Editorials

Editorial: What objectivity means to The Herald

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

For any news organization, journalistic integrity is paramount. Historically, objectivity has been considered central to an ethical model of journalism. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted in an article on the subject in 2003, journalists “all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries ‘fairness’ and ‘balance,’ it defined journalistic standards.” But as the author of that same piece points out, objectivity is not so simple. “Ask 10 journalists what objectivity means, and you’ll get 10 different answers.” The journalists who run each news organization must figure out what objectivity means to them and how it translates into journalistic practices. In this editorial, we aim to lay out what objectivity means to us at The Herald.

Critics of the very notion of objectivity will quickly point out that no one, not even the most highly trained or best-intentioned writer, can be objective. We all have opinions and experiences that shape our views of the world, and these opinions and experiences inform both what we choose to cover and how we cover it. This skeptical view of objectivity may even be gaining popularity as more people become conscious of the privileges and power dynamics that shape their identities and worldviews.

Indeed, no journalist or journalistic institution can be purely objective — no one can entirely escape their subjectivity and the experiences and cultural dynamics that shape it. The goal of ethical journalism is thus not to publish stories totally divorced from our writers’ and editors’ identities. The goal is to limit the extent to which our own views and experiences color our writing. The goal is to limit our subjectivity and approach objectivity as closely as possible, even though we know it cannot be wholly achieved.

In practice, aiming for objectivity defined this way means recognizing the biases we hold, not assigning stories to reporters who have clear conflicts of interest with their subject matters, relying on facts as cornerstones of any narrative and speaking to a number of sources with a variety of perspectives on the topics we cover. It means striving for as diverse a staff as possible so we can identify each other’s blind spots. It means constructing truthful narratives that do not reflect our personal opinions.

Journalism striving to be objective in this way has a crucial role to play in society. While first-person narratives and journalistic stories unconcerned with documenting a range of perspectives can certainly shed light on their subject matter, only stories that reject speculation and strive to paint a comprehensive picture of various parties’ viewpoints can speak to readers of a wide variety of backgrounds and serve as a public record.

Moreover, a major purpose of objective journalism is to bring relevant perspectives into dialogue with each other. This is not possible without the notion of objectivity, as sources with conflicting viewpoints would take issue with speaking to reporters known to have a specific angle. At a time when so many people talk past each other rather than to each other, we consider striving for objectivity more important than ever.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s 126th editorial board: Emma Jerzyk ’17, Joseph Zappa ’17, Andrew Flax ’17 and Caroline Kelly ’17. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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