Objectivity and Credibility in Journalism

In general I was pretty disappointed by the response in the comments to my recent column criticizing the concept of “objective” journalism (a lot of it came down to either ad hominem attacks or grievous misreadings of my argument). But one response from commenter watsonho got me thinking. He (she?) writes:

Journalists and commentators are supposed to be authoritative – they are supposed to know what they are talking about. If they admit they are wrong, they become undependable, untrustworthy and therefore useless. So there is a strong psychological bias against ever admitting you are wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

However, when you take the position that you are “objective” you can easily change your position as facts change or your viewpoint evolves. In the early days of the Iraq war, for example, many media outlets presented a very positive view of the war. When it became clear that the war wasn’t going well, they started running stories that presented a more critical look. They were able to do this without coming under attack or appearing contradictory because in both cases, they were being “objective.”

[snip]

If we moved to a system where we discarded “objectivity” and let all our opinions hang out, we would quickly move into a state of journalistic trench warfare, where everyone digs in and refuses to budge out of fear of losing their credibility.

It’s an interesting defense, but it seems ethically untenable to me; it requires the journalist to assume a position of authority which I argued—and note that watsonho did not dispute this particular claim—no one has any right to. What watsonho is suggesting is that journalists must claim false credibility for the greater public good.

My argument is for a more meritocratic system: repeatedly making outlandish, indefensible claims should cost you credibility, as should digging into the proverbial trenches and defending your claims against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If that sounds utopian or overly idealistic, it’s no more so than this belief that journalists can effectively distance their own subjectivity from their reporting.

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