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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.