Opinion | A few thoughts on journalistic objectivity

Objectivity is about reporting facts, not neutrality.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

Objectivity — or the idea that journalism requires a dispassionate, factual, and non-partisan voice — is a notion that all aspiring journalists are taught. However, for this current “post-truth age,” this definition of objectivity fails on the ground that journalists inadvertently end up equating falsehoods with truths.

Therefore, it is in the interest of journalists to examine how they define objectivity. More specifically, if they want to be factual in their reporting, they need to forgo political neutrality in some situations.

To understand what it means to be truly objective, one needs to understand what a fact is.

The 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell contended that facts are complex forms that are dependent on other simpler entities for them to make sense in a logical manner. These simpler entities that make up facts are propositions that cannot be broken down any further and are known by Russell as atomic facts.

While this is certainly an oversimplification of Russell’s work, the main idea to take away is that atomic facts can be understood independently of other facts and are the basis of what makes up our world. These facts are learned through rigorous inductive methods.

Where Russell’s theory is of particular interest to journalistic objectivity is his discussion of positive (true) facts and negative (untrue) facts. In Russell’s view, for us to know a fact is positive, we must also know that there is a negative fact that does not exist.

For example, for us to truly know the positive fact that the sky is blue, we have to know the corresponding negative fact — that the sky is not blue — is false.

To seem nonpartisan and objective, journalists often confuse the distinction between positive and negative facts. This practice has had detrimental effects on how the U.S. deals with political problems.

This is best seen in discussions around climate change in the American press from the 1990s until the mid 2000s. Researchers found that because the journalism industry placed greater emphasis on “non-biased” coverage, climate change denial was treated as a legitimate proposition like the scientific consensus.

As a result, the American public began to view climate change as an issue not grounded in scientific fact. Rather, they saw the debate around climate change as a nuanced discussion in which climate deniers made points as valid as scientists.

Furthermore, another example of journalistic objectivity leading to the promotion of negative facts as truth was during the buildup to the Iraq War when American media regurgitated the Bush Administration’s narrative about Iraq having nuclear weapons.

In this instance, the American press openly landed its legitimacy in purporting negative facts without ever stopping to think if there was something else going on. In other words, even when appearing “objective,” the American media was not interested in pursuing facts.

The problem with current standards of journalistic objectivity is that it is not objective in the proper sense of the word. Instead, it teaches journalists to be neutral when covering issues and equate views grounded in conjecture with fully- formed facts.

If journalism wants to be considered truly objective, it needs to focus on reporting the truth and picking which side is correct regarding an issue. Today’s journalists have improved their coverage on issues such as climate change and have been more focused on reporting correct information over seeming neutral.

Yet, so long as journalists are taught to remain neutral in their reporting, there will be a continued equivalence in truthfulness between positive and negative facts that will lead to a continued degradation in American discourse.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.