What is an objective journalist?

[by JSC7]

As usual, unfashionably late to the party on the whole Dave Weigel “What happens on the mailing list stays in the mailing list” fiasco, but watching it play out has been a doozey. Here’s JSC5 bigger picture take, the Bernstein post he commented on, and some other reactions (1, 2, 3, 4). I don’t know, the whole thing seems to be one straw man after another. The one reasonable point that people have made is that reporters can have strong opinions about whatever topic they cover, though I feel like even there the analysis tended towards abstraction. Would we get up in arms if an environmental journalist sent a private e-mail talking smack about BP? Would we get angry about a correspondent in Burma told a buddy that he hoped the junta would set themselves on fire?

You can’t answer no to that question, yes to the Weigel equivalent, and still believe in the objectivity of news. If you answer the two questions differently, it’s probably because you think there’s something inherently worse about the Burmese junta than merits aggressive reporting from contrarian reporters, and that that something is lacking in conservative U.S. politics (Weigel’s beat). Now, that might be true, but if you think that reporting should change based on your opinions about the topic being reported on, then you’re not asking for objective news, because objective news would presumably have some standards that are independent from your personal tastes.

Which brings me to the bigger topic, which I haven’t seen mentioned in the Weigel case, which is how the hell do we measure objectivity in journalism in the first place? We can call a journalist voluminous, hardworking, concise and precise with his facts, but how do we go about calling him objective? In psychology there’s a word signaling, which means using something to signify something else (like, walking with a swagger to signal that your genes are the awesome). Weigel’s Journolist rant was taken as a signal of his lack of objectivity. Somehow, this rant managed to outweigh whatever signals of objectivity his entire opus of journalistic work was emitting.

This should be setting off red flashing alarms. I would hope that the Washington Post had some kind of opinion about Weigel’s objectivity before they saw the rant. If you called the in 2009 and asked them, hey, is Weigel an objective reporter?, they could have done more than shrug their shoulders. Somehow, though, a few lines about Matt Drudge’s self-immolation totally tipped the scales.

What this suggests to me is that it’s really hard to tell an objective journalist from a non-objective one. I haven’t heard anything more rigorous than a bells-and-whistles version of “I like to think I’m objective, and I like Weigel’s reporting.” If a show of hands is the best we’ve got, well, then we don’t got much, and whether Weigel should or should not have been fired is not the question we should be asking. Instead, we should be asking why ancillary factors like Journolist rants can totally change our evaluation of articles that have, without complaint about their objectivity, already been edited, published and consumed.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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