The problem with "objective" journalism

30 May 2013

The Problem with "Objective" Journalism

(A talk given at a conference on Journalism and Ethics in Paris in May of 2013)

It’s an honor to be here amongst journalists whose work I’ve read for many years while living in my little, quiet corner of the world, over in Portugal.
I’m grateful to Maria, Mélisande and Max for inviting me.
This evening, I want to speak about truth-telling.
In journalism and…
Later in my talk, in what I do, writing fiction.
Like nearly all of us, I’d guess, I believe that the majority of journalists are people of integrity who want write truthful, in-depth pieces about the very serious topics they report on.
And yet, in my opinion, even the most capable of them are only occasionally able to live up to this commitment.
What stops them?
As you undoubtedly know, economic constraints, for one thing.
Even the best newspapers, magazines and TV programs rarely if ever fund investigative reporting.
And in an age of group ownership and skeleton staffs, few journalists are given the time and encouragement to become experts on the topics they are assigned.
Yet without that expertise how can they be expected to distinguish truth from lies?
Unfortunately, there’s also another more subtle and hard-to-combat reason why journalists often neglect the truth:
A cumbersome definition of objectivity limits what they are permitted to say if they wish to retain their credibility with politicians, pundits and the public.
And that’s mostly what I’d like to discuss this evening. Because I think it raises important ethical issues.
Way back in the middle ages, when I went to journalism school at Stanford – in 1982 – we were taught that they quickest and safest way to achieve objectivity was to employ a “he said, she said” form of journalism.
In other words, by quoting divergent – and even contradictory – opinions, the reporter achieves objectivity.
Which is why millions of stories are published each day in which one or more sources give their perspective on an issue and other sources say virtually the opposite.
“A White House spokesman said today that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. The only question, he asked, was how do we find them?”
Later in the same story….
“United Nations investigators are convinced that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
Are White House officials or the UN investigators correct?
We, the readers, aren’t given any clues by the reporter.
Very likely, he or she also has absolutely no idea.
And yet this is generally regarded as the proper way to report the news. And why?
Because it’s regarded as the best way to avoid bias – to keep journalists from favoring their own opinions.
This so-called balance is regarded as absolutely essential, in fact.
But should it be?
Keep in mind that this definition of objectivity is itself a cultural preference. It’s arbitrary.
Somehow, we have come to believe in magic – that two divergent statements – never checked for accuracy, but simply presented side by side – always produce – abracadabra! – objectivity!
We’ve also come to accept that it’s the best way to keep people informed.
And the big problem here – the one I want to highlight – is that the search for truth is completely lost in this process.
Or worse, simply repeating different sources’ claims and opinions comes to be regarded as the truth.
In this way, quotes and sound bites replace solid conclusions and knowledge.
Which is how a lot of reporting becomes a glorified form of tape recording – of reproducing what people say.
How many times have we all sat at home watching the TV news and thought, “Why the hell is the reporter letting that government official – or opposition leader – get away with false claims?
More than likely, it’s because the reporter is not an expert in his or her field – has had no time to investigate the claims being made – and is huddling for cover under the canopy of “He said, she said” journalism.
If you’ll pardon my French, it’s how reporters and editors cover their asses.
Unfortunately, this form of journalism is also insidious.
After reading hundreds of articles – or watching the nightly news for years – we absorb it as the right way to practice journalism. Without ever questioning it.
Which is why a great many of today’s journalists haven’t actually given up on learning the truth about the important topics they cover BECAUSE THEY NEVER HAD LEARNING THE TRUTH AS A GOAL TO BEGIN WITH.
To continue with the example I’ve been using, of weapons of mass destruction, I urge you to remember Judith Miller. You may recall that Ms. Miller was a New York Times reporter who frequently wrote about Iraq during the first years of this century. Though many of her stories later turned out to be false – complete inventions – her misinformation was cited by Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld when they spoke of America’s need to go to war.
A war in which the 110,000 Iraquis lost their lives, according to the Associated Press.
Yet here’s what Judith Miller had to say about her own false reports:
"[M]y job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."
Like you, perhaps, I just don’t buy that excuse.
I think she abdicated her responsibilities to the American public. And to American soldiers. And to Iraqis.
In fact, I think the family members of the 110,000 Iraqis killed in the war would tell you pretty clearly that she behaved unethically.
They might even tell you that her shoddy but highly influential reporting constitutes a case of criminal neglect.
As I see it, the job of a political reporter like Ms. Miller is to investigate government policies and claims very seriously. She must become an expert in her field and use her expertise to protect us – the public – against of half-truths, spun-truths and untruths.
Can we really afford a press that regards investigating the claims of their news sources as irrelevant?
If responsible and accurate reporting about Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities could have saved only a hundred of the 110,000 Iraqi lives lost in the war – or even just 10 or 1 – wouldn’t it have been worth it?
Another reason why journalists don’t always pursue the truth is that it can be a big personal risk.
Because if a journalist doesn’t merely repeat what an important politician says – if a reporter presents contradictory information – he or she will be accused of being biased.
And all reporters know that being accused of bias can cost them their reputation. And in consequence, their job.
Telling inconvenient truths can even cost you your life in many parts of the world. Like in Russia, where 17 journalists have been murdered since 2000, for covering stories that threatened or embarrassed the corrupt and unscrupulous politicians who run that country.
Also, to be fair, it can be very difficult to learn the truth – to come to reasonable conclusions about subjects that are often a lot more complex than whether or not Saddam had nuclear missiles.
For instance….
Imagine how hard it would be to research whether austerity budgets help or hurt nations in deep recession – like the country I live in, Portugal.
Or, even more tangled and emotional stories like…
What needs to be done to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
As a novelist, my solution to this problem may seem unsatisfactory to the journalists in the audience. But after years of researching the Jewish ghettos of Poland, the Portuguese Inquisition and other broad and nuanced topics for my historical novels, I’ve come to believe that we only rarely, if ever, come to find one big, overarching Truth that we can transmit clearly to our readers. Dozens of little truths hide inside the issues that make this world both a wonderful and terrible place to live. Waiting for us to discover them. Which is what we need to do.
To use the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for a moment, I think that to understand the depth of hostility people there feel – and the knotted tangle of emotions the subject always raises – you would have to go way beyond just speaking to politicians and experts. You’d have to abandon “he-said, she-said” journalism and try to come to your own conclusions after exploring the small, personal truths of…
- a Palestinian family kicked out of their house in Haifa shortly after the founding of the state of Israel, for instance.
- Or of a Palestinian dancer whose brother was beaten in an Israeli prison and who turns to terrorism.
- Or of a Jewish father whose ten-year-old son loses an arm in a suicide bombing.
- Or of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to ever discuss her experiences in the camps because she doesn’t want them used an excuse to oppress another people.
These are all persons I’ve written about in my novel The Search for Sana, a book which examines how political conflicts undermine not just our public institutions but also our private lives. Our friendships. Our love.
In my opinion, the complexities of such topics go way beyond the scope of journalism.
…Into the domain of novelists.
In part, because we novelists can take two, three, four or more years to explore widely varying perspectives. We can write about the nearly invisible connections between events and individual lives. We can explore subtleties.
We also don’t need access to powerful politicians. In fact, we can give voice to people who have been systematically neglected and silenced.
Happily, too, we don’t have to pay any attention to company budgets. We just need enough income to keep us reasonably well fed.
And, most importantly perhaps, and most relevant to tonight’s conference, we also don’t have to abide by anyone’s criteria for objectivity. For us, the “he said, she said” form of storytelling is completely irrelevant.
We can come to our own conclusions about the personal truths of our characters.
And if we have some talent, we can express them in moving, poetic and powerful ways.
In this way, journalism and fiction writing become complementary. Because we can take over a story where even great reporters must bring it to a close.
Now, you might think that because we, novelists, openly acknowledge our subjectivity, that we wouldn’t have to worry about the kinds of criticisms journalists face.
But that’s not true.
We are criticized all the time for being biased. For creating characters that readers don’t like. Or who express opinions they despise.
The way we are punished for speaking inconvenient truths is by having our books rejected by publishers. Or neglected by literary critics. Or attacked by readers.
In my own very unimportant case, although The Search for Sana has been published in England, France, Brazil and several other countries, it will never come out in the United States. Because it presents the personal and intimate perspectives – of my Palestinian and Israeli characters – in ways that make American publishers very uncomfortable.
And even when we think we are on safe territory, as in the case of my latest novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, we can find ourselves having to defend our work.
The Warsaw Anagrams is about an elderly Jewish psychiatrist who dies in a Nazi labor camp but who remains in our world – as an ibbur, a ghost, un revenant – because he still has an important duty to fulfill. Except that he doesn’t know what that duty is. So he recounts the story of his last year in the Warsaw ghetto to the one visionary person who can see him and hear him in the hopes of finding out what he still must accomplish.
I thought I was on safe territory in this book, after all, I was mostly writing about the quiet heroism of my Jewish characters – about how we find the courage to continue our lives after suffering an enormous trauma.
But then, a couple of years ago, while on a promotional tour in Poland – the country from which my grandparents emigrated to America – I discovered I was wrong. Nearly every literary critic, journalist and reader I spoke to liked the novel, but several had serious reservations about my portrayals of Poles in the book, most of whom show complete indifference to the plight of their Jewish neighbors. And, in one case, betray them.

As I discovered, a great many Poles regard themselves – and not the Jews – as the principal victims of the Nazis. To justify that position, they point to the 2.5 million Poles who were murdered during the war and the nearly complete destruction of Warsaw and other cities. And to their subsequent subjugation by the Soviet Union.

To them, my book focused on the wrong people. And told only a very small part of the story. Occasionally, they expressed some resentment.

Most of the readers I spoke also took the time to tell me a story about a parent or grandparent who was amongst the very tiny minority of courageous Poles who offered sanctuary or other vital help to their Jewish friends and neighbors. Which raised the question: if so many people offered assistance to the country’s Jews, then how did 95% of those Jews end up as smoke rising through the chimneys of Treblinka and Auschwitz?

It was hard for me to accept the criticisms of Polish readers, of course. Especially when voiced aggressively. But after many long conversations, I came to understand their perspective and to was able to see that I still had a lot to learn about the Polish perspective on World War II – about their truth.

And it came as a revelation for me to understand that the suffering in their own families made it nearly impossible for them to read my novel without being overcome by a surge of conflicting emotions.

During my most tense and disagreeable moments in Poland, I tried to keep in mind that journalists and novelists who aren’t occasionally criticized for exploring issues in ways that others find inconvenient and meddlesome and very hard to swallow probably aren’t doing their job. Maybe, in fact, they’ve given up on pursuing the truth.

Michael Fieni