality, someone somewhere needs to hurl at least one photon right into its face. And the same basic thing applies to the other senses.
For scientists, this is no problem — the obvious solution is simply to acknowledge the subject’s impact on the object so that measurements can be corrected accordingly. But if so many rigorous scientists can freely admit that even the most empirical disciplines fall short of true objectivity, how can anchors and journalists claim to be anywhere near it?
The Myth of Objective News-Media
“When a saint walks by, the pickpocket sees only pockets” – Old Saying
The more fundamental issue with journalistic objectivity, however, is that the very act of selecting what news to report is irreversibly enmeshed in a journalist’s subjective experience. This article, for instance, is about the nature of objectivity in news media but — if its author were, say, a Californian living in Ventura County — then, the 100K acres lost to the Woolsey Fire would easily have seemed to be a more pressing topic and — if the author’s parents had been Honduran emigrants — he might have selected Trump’s present fiasco at the southern border as a topic instead.
To report something as news is always to also assert that a thing is important and worthy of being reported. Outside a small array of world-historical events that hold a universal importance that is likely to trump other headlines (think: world war, huge natural disaster, alien invasion, etc), the immense majority of news stories possess only a limited and subjectively-determined importance. Despite a near-universal awareness of the profound non-importance of celebrity gossip found in rags like US Weekly or People magazine, the fact of its existence is points to the existence of groups of people with definite interests in asserting such media’s importance. The existence of media devoted to fashion, finance, travel, etc., all reveal the existence of classes with enough money and leisure time to buy fancy clothes, invest, or take vacations and, in turn, the many forms of media in its totality reveals an intersectional kaleidoscope of class-interests that are served by each.
The Irrevocably Subjective Perspective of Class, Race, etc.
The flip-side, of course, is that stories with incredible importance for marginalized communities are only rarely considered ‘worthy’ of attention. Take what happened to water-protectors at Oceti Sakowin and other camps on unceded territory at Standing Rock during 2016 and ‘17. The indifference of most news-outlets in regards to those events was not so much an issue of non-objectivity or inaccuracy as an instance of the commentariat and career-political class simply neglecting a story that was outside — and, in a lot of ways, in conflict with — their collective interest. Meanwhile, national newspapers kept printing whole sections of news about the stock market and nevermind that nearly 90% of all value in stocks is held by just 10% of everyone because those who own and manage news-firms genuinely cannot imagine what it is like not to care — to have no reason to care— about stocks.
Subjectivity, Objectivity, & Totality in News Media
To fully understand what is happening when objectivity is asserted in media, it is necessary to look at the greater context that objectivity relates to. In broad terms, a person is considered “objective” to the extent that she has severed herself from all subjective relation to the question at hand. In other words, an objective viewpoint is supposed to stand over, above, and outside the object of investigation. From the objective point of view, the world is presumed to appear as it would appear if there was no person to subjectively experience it, which is to say that a perspective of objectivity can only exist under conditions that are not just sanitized of meaning and incoherent by definition but impossible to boot.
In the case of news media, the object (ostensibly) is society itself, its internal motions of development, and its relations to forces external to society. An objective news-media would then look something like field-notes taken by a dispassionate alien observer documenting events from a vantage-point beyond the petty concerns of human and social existence. With that in mind, the question of whether The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, et al makes the cut is barely worth asking and the idea that a particular journalist or editorial board (or anyone, for that matter) is meaningfully nearer to such a real objectivity than the rest is not just stupid but arrogantly so.
Death to Objectivity, Long Live Situated Knowledges!
“My relation to my environment is my consciousness”
– Karl Marx
But given how absurd it is to ask subjective fragments for an objective image of the social whole, what then for journalism — ? Is news media doomed to slosh around the tepid swamp of relativism, eternally frustrated by an utter void of certainty in a postmodern hellscape? Not exactly. It is not just valid but useful and necessary to distinguish accurate from inaccurate news-media but to claim greater objectivity beyond matters of fact is ultimately rooted in the appeal to spooky authority. In her 1988 essay on the topic, feminist scholar Donna Haraway identifies this as a “conquering gaze from nowhere,” arguing that notions of ‘scientific objectivity’ tend to privilege the views of dominant social-classes at the expense of others and that objectivity could be more usefully re-framed in terms of situated knowledge. “The moral is simple,” Haraway explains, “only partial perspective promises objective vision.”
“The ‘eyes’ made available in modern technological sciences [telescopes, electron microscopes, et cetera] shatter any idea of passive vision; these prosthetic devices show us that all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life” [emphasis mine -JL]
Rather than abstracting a disfigured reality as it would be under imagined objective conditions — that is, conditions, which above all should never actually be observed — valid observations and analyses can be engaged as knowledgesthat are situated in shifting social, economic, and historical edifice. To access more rigorous analyses of media, critical thinkers must abandon the indefensible idea that factual instances of media somehow possess unequal yet non-measurable claims to objectivity.
The concept of objectivity is valid in fields of study that work with abstraction intentionally like philosophy and epistemology — but the concept is dysfunctional when applied in fields that are practical, social, material, human. Approaching media as a constellation of what Haraway’s essay describes as “detailed, active, partial way[s] of organizing worlds” makes everyone who participates in making or presenting knowledge “answerable for what we learn how to see.” Rather than taking the uncritical relativist approach of liberal trash-philosophers who legitimize every opinionated bumper-sticker as part of a rainbow of equally valid views, instances of media can be taken as narratives that are situated at definite locations in history and class-society.
Pundits, journalists, and media executives alike exist as living, breathing intersections of social class, sex, race, and nationality that shape the narrative they present and, insofar as a story is accurate in fact and in good faith, all of this should enrich and contextualize the story, not compromise it. Approaches that exclusively seek the ‘objective’ minimize, erase, and dismiss all of this critically enriching information as subjective waste-matter that is, at best, irrelevant. But even more interesting is how convenient this is for those privileged few who never want to discuss things like inequality, systemic racism and sexism, worker exploitation, the literal fact† that capitalist vampire-squids are sucking out the planet’s insides, or other things that might disrupt the stasis of the present order.
The last thing to understand is that there is no conclusion here — or at most, a partial one — because anything else would miss the point, which is that real understanding never concludes. To conclude is to circumscribe the Narrative, to define the limits of what is true and valid, and to say that no more needs to be included because what is essential has already been stated. And objectivity — that conquering gaze from nowhere — is just a spectre often invoked to imbue these conclusions with an air of authority and finality that neither privilege nor complacency deserves.