Wednesday, November 5

Yes Virgina, There Are Impassioned Objectivists

Anytime I mention "objective journalism," someone contests the concept. They consider it an idealistic pipe dream. They claim that all journalists are biased. And they say it lacks the passion of advocacy journalism. But more than all that, they say objective journalism is dead. Get over it.

Sure, there is some truth to the statement that objective journalism is dead, but we mustn't mistake its current condition as evidence that the idea is boorish, flawed, or impossible. As defined, objective is an individual or individual judgment that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. And it's a quality that communicators ought not run from.

Objectivity comes with honesty and maturity. Grow up already.

The real problem it seems is that objective journalism allowed itself to be saddled with ideas that have nothing to do with objectivity — traits like fairness, indifference, and perfectness. Specifically, people expect that journalists (especially those who strive to be objective) must listen to both sides, transcend human frailty in hearing them, and then deadpan the facts for the public. But that's not it.

A working definition of objective journalism is more akin to how Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja defined it: “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.” The idea is that the communicator is willing to commit to the pursuit of truth, not what they hope is true.

People strive to be objective every day. A manager might like one employee better than another but promote the one with stronger skill sets. A coach might play the more talented player over their own child for the good of the team. A scientist might prove his theory wrong after reviewing empirical evidence. A judge might make a ruling that is right but weighs heavily on his or her heart.

So why would journalists somehow be incapable of striving to be objective (unless they don't want to be) where others have demonstrated the ability to succeed? It seems to me that all it would take is someone becoming impassioned to find the truth rather than promoting their own agenda or whatever agenda they have subscribed to believe. And it's in this passion for truth, rather than propping up fragile brands or frail ideologies, that deserves our respected admiration.

Forget balanced. A journalist might glean insight from different perspectives but truth doesn't take sides. Forget deadpan deliveries. Objectivity doesn't require anyone to feign disinterest in the face of outrage. Forget unconscious bias. The goal was never to transcend being human but merely to develop a consistent method of testing information, considering the evidence, and being self-aware of any personal and cultural bias. And all of these ideas were born out of a need for objectivity.

As as much as I have a fondness for Hunter S. Thompson, who had plenty to say about the objective journalism of his day, the lack of it enslaves us as the only "truth" that prevails is the one uttered with more frequency, more volume, and a more passionate will. And eventually, when the truth is no longer valued in favor of that "truth," it seems to me that we will finally find affirmation media to be an insult to our intellect and own sense of evidence.

Objective communication isn't limited to journalism. Stop saying yes. 

The Pew Research Journalism Project identified nine core principles of journalism, but I've always been partial to the idea that objectivity adheres to empirical standards, coherence standards, and rational debate. Empirical standards consider the evidence. Coherence standards consider how it fits within the greater context. Rational debate includes a diversity of views, but only gives merit to those views capable of meeting empirical and coherence standards.

In much the same way objective journalists strive to look out for the public interest, professional communications — marketers and public relations practitioners — better serve organizations (and the public) by applying objectivity to their situational analysis and measurements of outcomes. The stronger communicator is always the one who is objective as opposed to those who only aim to validate their actions or affirm a client/executive/decision maker's perceptions by saying yes.

Can we ever be certain? The answer is mostly no. While we can tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes noise inside, we cannot see into the hearts of men and women to guess at their intent before there is any evidence of action. The best we can hope for is that those who have no intention of being objective wear the proclamation on their sleeves while others are given the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. Let the truth lead for a while and see what happens.
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