The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To Regain Trust, the News Media Need Objectivity

Truth-seekers encountering a documented dissembler. (Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America)

Authorities in the news industry, whose reputation is near a record low, have a novel idea to restore public faith in their work: They can improve trust, they say, by renouncing objectivity. This is not something that would have occurred to me.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, the paper’s former executive editor, Leonard Downie, says that in the quarter-century he was a top editor, he “never understood what ‘objectivity’ meant.” The piece quotes other notable journalists saying much the same. “Objective by whose standard?” asks a former executive editor of the Associated Press.  Downie argues that “truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news.” Younger journalists seem to get it. A generational shift appears to be under way, he believes, and can’t happen too soon.

More trustworthy news would certainly be good. In the 1970s some 70% of Americans said they trusted the mass media “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” The figure now stands at 34%. Other polls report similar findings. According to one such study, trust in news media in the US is the lowest of all 46 countries surveyed.

Admittedly, it isn’t obvious what this decline really means. Are the media less worthy of trust, or are readers less trusting? In the US, increasing polarization makes the second plausible. Still, there’s something to the first as well.

The issue isn’t whether newspapers are seen to be neutral. It’s fine, for instance, that the New York Times is a liberal paper — and it should be less embarrassed by this than it has sometimes seemed. My career in journalism started in the UK, which has brazenly partisan newspapers: You can’t imagine the Guardian backing the Tories or the Telegraph supporting Labour. Again, that’s fine. But the proper and unashamed tilt of their opinion writing and editorializing is, or should be, separate from whether their reporting of news can be trusted.

I find that I read political news in the New York Times and Washington Post more cautiously than I used to. It isn’t that I suspect outright deliberate falsehoods. It’s more that I see a pattern of choosing and framing narratives that downplay or omit things I have to learn elsewhere. The most obvious recent example was the effort to dismiss and then ignore the contents of what, in fact, turned out to be Hunter Biden’s laptop. But I also detect a reluctance to discuss the pros and cons of measures to improve election integrity, interrogate the “settled science” of climate change, or present a thorough and dispassionate accounting of the policy response to the pandemic.

On matters such as these, it’s as though the lack of trust runs in both directions: It seems I can’t be trusted with information that might lead me to jump to the wrong conclusion. This tendentious crafting of the news might be well-intentioned — in part a conscious effort, deemed necessary to cope with Donald Trump as candidate then president, to steer clear of “misinformation,” “false equivalence” and “both-sidesism.” That said, I don’t appreciate it, and it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Jeff Gerth, a distinguished former reporter for the New York Times, recently produced a 24,000-word article for the Columbia Journalism Review, examining “the press versus the president.” His exhaustive account of the reporting of Russiagate and other Trump scandals fully supports his main conclusion — that “journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work.”

Striving to be objective in reporting news — a goal now disavowed by some of the profession’s leading lights — has been one of those norms.

This rejection of objectivity would be easier to understand (albeit still wrong) if it were part of a larger skepticism about the possibility of truth. What’s so confusing about Downie’s position is that objectivity and truth, in the ordinary meaning of that term, stand or fall together. It’s nonsense to want one — news reporters should pursue truth, he says — but not the other.

Objectivity calls for detachment, for a relating of facts “uncolored by feelings, opinions or personal bias” (as my dictionary puts it). Downie and other doubters seem influenced by the school of thought that says it’s impossible to report in such a way. Relating facts involves selecting, arranging and interpreting them. These processes and their outcomes, whether we’re aware of it or not, are socially dependent, guided or even determined by outside factors. These might reflect one’s “lived experience,” as many now like to say, or the conditions of production, as Karl Marx argued, or systemic racism, according to critical race theory. At any rate, there can be no neutral or objective presentation of facts.

The trouble is, all these objections apply with equal force to truth. If “objective by whose standard?” refutes objectivity as a principle, then “whose truth?” does the same for what is or might be true. If objectivity is meaningless, then by similar reasoning, truth is illusory: There’s no truth, only your truth and my truth. If, on the other hand, truth in the ordinary meaning of the term is possible, as most journalists still appear to believe, then it’s capable of being sought, and there is after all something to be objective about.

Granted, adopting a uniformly skeptical position — objectivity is meaningless and truth is socially constructed — would be less obviously self-contradictory, not to mention a tremendous time-saver. All those fact-checking operations could be shut down because there are no actual facts, and appearing to suggest otherwise might be seen as claiming (baselessly) that objectivity is possible. Obviously there’d be no point in counting Trump’s lies — 30,753 false or misleading claims while he was president, according to the Washington Post — because Trump’s truth is presumably different from yours and mine, and who’s to say which epistemic frame is valid? 

Alternatively, we could agree that there’s such a thing as truth in the ordinary meaning of the word, and that setting the truth before readers is a vital public service. We could agree that politicians often tell lies and applaud reporters for exposing them. We could agree that getting to the truth is harder than it might seem, in part because our efforts have to grapple with some of the factors that constructivists mention, while still insisting it’s both possible and worth the effort.

There’s no question, for instance, that issues get neglected because readers prefer not to know, or have been taught not to care. America’s racial history and its contemporary legacy is replete with such cases. But this filtering can be overcome — not by casting doubt on the idea of truth, but by insisting on it. We should want to talk about redlining and its consequences. And when we do, we should want to judge rival claims according to whether they’re true or false, not by asking whose truth they express.

With that understood, striving for objectivity becomes an intelligible and essential ambition. And it serves two further purposes. First, it would make the truth more accessible, because the discipline of suspending feelings, opinions and personal bias opens the mind, as Gerth puts it, to “facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative.” Second, it would give readers greater confidence in the news that’s set before them.

On the whole, if reporters want to be trusted, I recommend truth and objectivity.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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