Pulling back the curtain: How we tried to define objectivity

How do we define objectivity?

We journalists have liked to say, if thinking only quickly about it, that we're objective. And we certainly have been told that we should be objective.

But what does that mean, really? The Daily Herald formed an “Objectivity Council” to explore it and to ensure that our coverage is as free of bias as it can be. And we found that it isn't as simple as we or you may have thought.

We researched ... the research. We looked at work by the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Press Institute, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, the Nieman Journalism Lab and really anybody who has offered thoughts on objectivity. We found that none of them took a stab at a simple definition.

And that's largely because they agree that total objectivity is an impossible goal. As the Center for Media Engagement researchers wrote: “It has been argued that neutrality or objectivity in judgment doesn't actually exist and therefore is an impossible standard to meet. Regardless of their profession, reporters are still human beings who have unique experiences and stakes in political processes.”

We furthermore realized, as the research acknowledged, that pursuing pure objectivity — if you define it as equal weight to all sides of a story or issue — can often be problematic.

What if one side of a debate is simply incorrect? Verifiably wrong? Should it get equal time?

Even before we formed our council, we have learned that at least sometimes, the answer is no.

Balance isn't necessarily about reporting all sides. It is about listening to all sides. It is about working to make sure our internal biases don't have us reflexively dismissing any points of view without exploring their veracity, or reflexively embracing others without rigorously challenging their merits. And we need to work against overlooking some points of view simply because our biases might make us unaware of them in the first place.

As journalists, we are trained to think this way, but it all is easier said than done.

So we set a goal for ourselves: In the pursuit of accuracy and truth, we should strive for objectivity by acknowledging our biases, and endeavoring to keep those biases and our emotions out of our reporting and presentations. With that in mind, we aim to make sure we're being fair in our coverage.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll be writing more about what we on the council and on the Daily Herald staff have discussed.

Neil Holdway is the deputy managing editor/late news at the Daily Herald.

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