THE ACCURACY NEWS
The Nature and Problem of Objective News
Objective news is essentially an epistemic kind. What is sometimes called the “journalism of verification” is merely what yields accurate news: verification (or justification) is an epistemic notion.
The editorial adage “When in doubt, leave it out” also expresses its epistemic nature. More specifically, objective news reports can provide testimonial knowledge or justified belief about some aspect of the world to those who read or hear them. To satisfy this
the requirement we apply epistemic standards of evaluation.
For example, we ask, “Is every sentence in the report supported by sufficient objective evidence?” A statement is objectively justified if it is rational to believe based on evidence that anyone should accept.
For example, observing the inert bodies in the road after a roadside bomb explodes is evidence-based on which it is rational to believe the statement that at least ten people died in the explosion.
The ultimate aim of an objective news report is, of course, truth, but many statements inaccurate news reports may turn out to be false, despite our best efforts to verify. This is why an objective news report doesn’t need to consist entirely of factual statements. What is necessary is that it consist entirely of objectively verified statements. Thus, if a fact is a statement that expresses what is the case (what’s true) or what reliably or logically follows from what is the case, to report “just the facts” is to include only objectively verified statements in a news report. (This is only a necessary condition for objective news; editing, discussed later, also plays a role.) It follows that the inclusion of a statement in an objective news report implies it is supported by sufficient objective evidence: it’s not there because the reporter made a lucky guess or wishes it were true.
If he or she doesn’t have that evidence, it should not be there.
Although the presence of any unverified statement in a news report detracts from its objectivity, the debate over objective news focuses on that subset of sentences that expresses or immediately implies the reporter’s values, preferences, biases, or personal opinions (values, for short), which may or may not be shared by his or her social peers.
Value statements express what ought or should be the case, and the problem with these statements is there is no consensus on how they might be objectively verified or whether they can be. However, it is sufficient reason to leave them out of objective news reports if we’re not sure whether they are verified, whether or not one thinks they can’t be. Value statements may automatically appear to many readers or listeners as claims for which the reporter does not have sufficient objective evidence, based on their belief that such claims can’t be verified. This appearance is sufficient reason to leave them out, even if (contrary to their belief) there are facts of the matter when it comes to values and even if value statements can be objectively verified.
Journalists try to purge their news reports of objectively unverified statements, including but not limited to value statements, by following a bundle of professional practices. Mindich provides a standard description of the traditional features of objective news reports. These include (1) detachment (use of neutral language), (2) nonpartisanship (inclusion of all relevant sides of a story; fairness), (3) the inverted pyramid style of writing (presentation of facts in order of importance), (4) naive empiricism(factual accuracy), and (5) balance (lack of distortion, such as by omission of relevant facts).
This list is best seen as a complex description of a traditional objective news report, not a set of rules to follow for producing reports that satisfy the description, nor a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for any objective news report. For example, there is no essential connection between a report’s being objective and its being written in the inverted pyramid style. And at least some of the practices traditionally used to generate news reports that satisfy Mindich’s description may be poorly conceived (never mind poorly executed).
For example, the practice of getting an official statement and an opposition statement (what Cunningham has called “he said, she said” journalism) is one method for trying to generate a nonpartisan report, but not the only or best one.
As Kovach and Rosenstiel emphasize, journalism does not have a profession-wide set of rules for generating objective news reports. However, individual news outlets, editors, or reporters generally do, from which a set of standard practices might be developed.
Arguments against the possibility of objective news try to show that human cognitive limitations prevent us from leaving all values out of our news reports. One type of argument blames these limitations for the inevitable inclusion of sentences or descriptions expressing values; the other blames these limitations for editorial choices that shape news reports in ways that inevitably reflect values.
This reference to human cognitive limitations is crucial but liable to be misunderstood. The question is whether objective news is possible for journalists, not whether it is logically possible, since logical possibility refers only to the absence of contradiction. Of course, it is logically possible. The worry here is whether it is possible, given human cognitive capacities and the laws of nature.
The misunderstanding involves the goal of the professional practices that may result in objective news. The goal is not to cleanse reporters’ minds of values. It is to cleanse their news reports of statements for which they lack sufficient objective evidence.
Methods for achieving balance involve making sure verified relevant facts are not omitted; loaded descriptions are omitted because they imply values; and so on. If adopting a particular psychological attitude (sometimes called “objective” in a non-epistemic sense of the word) makes it easier for journalists to follow the practices, that’s an interesting psychological fact. It says nothing about the objectivity of the report, which lies in its sentences’ being backed by sufficient objective evidence, whether that evidence is gathered by a human, a robot, or a robotic human.
The problem of objective news, then, is not whether journalists can purge themselves of their values by following the practices, but whether they can generate news reports purged of unverified facts by following the practices. In other words, the premise that human beings inevitably have subjective points of view, which is uncontroversially true, does not entail the conclusion that news reports are inevitably subjective, for the validity of making such an inference is precisely the issue. Einstein inevitably had a subjective point of view, too, but it doesn’t follow that E = MC 2 is inevitably subjective.