Commentators often accuse the mainstream press of bias. The right criticizes the press for being too liberal. From the left, we hear the...
Commentators often accuse the mainstream press of bias. The right criticizes the press for being too liberal. From the left, we hear the opposite. Perhaps the press should celebrate these attacks as proof of its ability to remain neutral. But, perhaps neutrality is part of the problem. Too often, the press achieves neutrality at the cost of objectivity.
Objectivity is not neutrality. Neutrality means that a reporter has no position on the issue in question. It seeks to correct for the supposed and real prejudices and politics of authors. Objectivity, in contrast, means that a reporter has sifted through evidence and has reached verifiable and reasonable conclusions. Objectivity also corrects for the prejudices and politics of authors, not by forcing authors to remain neutral between positions but rather by asking authors to present the data and analysis that led them to a position. Objective reporters, if they do their job well, cannot remain neutral.
Take an example from the Iraq war. The media have been lambasted for not making clear to readers that the evidence put forth to justify our actions in Iraq were unreliable or fabricated. The New York Times even apologized for failing to do its duty. One reason was that too many reporters sought to remain neutral between competing claims rather than take a position on their truthfulness.
Perhaps nowhere is the tendency to remain neutral more harmful than during political campaigns. As many critics have argued, campaign reporters often seem more caught up in the horse race than in informing voters about the issues and candidates’ proposals. At least one reason for this is that it is easier to remain neutral when one is reporting on campaigns than on issues. Election stories often end up being simply “he said/she said.” As a result, readers are left wondering whether candidates’ claims, and counterclaims, are trustworthy.
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We need stories that probe whether, for example, the Democratic candidates’ health plans can do what they promise, how they differ from each other, and whether their estimated costs reflect reality. We need to know not only what candidates say about No Child Left Behind but whether the law in current form has raised student achievement. We need to be informed not just whether candidates support lower or higher taxes, but also whether recent tax cuts have benefited the economy, as Republican candidates claim, and how those benefits have been distributed. Voters should not have to rely on candidates for this kind of information.
The cost of neutrality is an ill-informed public. Voters tend to trust the statements of their political leaders. And, to some degree they should. Most politicians are honest people trying to do good in an imperfect system. But the press’s obligation is to question authority. If reporters are unwilling to be objective because they favor neutrality, the press will never deliver on its promise. A press avowedly not neutral may serve us better than a press that privileges neutrality over objectivity.
There has never been a golden age for the press. Celebrations of the press date back to America’s founding even though the Founding Fathers during the 1790s and early 1800s developed the most partisan and biased press in the nation’s history. Politicians directly and indirectly sponsored competing editors, and newspapers were always identified with a party.
An objective press would not be tied to a party, as the Founders’ press was, but nor would it allow neutrality to interfere with its obligation to tell the truth.
Johann N. Neem is an assistant professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham.