What is the object of objectivity?

Mbabane, Swaziland | 26 March 2014
Bill Snaddon

For some reason the word “objectivity” has been on my mind lately. I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason, but this loaded 11-letter word has lodged itself onto my subconscious.

One thing I do know for sure, though, is that it’s in the context of journalism – the dangerous and noble craft that requires one to search for and document the often-uncomfortable truth – in which this word keeps cropping up.

What is objectivity? Is it a good thing? Is it possible to achieve? Is it something to strive for? Is objectivity the same as fairness? Will objectivity lead to greater accuracy?

These questions do not have easy answers. In fact, these questions possess many reasonable answers; just as there are many shades of the truth to any story. (You only need to watch a few moments of the Oscar Pistorius trial to see how “the truth” can be bent to serve a certain purpose.)

People have been debating these slippery little questions for as long as journalism has been around.

So, with fear in the journalistic air, let’s continue the debate; that is the only way a clearer picture will emerge. A clearer picture – if not always a flattering one – that is in the public interest, the citizen’s interest.

According to the trusty thesaurus, “objectivity” – a noun – is linked to the following words: impartiality; neutrality; fairness; open-mindedness; disinterest; detachment; dispassion. Objectivity is also associated with a “lack of bias” and “absence of prejudice”. But we’ll return to these last two – bias and prejudice – just now.

In the United States – where freedom of expression is encouraged and protected via the First Amendment to its constitution – “journalists strive to achieve objectivity”, says a media law handbook produced by the U.S. government. “This model [of striving for objectivity] has been criticized in recent years,” it adds.

“Some question whether objectivity is desirable. They suggest that true objectivity essentially has no moral compass and treats all facts and viewpoints as equally deserving of respect.”

Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the School of Journalism at Iowa State University, disagrees.

“Objectivity is not a synonym for truth,” he writes, “but the process through which we seek to attain it. No one approaches any story with complete objectivity.

“As a reporter begins researching, it is likely that she will have a definite bias toward at least some aspects of the story. But the goal is to set aside those presumptions and prejudices and to move forward with a healthy skepticism.”

South African talk show host Eusebius McKasier, on the other hand, says “there’s no such thing as objective journalism or value-neutral journalism”. McKaiser is not worried about this, accepting that objectivity is impossible to achieve, adding that “it isn’t an ethical disaster” either.

Speaking in the context of the upcoming South African elections, McKaiser says we “need to accept that professionals are not value-neutral robots”. He hopes “South African journalists, editors, publications can feel comfortable to come out of the closet now and own their ideological convictions explicitly. It’s okay,” he says, “we know you have these anyway. Liberate yourselves.”

It seems as if he is saying there is no such thing as objective journalism because there is no such thing as an objective human being. He is pleading with us to come to terms with our unavoidable prejudices; start by acknowledging our biases, as unpleasant as they may be; rather than pretending we are all prejudice-free puritans.

“Good journalism, loaded with subjectivity, is journalism that is,” for McKaiser, “well-argued, evidence-based and pleasant to read, watch or listen to.”

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on March 26 2014

#15_What is the object of objectivity?_26 Mar 2014

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