Objectivity means being committed to the facts and to using one’s mind as best one can to discover and interpret them. Journalistic objectivity includes being open to all the facts, doing research to discover the facts, verifying claims, and to integrating logically everything that is relevant in one’s journalistic product, whether a news report or an opinion piece.
To put those points negatively, objectivity means not being lazy, not avoiding or omitting uncomfortable facts or possibilities, not being naive or engaging in wishful thinking, and not slanting one’s presentation.
Objectivity does not mean being value-neutral: Knowledge of the facts, awareness of competing arguments, and the commitments to truth and objectivity are themselves values. Objectivity means not letting other values override one’s journalistic responsibility to report, verify, and interpret logically. For example, objectivity means not accepting bribes to omit information, or not letting the fact that one likes a politician mean that one fails to fact-check a statement the politician made.
Objectivity does not mean not having an opinion. It means that one’s opinion is as fact-based and as logically integrated as one can make it.
Objectivity does not mean unbiased. A bias is an automated result of one’s previous experience and thinking. A bias will be good or bad depending on how good or bad that previous thinking was. For example, one may have a bias against child-abusers or a bias in favor of clear language. Objectivity does mean that one engages in introspection to be aware of one’s biases, that one is willing to challenge and change one’s assumptions, and that one is willing to put one’s beliefs to social testing via editorial review, debate, and other types of feedback.
Objectivity does not mean being certain or that one cannot be mistaken. When data are partial, verification is difficult or impossible, and alternative interpretations exists—which is often the case—objectivity includes self-awareness of what one does and does not know. It means acknowledging gaps in one’s knowledge, awareness of the multiple hypotheses, and sensitivity to degrees of probability.
Politically, press freedom is an important indicator of objectivity. Are journalists free to research, criticize, and compete? Do consumers have multiple media sources available? If so, then the quality and quantity of information and discussion will be higher. In authoritarian nations with censorship, rates of ignorance and false beliefs are much higher.
In the United States, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” [emphasis added]. This clause is a check on abuses of government power: to preserve the right of citizens to pursue the knowledge they need to run their own lives, to discuss and to criticize—including discussing and criticizing government actions.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders publish annual rankings of 180 nations’ press freedom. Consistently, four Scandinavian countries and a close neighbor are the most-free top five: Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Among the ten countries with the least-free presses are: China, Iran, Cuba, Syria, and Vietnam.
For the past six years, the USA has ranked in the 40s for press freedom: 2015: 49th (out of 180 countries). 2016: 41st. 2017: 43rd. 2018: 45th. 2019: 48th. 2020: 45th. Federal-government policies weigh significantly in RSF’s rankings. For three of those years Barack Obama was the American president and for three Donald Trump was.
This primer was prepared by Stephen Hicks, 2020.
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