Objectivity, Professionalism, Citizenship

Reporters shouldn't air their personal opinions in public - or so the tradition goes. I see some problems with that.

February 8, 2017

Lewis Wallace, a reporter for the radio news program Marketplace, who had been encouraged to engage with his audience to boost the show’s brand, wrote a blog post that questioned whether journalistic objectivity is possible and, after some back-and-forth with the management, was fired. You can read his account of what happened and read a report about it by Laura Hazard Owen at NiemanLab. It’s traditional for news organizations to require their reporters to make no public statements about their personal beliefs in order to avoid any appearance of bias in their work. This extends to not participating in protests, putting bumper stickers on their cars, expressing political preferences on social media, or in any way making their personal views public. Yet, since the new business model for funding journalism depends on engagement through social media, journalists are encouraged to socialize. Just not . . . about journalistic objectivity .

This must sound familiar to any academic who has been careful to leave personal political opinions at the door as they enter the classroom. Or who has hesitated before posting something online, recalling instances in which academics’ political expression led to calls for dismissal.

I see two problems with this traditional bright line that requires journalists to back away from public discourse. First, I think everyone should have a right to participate in civic life. I wouldn’t be in favor of, say, telling police officers they can’t advocate for a candidate on their own time or participate in a public demonstration out of uniform. A police officer typically has taken an oath that applies whether they are on duty or not, and they are expected by their bosses to avoid embarrassing the force – but that shouldn’t extend to removing them completely from public discussion of issues. What about judges? They have to be circumspect, but that doesn’t stop them publishing books about their lives and the law – and it doesn’t seem to make them less capable of doing their job. It’s not impossible to draw distinctions between personal opinion and professional duty.

Second, claiming objectivity is achieved by avoiding personal speech doesn’t really solve the problem that all of us have of figuring what it means to be objective in practice. Every police officer has to weigh up a tense situation to decide what course of action to take. They are expected to consider department policy, their training, and the law as they make those decisions, but they are also going to have to rely on their personal interpretation. A good cop is skilled at reading situations and understanding fluid social situations and calibrating their response accordingly. Every lede a journalist crafts involves acts of judgment that influence the reader – often using emotional cues that are designed to encourage the reader to care enough to continue reading. That’s how stories work. Reporters must strive to be fair to multiple perspectives, but objectivity is never perfectly realized. Good reporting strives to represent what’s going on as fairly and dispassionately as possible. Simply transcribing statements from opposing sides is not objectivity. It’s not even reporting.

There are obvious parallels for academics and librarians, and some difficult terrain to negotiate. A history instructor has to be mindful of the power relationships in the classroom and respectful of student opinions that she finds personally wrongheaded. But if she were to include in a lecture about the Holocaust the possibility it didn’t happen because a lot of people think it didn’t, she would betray her professional duties as a historian. A scientist should never fudge data or jazz up a finding to press a particular point (or score the cover of Science); but they may well investigate a scientific problem because they personally feel the answer – whatever it turns out to be – matters. Their opinion shouldn’t shape the results, but they should not be prohibited to bringing their specialized knowledge to bear in civic discourse as private citizens.

When I’m working with a student who wants help finding evidence to use in a paper to prove something that I know is untrue or up for debate, I could claim “neutrality” and simply help the student find sources that support that argument, but instead I do that tiresome thing of having a conversation about how evidence works, make the case that cherry-picking facts is not how you construct an ethical argument, that when we ask genuine questions what we learn may actually change our minds, that winning isn’t the point, understanding is. To do anything less would betray, fundamentally, the values of my profession. It wouldn't be doing the student any favors, either.

That, to me, is where the balance gets struck. If your job is “to seek the truth and report it” as journalists, then you must be prepared to call out lies. If your job is to understand the past, you don’t whitewash it because it makes people uncomfortable or puts your job at risk from political pressure. If you are a scientist, you design experiments carefully and base your interpretation on the evidence while publicly defending the value of science. If you’re a librarian, you have an obligation to help students approach information critically and with an open mind. It’s that simple. And sometimes so very complicated in practice.

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