The objectivity sham

It's easier to pretend than it is to carry it out

Issue: "Year in Review 2000," Dec. 30, 2000

"I thought," the angry subscriber said in her letter, "that your magazine would be objective like Time or Newsweek-not biased like I've found you to be almost every single week. Where's your objectivity? I want my money back."

She got her money back. But I wished I could sit down with this woman to discuss the issue at more length than was convenient in an exchange of letters. For I doubt if any subject having to do with the media is surrounded by more confusion than the matter of so-called objectivity. And that's true as much for those who shape the media as it is for those who use them.

My personal recipe, developed after almost 40 years of thinking about it, is that a good reporter should include just as much objectivity in any particular story as any particular reader might want, on any particular day, with regard to any particular subject matter.

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You heard me right. The objectivity issue is exactly that vague. To make my point, let me mention the unlikely combination of weather, sports, and religion.

The whole idea of objectivity suggests the need for staying detached, for jumping off to some arm's length distance, and for refusing to make value judgments. But, of course, that's precisely what we don't do with a subject like the day's weather. There's good weather, and there's bad weather, and nobody pretends otherwise. Making such value judgments is part of the weatherman's daily ritual.

Same thing with the sportscast. It's good news when the home team wins, and it's bad news when they lose. There are variations on the theme, like an incompetent coach or a vainglorious player, but even they don't change the assumption that it's root, root, root for the home team.

The subject of religion, however, gets treated quite differently. I read this past week about an old friend, a graduate of a leading evangelical college who worked first as a reporter for a leading evangelical magazine but who is now doing religion reporting for public television. "Working for a show that covers all religions," says her college alumni magazine, "spurs [her] to try to present the news with an unbiased perspective. She says, 'It's hard for any journalist to keep the line between their own personal belief and what they're covering. I have strong personal beliefs but I try not to promote one particular religion ... [I try] to take a look at all kinds of religion and spirituality and how important it is in different people's lives. It's interesting.'"

But why? Why are strong personal opinions both expected and accepted on some subjects, but verboten on others?

If, for example, my friend had found herself assigned to report on medical topics instead of on religion, would she have been expected to keep silence even when confronted with some wacko medicine man? If in her investigative work she found a medical practice that had been utilized for 100 years with no recorded benefits to any patient, would she be expected to treat it with total even-handedness? Would she have said so meekly, "It's hard for any journalist to keep the line between their own personal belief and what they're covering?"

To be sure, there is just enough to the practice of so-called "objectivity" to confuse the discussion. Whether you're dealing with a judge in traffic court, a used-car salesman, or the man behind the scales in your supermarket's meat department, you'd obviously like to have some assurance that there are no hidden considerations that might adversely affect the deal you strike. In similar fashion, when you read something-in WORLD or anywhere else-you'd like the assurance that reporter, writer, and editor have no relationships that might quietly skew the accuracy of what you're reading. All that boils down to the simple matter of trust.

But trust isn't at all the same thing as neutering yourself of all opinions. I don't mind dealing with opinionated judges, car salesmen, or butchers-just as long as I know up front what their opinions are. Then I can draw my own conclusions about their trustworthiness.

The same is true with purveyors of the news. Here at WORLD, we welcome your questions about any of our core values; then you can decide whether to trust what we say on a host of other issues. Meanwhile, we urge you to ask the same core value questions of Time, Newsweek, the editors of your local paper, and the anchors at your local TV station. If they hide behind a screen of objectivity, watch out. It's a whole lot easier to make a pretense of objectivity than it is to carry it out as a consistent philosophy of life.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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