Objectivity by Subtraction
There is a romantic view of journalism in which a reporter tracks down the facts of a story and reports them with correct grammar and pure objectivity. When thinking about this type of thorough and solid investigation, you might even imagine Joe Friday saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The late Sydney Gruson (a former editor for the New York Times) once said, “Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I feel very strongly about the purity of the news columns. Pure objectivity might not exist, but you have to strive for it anyway.“ 1
The problem is that in the world there are no “brute facts.” What we call “facts” exist within a context and have to be interpreted. Context always matters.
A journalist provides that context through his choice of investigation, conclusions, choice of interviews, choice of quotes, and choice of words. It is impossible for the journalist to separate the story from his worldview and ethical framework. All thoughts and actions have a motivation, goal, and standard. These will differ greatly between, say, an atheist and a Christian, even when it comes to writing an article.
Objectivity by Balanced Views
Some news agencies have realized that the objectivity sought for by many journalists is unobtainable. They have opted instead to seek some sort of objectivity by balancing viewpoints. The most notable of these is Fox News, which claims to be “Fair and Balanced.” While many have questioned whether Fox New is either fair or balanced, it seems that having this as a goal is not inherently bad. This method for increasing reliability and certainty is similar to perspectivalism.
One way in which news sources often endeavor to achieve balance is by providing two ethical perspectives on an event. Imagine a hypothetical broadcast in which CNN has both John MacArthur and Dan Barker as guests to talk about a proposed public policy. There is a major problem with this sort of balance. The multiple perspectives should be increasing knowledge and reliability. Instead, what you have in this situation is two opposing worldviews with two opposing ethical perspectives. The only way this balance would make sense is to assume that objectivity is ethically neutral. As Christians, we reject this idea. While there are other reasons to have both Dan Barker and John MacArthur, this does not provide a “balance” that moves you towards objectivity or certainty.
Truthful Articles Grounded in a Christian Worldview
Word choices are sometimes determined by entities other than the journalist who writes the article. The AP Stylebook provides a standard for certain word choices and phrasing. Even having an external standard to the journalist does not eliminate bias and provide objectivity. Consider what the AP Stylebook says concerning abortion:
Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person performs clandestine abortions; use a term such as abortion doctor or abortion practitioner.2
Language shapes debates. The AP Stylebook tends to choose the language favored by the pro-abortion crowd. But a choice has to be made; moral neutrality is not an option.
We seek to present articles written from a Christian viewpoint. We seek to present articles from an abolitionist viewpoint, which we hold to be the consistent Christian viewpoint. It is only through Christianity—by God’s self-revelation and by regeneration—that we can approach a right interpretation of the world.
The larger context for our articles is that of God, creation, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, and the advance of God’s kingdom throughout history. Our aim is not merely to inform. Our aim is not to be morally or ethically neutral. We seek the abolition of human abortion by the advance of the kingdom of God, to the glory of God.
While this may seem to blur the oversimplified line between fact and opinion, it does not abolish the line between a news article and an editorial. The news story and editorial still exist for different purposes. The primary purpose of a news article is to keep you apprised of events, whereas the purpose of an editorial is to persuade you of how to think or what to do.
We believe our journalism should not lie. We also believe there are positive duties associated with the command not to bear false witness. These include promoting truth, discouraging flattery and slander, and having a charitable view of our neighbor when possible.
Fake news is a hot topic. Everyone has varied ideas on what it means to be fake news. Simply put, fake news is an article that conveys a falsehood as its primary message. A typo or simple error most likely does not constitute fake news.
There are some fictitious articles with a broad consensus that they are fake news. But, there can be a wide array of subtlety to fake news and some accusations are not so easy to substantiate.
Imagine an article about a bill in your state house of representatives. The bill is controversial and fails on the house floor. A local newspaper reporter writes an article in which he gives a summary of the bill, a paragraph about how it failed, and a list of who voted for and against it. In this article, the reporter does not give any noticeable indication of whether or not he was for or against.
You might think this article is an objective article that just gives the plain facts: people can pick up the paper, look at the article, and know that the bill failed and whether or not their representative was for or against it.
Now guide your imagination to the House floor while the bill is being debated. Rep. John Rightwing sits at his desk, inattentively listening to the debate of the controversial bill. He doesn’t really like the bill, but he knows that the majority of his constituents support it. He also knows that the House leadership wants the bill to die and he needs their support to pass his own legislation. To others this might seem like a predicament, but he understands and knows the common way around this problem. When the time comes to vote, he watches the count intently. When he sees that the bill will not have the numbers to pass, he votes for it. Now the leadership will remain happy, he will be happy, and his constituents (upon seeing that he voted in favor of the bill) will be happy.
In the case of this article, the “bare facts” give their audience the wrong impression. Why? Because of the lack of context.
You might want to think that this is simply lazy journalism and you might not be wrong. But the real problem is that the result lacks the context needed to make sense of the statistics. But it appears to present objective data ready to inform the readers’ opinions. You can imagine a similar scenario wherein a wrong context (rather than a lack of context) produces a similar result.
Once again, context is king. It can turn even statistics into fake news.
- Quoted in Michael Schudson, Discovering the News (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 161.
- Goldstein, N. (2004). The Associated Press Stylebook and briefing on media law. New York: The Associated Press (p. 5).