Can Journalists Be Objective?

From a New York Times reader letters column about the question “Can Journalists Be Objective?”:

To the Editor:

Re “Journalists Can’t Discard Objectivity,” by Bret Stephens (column, Feb. 10):

I agree with most of Mr. Stephens’s points, but I wish he hadn’t advocated “objectivity” as the way to journalistic reform.

We journalists are human beings before we’re reporters and editors. We’re not recording machines, detached and disinterested. We have values, instilled by the culture and shared by our audience. Our reports are grounded in these values.

Mass shootings are bad, for instance; relief for earthquake survivors is good. We don’t report on child abusers with the empathy we grant their victims, and if we did, readers and viewers would recoil. Objectivity, as defined in Mr. Stephens’s column — “using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, feelings or prejudice” — is a pipe dream.

What we can be is fair. We can present the facts evenhandedly; we can question both sides in any debate; we can try hard to set aside our own beliefs, feelings and prejudices. We can try to separate fact from opinion. But we must always be aware of our own fallibility, and this is impossible if we’re under the delusion that we’re being “objective.”

Larry Martz
New York
The writer is a former editor of Newsweek International.

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens is right when he points to the lack of public trust in the mainstream news media. But if such trust has been higher in the past, it’s never been a stable commodity, even in the days when the “most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, delivered the nightly news on CBS.

Certainly, news organizations and individual journalists shoot themselves in the foot when they make careless mistakes or appear biased or out of touch. But media distrust can also be manufactured, thereby poisoning public opinion before a word has been written or a story aired.

This is one way that authoritarians and would-be authoritarians like Donald Trump inoculate themselves from “bad” coverage. Indeed, what better way to escape scrutiny than to turn the public’s focus from one’s own sins to the alleged sins of the media?

Wayne J. Guglielmo
Mahwah, N.J.
The writer is an independent journalist and the author of the forthcoming book “Shame the Devil: How Critics Keep American Journalism Honest.”

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens writes that Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, believes that “newsrooms must set aside journalistic objectivity” because it can lead to false balance or misleading “both-sides-ism.”

To quickly see how morally and intellectually bankrupt Mr. Downie’s position is, imagine if we apply the same principles to my profession, medicine. Imagine a doctor providing information to a patient that suits the doctor’s perspective and needs instead of laying out the facts, risks and benefits in an objective fashion so the patient can decide what is in his best interest.

To abandon objective journalism is just stunning.

Ari Weitzner
New York

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens notes that “there’s no doubt that much about the traditional model of objective journalism is flawed,” but then he embarks on a quixotic quest to save “objective journalism.”

Wasn’t it Don Quixote who said, “Facts are the enemy of truth”?

The problem is not with news organizations abandoning the pursuit of objectivity; it’s with news organizations abandoning intellectual honesty.

The goal of news reporting should be the same as that of quality psychotherapy: pursuing truth, while acknowledging to yourself, and the world, your biases and limitations so that others can view your actions in their appropriate context.

John G. Cottone
Stony Brook, N.Y.
The writer is a psychologist.

To the Editor:

While I basically agree with Bret Stephens that journalists need to maintain their objectivity, I think he underestimates the difficulty involved. Mr. Stephens writes, “Our job is to collect and present relevant facts and good evidence.” Unfortunately, in this age of “alternative facts,” there is often no agreement on what is factual.

Like most Americans, I believe it is a fact that President Biden won a free and fair election. But thanks to Donald Trump’s unceasing lying, millions of people do not believe that. So would objectivity require journalists to present the “other side” of that argument equally? Or the same with arguments claiming greenhouse gases have no real effect on global warming? The problem of “both-sides-ism” is real.

Theoretically, deciding which stories will be emphasized and which will be minimized or ignored should be based on objective criteria of what is most important. But obviously, that is really a subjective judgment.

Mr. Stephens does acknowledge that objectivity is hard to achieve, but a worthy goal. I agree. But when a substantial minority insists that facts are lies, it is extremely hard to define what objectivity is.

Elizabeth Bacharach Lipman

To the Editor:

The objective reporting of the news goes far beyond what individual journalists write. Editors make decisions that deeply influence journalistic objectivity such as: Which news events are worthy of coverage? Which journalist gets the assignment? What’s the writer’s age, ethnicity, race, gender identity and socioeconomic background? Where is the story placed, on the front page or page 22?

And here is maybe the most subjective decision made by editors: What’s the headline? The headline significantly affects the reader’s sense of the article and may determine whether it is read.

Now is the time to bury the myth of objective journalism.

Allen J. Davis
Dublin, N.H.

To the Editor:

I’m no longer in the profession, but I was taught as a young journalist that objectivity was paramount to the profession and something that we should strive for at each turn right alongside excellence.

I was saddened by Leonard Downie Jr.’s essay but hopeful that those who remain in the profession will push back against Mr. Downie’s view, hit the reset button, delete their Twitter accounts and get back to work.

Objectivity is the only way that I see forward if the profession is to recover from these low poll numbers — and it’ll be a long recovery.

Here’s hoping.

Jon Blankenship
Franklin, Tenn.

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