Tag Archives: objectivity

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The feminist critique of the newsroom

In “The Gendered Realities of Journalism” the author argues that female journalists face difficulties dealing with both the predominately male newsroom and the assumption that they cannot cover hard news.

The author points to several statistics to prove the first point: women only comprise about one third of the profession as a whole and perhaps 80 percent or more of the people in power-editors and management-are male.  Female journalists, on average, are paid less than male journalists and are less likely to be promoted; they are also excluded from the macho newsgathering and male-bonding aspect of the newsroom, making them outsiders rather than equal participants.  The author also mentions that female journalists have to strike a balance between seeming feminine and being tough, responsible journalists.

The author approaches the second difficulty first by looking at feminist critiques of objectivity.  Some feminists seek to root male subjectivity out of the norms of objectivity and go for gender-neutral reporting.  Others look for gender balance, ensuring there are equal number of male and female reporters and decision-makers.  A third group would dump objectivity altogether as an obviously male notion that facts can be separated from ideology and say that it only reinforces the patriarchy.  Furthermore, women are usually assigned to soft stories and their gut reactions-those praised in male reporters-are often dismissed.

I have a couple of problems with some of the ideas the author presented.  For one thing, I would like to see some data on the number of female journalists and the number in important positions compared to the number of actual applicants.  I agree that men should not be promoted over women simply because of outdated biases and macho camaraderie, but it’s possible part of the reason the number of women is so low is that there just aren’t enough applicants around.

Also, I have a hard time reconciling some feminists’ critique of objectivity as part of a male-imposed, male-oriented notion of truth.  I realize this is all tied into the feminist critique of Enlightenment thought and modern philosophy, but I don’t believe there’s necessarily male- and female- truth.  If just-the-facts objectivity is a flawed value because it is male-imposed and serves the patriarchy, why should women complain when they are only handed feature assignments?  I don’t see how someone could say one the one hand, that women should be given equally hard news assignments, and on the other, that hard news coverage is based upon inherently male notions and only serves to support the patriarchy.

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.

The ethics of objectivity

In their article, William Rowley and William Grimes argue that objectivity can be redefined to become a valid objective for journalists, while Theodore Glasser argues that objectivity-even an amended notion of it-is just a way for journalists to cover their butts and not serve the public.

Rowley and Grimes acknowledge the historical roots and problems with objectivity as a goal, but feel they can figure out a new, better interpretation of the term that journalists should strive for.  They describe three sub-principles that add up to a whole ideal.  The first, factual objectivity, is a matter of getting all the facts straight and putting them in a logical and understandable order.  Next is dramatic or aesthetic objectivity, which is a matter of story telling and attempting to include the emotional flavor of an event or experience.  The third is moral or ethical objectivity, which involves both reporting the larger, moral implications of a story and attempting to identify the reporter’s biases and not let them color the reporting.  The authors describe several very different stories all of which, they believe, came close to this new idea of objectivity, including Tom Wicker’s coverage of the Attica prison riot, the AP story about integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, Ernie Pyle’s World War II coverage and the Watergate story.

Glasser, on the other hand, traces objectivity as little more than an efficient way to do news that takes away the journalist’s responsibility for his or her work.  By only including the facts and taking him or herself out of the story, a journalist doesn’t have to be responsible, he says, and brings up Edwards v. National Audubon Society where the New York Times argued it should print an accusation even if it could be false-they were reporting the accusation, not making it.  Another problem cited is the tendency to accept official sources and he status quo.  Also, Glasser says objectivity robs reporters of creativity and analysis.

I’m not sure I really understand Rowley and Grimes’ three-section definition for objectivity.  Perhaps if they just used a different term, like “truthfulness,” it would make more sense to talk about being objective in reporting emotion.  Even for a totally subjective piece, like an opinion column or book, writing about other people’s emotional states is walking in a land mine-you don’t really know how they feel, after all.  It’s easy to talk about obvious cases, like saying soldiers in World War II were tired, or that a crowd is howling and shrieking.  But what about the emotional state of a serial killer?  It’s an important issue that people no doubt want to know about, but how can you be emotionally objective in any sense when the accused may be innocent, raging inside, completely cold-blooded or clinically insane?  Any of those could be ready from an impassive face in a courtroom.

I’m not saying we should not report emotional or ethical issues.  But I still think it’s important to separate what is undeniable fact (the man is accused of murder) from what someone has said (the prosecutor thinks he did it, his mother doesn’t) from what may be pure speculation (his calm demeanor seemed to be reptilian and cold-blooded).  I recognize many of Glasser’s arguments, but I’m still not convinced we should throw those distinctions out when writing.