Tuesday 5 March 2024

"Substitute advocacy for objectivity, and the result is propaganda." And John Campbell.

JOHN CAMPBELL IS SAID to be a journalist. What we used to call a reporter.

Over at The Halfling's blog, he critiques John Cambell's view "that journalism is not an objective craft but a subjective one and that, in the final analysis, objectivity is impossible." What we used to call: an excuse for bad reporting. 

Beneath Campbell's essay-length excuse, writes The Halfling, "there is a very strong element or subtext of post-modernist critical theory." Campbell, he says, "equates 'truth' with story-telling rather than ascertaining truth from an empirical and evidence based examination. ... He then sweepingly and without any evidential foundation suggests that objectivity is a myth."

Campbell's self-contradictory assertion (asserting relativism as an absolute truth) at once dismisses every reporter who risk their lives in pursuit of the facts about a story, while providing the self-serving basis for his argument that he is entitled to use state television to broadcast his own opinions in the guise of "journalism." But as The Halfling observes:
In the course of human endeavours it is possible and at times necessary and essential to separate the subjective from the objective – in journalism as much as in justice. It would seem from Mr. Campbell’s discussion that he is unable or unwilling to do that.
How might a more honest Mr Campbell go about that? How would you know yourself to separate objective journalism from the subjective? Does it matter? Well, since Mr Campbell thinks he's defending journalism, he might reflect that (as the Associated Press Handbook still asserts) while "reporters are each driven by their own individual brand of curiosity, empathy, or downright pushiness, [what's still necessary are] solid interview techniques, source development, investigative and organisational skills, and keen objectivity to recognise, obtain, and effectively communicate a story to a reader, viewer or listener."

In summary, "'journalism,' as a distinctive literary genre, does not exist without objectivity." At every step.

You could start by looking at what objective journalism once meant, as the author of that last statement has done.  In his thesis on objectivity in journalism, Les Lane defines defines journalism as “an objective account of current events”: 
Objectivity, currency, and the focus on events, are journalism’s key ingredients. Take away any of them, and 'journalism,' as a distinctive genre, disappears. Substitute a focus on ideas for the journalistic focus on events, and you get academia. Substitute the past for the present and you get history. Substitute advocacy for objectivity, and the result is propaganda. 
Which is where Mr Campbell's work has ended up.

SO SINCE WE KNOW what propaganda looks like, let's focus instead on the objectivity that Campbell has abandoned. John De Mott of Temple University's journalism school identified three essential starting points for anyone calling himself a journalist:
Every vocation or occupational calling relies upon certain basic assumptions about the nature of reality ... Journalism is no exception, obviously. We assume three things:
    First, that there is such a thing as objective reality ... existingf incependent of our own individual existence.
    Second, that such reality ... can be comprehended – somehow – by a human mind.
    Third, that comprehension or understanding of objective reality ... can be communicated from one human mind to another.
It should be obvious that when a journalist (or alleged journalist, like Mr Campbell) denies objectivity in their profession, "they are also denying the possibility of it in any human endeavour."

Even if we're not clear on a definition of objectivity, when we tune into organisation purporting to report the news, there are several elements we would expect to encounter:
  • Factual content: reporting the facts without the reporter’s own opinions, values, analysis, interpretation, partisan cause, or financial interests
  • Accuracy: getting information right
  • Impersonality/detachment: presenting the facts without first-person reference to the reporter’s impressions, feelings, actions, etc.
  • Balance/fairness: reporting the different sides of a conflict, or opinions on an issue, without slanting toward one side
  • Transparency: naming and explaining sources
  • Independence: maintaining autonomy from sources of information and from other potentially biasing interests.
In coming out against objectivity, Canpbell is saying these things — accuracy, transparency, factual content – are less important than his own myth-making. 

Now that we know, we should take him at his word. And ignore him.

OBJECTIVITY DOESN'T SIMPLY MEAN pointing a camera at random and broadcasting the resulting "facts.  There are two issues: selection, and context.

Every good reporter selects the relevant facts to write about and broadcast; every newsroom editor which events and issues to cover. Every editor and reporter will have their own views, opinions and biases. Does that mean that "there is no real difference between factual reporting and opinion"? That all news is necessarily subjective? No:
"[O]bjective thinking is committed to truth and employs rational methods; subjective thinking involves willful disregard of the truth and/or the use of nonrational methods. The decisions journalists make in selecting what to cover and how to cover it can therefore be either objective or subjective, depending on their methods and their intent. ...

The key to objectivity is a commitment to telling the truth as best one can, without evasion.

HISTORICALLY, WRITES LANE, THE idea of  objectivity in journalism evolved through four stages, "from its emergence in the 1830s as Nonpartisanship, through Neutrality, Focus-on-Facts and Detachment, to the ambiguity of the present day." 

The 'Four Quadrants': the four evolutionary stages of journalistic objectivity
[from Lane, 'A reexamination of the canon of objectivity in American journalism (2001)']

Part of the problem, observes Lane, is "the assumption that objectivity is an ideal, absolute, impossible, incomprehensible, value-free state of being, outside of all physical, cognitive, psychological, and social contexts, where reality is perceived without distortions of any kind." To be objective in this confused view would be to somehow have access to "absolute truth" – to have the "God's-eye view on a story. To discard this impossible idea is the first step. The remedy, he argues, is what those four stages were struggling towards, which is Contextual Independence. There is one reality about which to report, and it is seen from many contexts — of which the reporter's is only one. An objective journalist therefore would be a reporter "who faithfully and accurately gets-both(all)-sides. ... In short, journalistic objectivity therefore becomes the ability to surf contexts."

Sounds like fun, right!

Note that arguing that "all knowledge is contextual" is not that same as saying that "everything is relative." It simply recognises that knowledge is always gained under certain conditions at certain times. "Journalists, like other seekers, must learn to trust themselves and their fellows and the world enough to take everything in" advises Michael Sschudson (author of the much-quoted Discovering the News), "while distrusting themselves and others and the appearance of the world enough not to be taken in by everything."
They would refuse, then, as some of them do now, either to surrender to relativism or to submit uncritically to arbitrary conventions established in the name of objectivity. This requires both personal and institutional tolerance of uncertainty and acceptance of risk and commitment to caring for truth. If this is difficult in journalism, it s nonetheless most vital, for the daily persuasions of journalists reflect and become our own.

Campbell has simply abandoned his calling. Perhaps his employers should be calling him on it.


Kiwiwit said...

I think a pretty good test of whether a news source is (objectively) truthful is to ask the question, are people being forced to fund that source? If the answer is yes, then why would anyone assume it to be truthful? Truth is of value in itself, and people will always be willing to pay a price for truth. It doesn’t need force and will often be provided voluntarily at great cost to the person giving it. Taxpayers are forced to fund John Campbell’s ‘journalism’ and that says everything.

Tom Hunter said...

You might also appreciate the list of Jim Lehrer's Rules for Journalism which I included in one of my Die MSM, Die posts back in 2020, Closer To The Grave

Lehrer was the prime TV anchor for PBS News for decades and I always appreciated him in that role, and as host of Presidential and other political debates.

MarkT said...

No, not really. It says something, but doesn’t say everything. You’re perhaps more likely to be objective if you work for privately funded media, but it’s no guarantee you will be, and no guarantee you won’t be if you’re paid by the state. State funded media is wrong, but that’s only tangential to what we’re talking about.