Defending and defining objectivity

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 11

In “In Defense of Objectivity Revisited,” Judith Lichtenberg argues that most critics of objectivity are actually criticizing the concepts associated with objectivity or specific practices which are thought to be objective and therefore we cannot abandon objectivity completely.

Lichtenberg points out that critiques of objectivity often take three forms: saying journalism is not objection, should not be objective, and can not be objective.  Though many critics try to make more than one case at a time, they are logically inconsistent.  If objectivity is impossible, why complain that journalists are objective?  When a piece of reporting is accused of being not objective, we have ways to gauge it (by reading Iraqi news during the Gulf War or pointing out over-reliance on military sources, for example).

She makes the point that critics who say a journalist’s social situation dictates certain biases cannot also say there’s no way to get around those biases or analyze them-that is, after all, what the critic is doing.  It makes no sense to call something biased unless there is some sort of humanly-accessible objective reality to compare it to.  Also, different cultures are often able to find common ground.  None of this is to say that journalists don’t write horribly distorted, biased stories, but Lichtenberg suggests if we can recognize the problems there must be ways of making them better.

Lichtenberg says that objectivity does not mean there are right answers for all questions, but that there are right answers for some questions and wrong answers for all questions.  The answer to “is the moon made of green cheese?” is clearly no, and it’s not a theory (in this day and age) or socially constructed.  It allows for different interpretations, but all interpretations must agree on that fact at least.

I agree with Lichtenberg in that there is some sort of objective reality we can reach, at least for some matters.  You can’t breath water, and no matter what culture you’re from, if you try, you die.  I also think there’s a sliding scale of possible objectivity.  Some things can have objective truth and do, such as the water example.  Other things have an objective answer but it is not known and is therefore open to speculation.  And some things have no objective answer, like value and opinion judgements.

This all makes sense, and if you define objectivity the way Lichtenberg does I will happily pursue it when applicable.  If you include some of the notions she does not, however, like neutrality, then it’s a stickier question.