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The Misguided Campaign Against Journalistic Objectivity

Locked down in a northern Ontario cottage over the summer, I found myself listening to CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, an eclectic three-hour weekly morning show hosted, until his recent retirement, by veteran journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright. On this particular Sunday in July, guest host Anthony Germain interviewed Candis Callison, a University of British Columbia professor who teaches in both UBC’s Journalism department and its Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. The subject of conversation was her recently published book, co-authored with fellow UBC professor Mary Lynn Young, Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities. “Objectivity is ‘the view from nowhere’ and potentially harmful,” announced CBC headline-writers when the interview was aired. “Is objectivity an outmoded value in journalism?”

Later, it was asserted that “more and more people, including many journalists, are questioning the sanctity of objectivity—especially when the arbiters of what’s objective truth and what’s opinion are largely the mostly-white, mostly-male people who run most newsrooms. [Prof. Callison] argues that objectivity in journalism is illusory and that it reaffirms the outlook of a white male-dominated world.”

Prof. Callison seeks a decisive shift—indeed, a revolution—away from journalistic objectivity, and an explicit embrace of subjectivity. She told Germain that “objectivity [has been] interpreted in most newsrooms as… a way of not acknowledging your social location as a journalist, that there has been a way of reporting on certain topics and certain communities in the past that may have caused harm.” Instead of attempting to rise to this “harmful” objective ideal, journalists should exhibit clarity about “whose social order you’re maintaining.” Offering models to be emulated, Prof. Callison cited Toronto journalist Tanya Talaga, whose 2017 book about Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, reflected Talaga’s own roots. So, too, with black activist Desmond Cole’s 2020 book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power.

Indeed, journalism “shouldn’t just be about a news story as an event, but how it’s an intersection of systems and structures” that make journalists “accountable in particular ways.” It means a shift in emphasis from “accuracy” to “advocacy,” as Germain paraphrased the argument. Prof. Callison countered that what she seeks is “near advocacy.” By way of example, she described climate-change scientists and journalists struggling with how to maintain “professional roles related to objectivity, related to providing information to society,” while also advocating “on an issue where action needs to happen.”

I am a former English professor at a Canadian University. From the 1970s onwards, I can attest, this canard about objectivity being a white male construct was pervasive in the academy. And so it is odd to now see it presented as a novelty on CBC airwaves. It is also surprising to see such a heavily theorized approach to discourse being imposed on the hard-headed, pragmatic, non-theoretical world of regular journalists.

Indeed, many of the arguments one now hears against “objectivity” were already anticipated, and dispatched, by literary critic E.D. Hirsch in his brilliant 1967 book Validity in Interpretation—in which Hirsch showed that the idea of objectivity is hardly tantamount to the “certainty” of Callison’s caricature. Rather, it goes to the idea of uniform and universal rules that govern valid methods of interpreting verbal texts—or, by extension, reported information of any sort.

But one may go back further—much further. In his 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, British empiricist philosopher John Locke argued that since the sunny certainty of perfect reason is indeed a chimera (except perhaps in such realms as mathematics), we necessarily live in what Locke called “the twilight of probability.” The best we can do is make “probable”—not “certain”—judgments based on careful attention to the evidence. These judgments will always be partial, limited, biased: We are not gods but situated human beings. This doesn’t mean that we should dispense with the pursuit of objectivity—as Prof. Callison suggests—but rather that we should arm ourselves with an understanding of our limitations.

That understanding is informed by the debates about the fallible, limited form of reason we call “judgment”—and how such judgment may be cultivated—that have played out in literature and philosophy for centuries. All of Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, involve the education of what might be called “probable judgments” (Sense and Sensibility, wherein the Dashwood sisters must make important inferences about suitors from their words and manners, being the most brilliant example). Please note that Austen was a woman (albeit a white one), yet seems to have had no difficulties with evidence-based, inferential, inductive forms of reasoning. In fact, she was a virtuoso practitioner of the art.

Then and now, philosophers were very much concerned with how accurately our senses, thoughts, and judgments tracked the reality around us. They reminded readers that even our most cherished certainties always reflect a qualified accuracy: interpretations that need to be tested, and always remain open to revision, in light of new evidence, for those paying proper “attention” (another key term for Austen).

Professor Callison’s proposed journalistic revolution reflects the legacy of postmodern literary theories, which made a fetish of power structures, and demanded that the interrogation of texts be conducted through this lens. “Whose text?” became the cry one heard in modern-languages circles. Interpretation blended into ideological “critique,” which itself was but a short step to ideologically motivated “advocacy.” Ideas such as “accuracy” and “objectivity,” being unhelpful to this project, disappeared. The (mistaken) assumption was that one couldn’t take either the text or the author at face value without being a naïve empiricist channeling obsolete biases.

There was a grain of truth in all that—just as there is a grain of truth in Prof. Callison’s claim that the reported facts in our world need to be interpreted in a self-aware manner. Much of our received wisdom becomes obscured with layers of sedimented narratives, some of which have been harmful and really do need to be contested or abandoned. I would agree with her about that. But turning to an explicitly subjective approach to journalism isn’t the best way to do this.

In this regard, I can draw on my experience as a professor: Students become confused and discouraged if they are required to understand books primarily through the ideological lenses of their professors, with discussions about bias displacing the profound and complex ideas that comprise these works’ enduring appeal. For many, it’s all bias, all the time. Identity politics, in particular, has displaced the extraordinarily rich, subtle, and diverse vocabularies that individual literary texts exuberantly deploy. This renders students numb to great writers’ irony, humour, wit, and linguistic experimentation. You simply can’t afford to be playful with language if you’re busy scrutinizing every adjective and comma for racism.

In a good classroom, it is strenuously exhilarating to argue about William Blake’s poetry, or Austen’s prose, by reference to the authors’ own distinctive vocabularies on their own terms—while suspending all the fashionable skepticism about the possibility (or moral validity) of doing so. Students’ opinions tend to be more persuasive and informed when they have to ground them in the actual text, turning to page numbers and quotations to support their judgments. This attentive engagement with the text educates their faculties of “probable judgment.” Crucially, it frees them from talking about themselves (which the shy ones find liberating), and frees them to argue with everyone else in the class—even, and especially, the professor—by appealing ultimately to the words of the page, instead of unarguable ideological dogmas or personal perceptions of bias. This pursuit of text-based objectivity doesn’t require subscribing to some imaginary form of “white” “male” value set.

Prof. Callison’s “subjective journalism,” she says, should above all not “do harm,” and, even better, “mitigate harm.” But the very question of what constitutes “harm”—and how various harms should be ranked in regard to damage and urgency—is easily amenable to political and ideological distortion. Answering the question usefully relies on factual reporting by objective (yes, I will use that word) journalists who refuse to get swept up by subjective ideological commitments.

In July—when Prof. Callison spoke to Sunday Edition, at a time when memories of the George Floyd killing were still raw—many activists took it as axiomatic that the greatest harm being done to black communities was caused by police. And thanks in large part to sympathetic reporters (perhaps eschewing that old, hidebound commitment to “objectivity”), there was a brief, mainstream push to defund, or even abolish, conventional policing. Yet in recent weeks, many black community representatives are themselves arguing the opposite—and have pointed to the upsurge of killings that have resulted in some cities as a result of police rolling back their patrols and enforcement.

So which reporters succeeded in mitigating “harm”—those who cheered on the activists as an act of “near advocacy,” or those who are now reporting on the backlash against those same activists? It’s impossible to say. Indeed, it is hubristic to imagine that any reporter can or should make such subjective judgments. Even historians, who have many years to consider the object of their study, inhabit “the twilight of probability.” How can those journalists tasked with writing “history’s first draft” imagine that they know which way true “harm” lies?

 

 

Lorraine Clark is emeritus professor of English at Trent University in Ontario.

Featured image: Staff of Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper wait for news of the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

Comments

  1. I understand the argument, but here is the issue: Journalists lack the education to be advocates.

    To advocate for a change or solution, you need a command of the material. Journalists frequently mistake their status as messenger for owning the message.

    I once read an article in a science journal for laypeople, twenty years or so gone, about how a German lab had invented teleportation.

    Then they quoted the professor, who excitedly described how they had collapsed the wave function of a particle to only exist in one of two physically separated potential wells something like nine feet apart, and they had measured the particle’s EM field first in one potential well, and then the other, and it was the first time it had been seen at that distance.

    The article was quite clear before and after that the undereducated and ignorant reporter had thought this described teleportation. It did not and was not. It was neither the first nor last time this has happened.

    Understanding the language someone uses is not the same as understanding what they are saying. Reporters and journalists are paid to report facts. Editors are paid in part for their opinions. Advocacy journalism is rooted in an assumption that the solution the journalist advocates for is correctly determined, despite a journalist’s lack of relevant expertise

  2. Good article. What I find particularly bizarre is how Prof. Callison’s says “subjective journalism" should above all not “do harm.” Modern journalism loves causing harm, it loves to go “there’s the racist!”, “there’s the rapist!” “there’s the witch!” Outrage sells. And clickbait journalism presses that button ad nauseam. It knows race outrage sparks riots, but riots are just more news, more clickbait.

  3. Please provide an example of such a journalist.

  4. Complete objectivity is seldom achieved in most human endeavors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for. For Marxists like ‘Professor’ Candis Callison objectivity (and it’s loathed outcome truth) are nuisances to be shunned and avoided. Only by inventing narratives, and lying about things that they’ve seen and heard, can ‘journalists’ shape history into easily taught and understood by modern ‘teechurs’ and ‘stoodunts’ (actual proposed spellings!) in courses that promote identity politics!

    This has an effect. I reflexively reject almost any story I hear, or read, through the CBC. They are almost ALL pushing an agenda. You can immediately tell how important the agenda is to them, by how vigorously they weed out ‘incorrect’ opinions or quotes on their online forums. Their number one agenda is promoting the idea that white people, and their institutions are primarily racist. Their number two priority is that men who say they are women, are women. I’m not sure about woman who identify as men as it barely comes up. The number three priority is that global warming, caused primarily by white people, is an immanent threat. Add the usual stuff about Orange Man bad and evil capitalism endangering everything and you have the CBC in a nutshell.

    Objectivity? Meh.

  5. So testing the truth of a claim is neither interesting or useful?

  6. [Callison] described climate-change scientists and journalists struggling with how to maintain “professional roles related to objectivity, related to providing information to society,” while also advocating “on an issue where action needs to happen.”

    Oh really. Whaddya mean “an issue where action needs to happen?” Sounds like a claim of objectivity to me. Or maybe godlike professorial divinity.

    Suppose I say that the whole climate change thingy is a power play by educated academic globalists and their bribed apologists? You could haul out the pejoratives and say I was a racist sexist homophobe that wanted to condemn the formerly colonized peoples of the world to extinction. Or you might say that I had hit the proverbial nail right on the head.

    Suppose I say that all professors are speaking from a position of privilege and therefore should be disbelieved because of their class interest in domination and hegemony unless they kneel to the bitter-clingers and deplorables of the world wearing Kente cloth?

    Eventually the critical theory guys and gals and their inquisition will be discredited. The only question is how large a butcher’s bill they run up in the mean time.

  7. Hard to argue with that.
    Subjectivity is for Believers.
    Bereft of ideas, any limited skill involved lies solely in the ability to copy and paste, re-word, re-phrase, and re-sell the same soap as “new and improved”.
    A security blanket for the comfortably numb.

    Objectivity is for Thinkers.
    If done well one should at least come away better informed but hopefully with the added bonus of new viewpoints and ideas to consider or the incentive to re-evaluate old ones.
    An intellectual journey.

  8. More slippery Critical Logic:
    Because perfection here is unattainable, we shouldn’t try—the whole game has to change (according to our rules).
    As if the pursuit of impossible perfection isn’t essential to—well everything, a biological imperative.
    Objectivity needs imagination. Some people have ideology where their imagination should be.

  9. Too true. I think one of the things I have really come to hate is “year zero” thinking. @Skeptic recently linked to a long interview with Saul Alinsky. The thing I found interesting is Alinsky knew that blue collar workers were finally pulling a decent living wage. But he saw the system as broken and wanted a revolution. For all his intelligence, he was just a yahoo. He couldn’t see that the system was working, that a bit of patience and tweaking here and there made things better for more and more people. The left wants radical change for an immediate Utopia. Rather than pick a lock, they always want to open doors with atom bombs.

  10. The problem with advocacy in journalism is that it is one of the key drivers of the increasing animosity across the political divide. Of course, we’ve all read and thought about the existence of echo chambers- it’s a cultural theme which has been done to death- but how many of us have stopped to think whether the beliefs we have about the Left aren’t gross caricatures, or at least far less prevalent than we think.

    It’s certainly true that we are caricatured on Reddit, with Quillette described as far right for no better reason that it publishes non-ideological materials on the transgender issue, and whilst we might have had the odd far right commenter over the last couple of years, I would argue that is by no means the norm for QC commenters. But try raising that idea in the wrong type of forum, and attempting to disabuse the Left of their cardboard cut-out stereotypes and you will be buried under an avalanche of comments disputing your claim.

    I blame social media. It’s a predictable response, but true nonetheless. Twitter encourages the Loudest (and worst) Voices on both sides of the debate, as though we were all participants in some gladiatorial team sport. There are no likes, followers or retweets in subtlety or nuance, and insulting you opponents is the quickest way to become popular. Personally, I’ve probably only tweeted only about 20 times since I first signed up to Twitter in 2012, and usually only go there when referencing something I’ve seen or heard elsewhere, usually through a link.

    A better way of thinking about ideological and political divides is by considering the issue as a matter of misalignment on a few key issues. This might seem to trivialise the issue, but I can assure you it does not- as I can prove by way of illustration. This survey commissioned by Channel 4 on British Muslims was highly controversial at the time, and is probably even more incendiary now (to the extent that is was probably one of the factors leading up to the failed attempt to cancel Trevor Phillips), but it is illustrative of how a few key misalignments in beliefs and ideology might seem to impose an irreconcilable gulf, when underlying it all is the fact that the minority is not representative of the whole, and that there are usually far more areas of common ground than most imagine.

    https://www.channel4.com/press/news/c4-survey-and-documentary-reveals-what-british-muslims-really-think

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpHE3_-3VEc

    Years ago, Isaiah Berlin used the analogy of the Nun and the Mother to describe two idealised roles that were individually laudable to society, whilst also being mutually incompatible as goals. His main point was in how this would apply cross-culturally between nations with different cultures and religions. He believed that these key points of difference would inevitably lead to conflict. In geopolitical terms, he perhaps underestimated the role of common interests, the far higher prevalence of common values (like help the poor, avoid war, cure disease) and the powerful pull of strong economic interests made possible through trade.

    But his observations are particularly salient when it comes to political polarisation and the potential for intra-societal conflict. I would argue that our current paradigm could lead to civil conflict, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. The key distinction is understanding that both narrative and empirical evidence can have positive roles. Narrative can be useful for highlighting problems, to draw attention to an issue and to promote the need for change.

    The danger comes when those who would wield narrative become so convinced of the truth of their cause that they are unwilling to consult the empirical evidence because they are convinced that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Apart from being a really bad analogy, it’s also untrue. The problem, in a nutshell, is that people become so convinced of the intent of their opposition to use bad faith arguments, that they deploy those selfsame approaches pre-emptively. This in turn leads to the characterisation of both sides, by both sides, as essentially arguing in bad faith.

    I don’t know what the solution is, I really don’t. But I would suggest that the best place to start would be for someone like the Heterodox Academy to extensively survey to find the root causes of misalignment between our various memetic tribes. From there it might be possible to find representative groups willing to workshop to see whether those key areas of misalignment can be overcome, or if there is an approach where common ground and common humanity can be used to surmount ideological differences so that people can avoid the stereotypes and caricatures which are so politically expedient, but morally bankrupt.

    Back in the days of more culturally prominent counter terrorism, most experts agreed that there was a spectrum of engagement for radicalisation, and that the spectrum could be pushed or pulled to reduce extremism at the tail end of the spectrum. I would contend that our current cultural paradigm is just as dangerous, in a different way. Because whilst both White Supremacy and Islamic Terrorism can be incredibly dangerous, as ideas they are not terribly effective at spreading, probably only having the potential to infect a tiny portion of the population. I’m by no means sure that the same can be said of our current civil strife. So far the violence has only been sporadic, but it only takes a few incidences of violence to pour gasoline on an already incendiary situation.

  11. I remember in my youth newspapers were driven to follow certain self imposed rules. Sources were checked. Data was verified. News articles were written in a specific format without opinion, without exaggeration, without subjective adjectives or adverbs. Opinions were placed on the Editorial Page and labelled as opinions. Then I remember the National Enquirer was published. It was considered complete fiction, humorous at some level and only avoided libel charges because of its lack of credibility. Now the media outlets all seem to be National Enquirers. (I did find one site - JustFacts.com - that actually constrains itself to just facts.)

    This idea that journalists are to be the arbitrators of information to present or not present, of what is important or not important for everyone to hear or how the general population should respond to unfolding events is complete rubbish (I had a few other words I considered here). People need to be informed because journalists do not have all the information or know the full situation. By editing, modifying or corrupting information to advocate a specific line of action is criminal at best. Because of poor journalism like this I personally have seen important, proven technologies dismissed and the future of our society damaged. The journalists decided the technology was too good to be true or couldn’t believe the sciences/engineers could actually do something they couldn’t fathom or it went against an established industry.

    Journalists have a key role to play - to keep all individuals accurately informed. By twisting the information or facts they are criminally responsible for the results. A current example: the media’s misreporting the racial difference in the number of deaths of individuals in police custody. This has directly resulted in riots, looting, deaths and will result in extensive economic cost. This example in itself is enough to warrant an overhaul of what can legally be called “News” and what should be referred to as “Opinion”. Freedom of speech is critical but so is the freedom from coercion and protection from libel and sedition.

  12. There is little objective journalism anywhere with possibly the exception of plane crashes and weather events. The latter is often tinged with climate activist opinion.

  13. Blockquote You simply can’t afford to be playful with language if you’re busy scrutinizing every adjective and comma for racism.

    Loved this sentiment.

    Journalism aside, Callison’s interest in ‘Critical Indigenous Studies’ made me wonder where these people come from, and how they get to teach this crap. Critical and studies together has got to be the worst combination for any subject matter.

  14. “Locked down in a northern Ontario cottage over the summer, I found myself listening to CBC Radio’s…”

    Mistake One. Expecting a discussion of objectivity whilst listening to CBC radio is akin to walking into McDonald’s and expecting Michelin Star dining. A long hike in the woods would or a run with the kayak followed by bourbon around the fire would have been a better use of her time.

  15. Objectivity became a suspect notion when feminist ideology privileged feelings over logic and evidence. The reason for this, in retrospect, is clear. Many feminist ideas have turned out to be empirically false, such as the narrative that domestic violence only affects females, or that women are paid less than men for the same work, or that men have privilege because of their gender.

    Logic itself became inconvenient when people began pointing out that feminism claimed to be about treating people in a gender-neutral way, when in fact it turned out to be a vehicle for ensuring special treatment for women, such as special awards and scholarships available only to them, or a certain number of jobs being offered only to females.

    The obvious self-contradiction became particularly difficult to defend given feminism’s previous claim to be against double standards. By the '80’s, it was becoming apparent that the only people with double standards were feminists themselves.

    Rather than re-examining their rhetoric, however, the choice was made to declare that logic, reason, and evidence were “tools of the patriarchy”. Daring to question feminist dogma became politically incorrect, and rather than engage in dialogue, a necessity if you are to treat others as equals, feminists decided instead to “interogate” reason as “suspect” in upholding male hegemony. “Lived experience” rather than facts became the new gold standard for evidence. Like revelation, which privileges the experiences of one person, relying on subjective insight rather than public demonstration through replicable experiment, “lived experience” creates a hierarchy of knowledge based on intersectional oppression: I no longer can be held to account by evidence. If I feel something is true, it becomes true, and to question my feelings is an act of oppression. To even question the irrationality of my dogma is violence.

    Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in questioning science itself as part of the “patriarchy”- unless the science confirms feminist claims. But this is rare. Consider the notion that gender is a “social construct”, a necessary belief if you wish to deconstruct human consciousness and reshape it “in forms of your own choosing”, to quote 1984’s O’Brien, the insane torturer of Winston Smith. Gender is actually an evolutionary construct, as evolutionary psychology has demonstrated. No wonder feminists abhor sociobiology. If Darwin is right, feminism is wrong.

    And that, ultimately, is the basis for the rejection of objectivity. Being able to say that 2+2=4, as Smith tells O’Brien, is the basis of freedom. Modern feminists are now telling us that 2+2= sexism, and we all need “sensitivity training” to understand the new reality.

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