Facing a dishonest president, journalists sought “moral clarity.” But the press must now resurrect its ideals of fairness.
There are two words about reporting for which I have a strong dislike: objective and balance. Both of these concepts are intended to avoid onesideism, but both create failures.
Objectivity in reporting is a myth. We are all human, and all have human thoughts and feelings that drive us. There is an objective reality, but no one can see it -- no one is capable of separating their perspective (with its underlying experiences, context, and emotions) from objective reality, and journalists should not pretend otherwise. The very facts that a reporter chooses as important are dictated by this very perspective, and that should be laid openly.
Balance in reporting is not a desirable goal. Representing truth as best one can is a desirable goal. Balance does not further that goal because it is a mechanical, performative thing. Balance suggests that the end state of an article should have some form of equal weighting to the various points of view involved. It's important to have equal weighting in consideration and fairness, but it is not important to have equal weighting in the resulting evaluation.
Instead of objectivity and balance, writers should strive for fairness (what Mr. Barber referred to as "even-handedness" I think) -- fairness to the various viewpoints represented in an article about an issue. Sometimes being fair to absurd viewpoints means showing their absurdity -- but from a place of considering context of that viewpoint from that' viewpoint's perspective as best one can.
I heartily agree with the thrust of Mr. Barber's article: onesideism is a problem which is solved by even-handedness and respect for other views during investigation and analysis.
One thing that was astonishing to me once I left the safety of my insular bubble on the left and ventured into Trump world was how wrong they were getting the Trump movement and the majority of his supporters. Sort of like a small village on one side of the mountain with another village 50 miles away and each side imagines the absolute worst based on long ago tales that jus worse and worse each time they were told. Likewise, he vision of the left, especially BLM protesters, was distorted to paint all of them as violent. So in essence the press is delivering only the extremes to the American people. No wonder we are on the brink of war. The one thing we must never lose: objectivity in journalism.
great stuff, thank you
What a wonderful piece. I was thinking the other day that the paper I trust the most is the FT. Reading this makes me think that, to the extent the FT is trustworthy, it's Barber's achievement rather than something natural about the FT (like respect for numbers). Similarly, the news organization most people in the UK turn to to understand Covid is the BBC, which is required to be neutral (though critics disagree on how neutral it really is). The NYT, meanwhile, seems to be frittering away its trustworthiness. Its journalists seem to think when you play for the right team it doesn't matter so much what rules you follow. In the long run, that will make it harder for them to claim they really are on the right team.
The mainstream media in the Trump era didn't just abandon all notions of objective journalism - it frequently lied, distorted information and generated a climate of hysteria that would have certainly led to the re-election of Trump if not for the covid crisis. Let's look at some examples.
Trump said that there were some "very fine people" among white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, right? How many articles did you read about this? It was probably the most popular news story of 2017 in liberal media. Except he didn't say that, you can check the original transcript of his remarks that are available online. The biggest news story of 2017 was a lie invented by American liberal media. That fact that Trump is racist doesn't mean journalists in top publications should be free to invent stories about him.
Second, we have seen endless commentary about how police in America deliberately kill Black people due to America's history of systematic racism. The claim was not merely that Blacks are killed disproportionately relative to their % in the population; but that police killing of unarmed people are largely a racial issue. This claim is false. Majority of the unarmed people killed by police are white, not black. Moreover, looking at the research literature on this issue, there is no clear evidence that Black people are killed disproportionately in lethal police shootings, once all other relevant factors are considered. The whole debate on this issue and the unbalanced/hysterical manner in which it was held can be seen as a "disinformation campaign" by the American liberal media.
Similarly, let's remember the absurd hysteria surrounding the Trump-Russia collusion story which ran far ahead of the facts. Please look at this article
(I am no fan of Glenn Greenwald these days, but he is right in this article). Finally, many prominent left-wing commentators declared that Trump's victory was illegitimate in 2016. (however bad the candidate who wins is, if he won through a free and fair election, his victory can't be called illegitimate in a democracy). Many even demanded that the electors should not vote for Trump, even though he won elections in those states. NYT thought it fit to publish an article advocating that anti-democratic position.
To say that American media is not objective or fair (on both sides) is saying too little. They play a key role in generating intense social animosity, conflict and polarisation in United States. Such reporting also leads to a breakdown in a "shared sense of reality" that can then be exploited by far-right television channels like Newsmax and others.
Why "one" vs. "both" only? Although I support the thrust of this essay, I have trouble with the terms of engagement. By acquiescing to "oneside vs bothsides" journalists play precisely into the "us and them" narratives of the various actors. Or perhaps this oversimplification of issues is the only way to have "successful" (eyeball or revenue generating) news sources. The truth, for almost any issue, is there are not usually merely two positions to take -- for or against, right or left, etc. In this perspective, part of the problem of even our "better" journalism is that it buys into the "us and them" narratives of contemporary actors. Pro-life vs pro-choice, anti-immigration vs open-borders, Republican vs Democrat (in the US). Granted, the electoral choices we have are often binary (Brexit or not, Trump or Just About Anyone Else), but the viewpoints -- among the politicians, or the pundits, or the people -- are often far more varied and nuanced. So while the gravitations from a bothsidesism to a onesideism is indeed a more in a more illiberal direction, I feel that a better, more honest and accurate response is to emphasize that "bothsides" and "oneside" share the fatal flaw (to our society and well-being) of oversimplifying and undermining the complexities of the issues we face -- and more important perhaps, the complexities of addressing those issues effectively.
I learnt a lot from your article, Lionel Barber -- I think.
Bothsidesism kind of makes sense because otherwise things can go horribly awry -- like Kennedy's "Bay of Pigs" situation where opposing arguments were never in the decision room. I was always an admirer of PBS's Gwen Ifill because so many times she would actually stop the conversation of like minds, and ask "Let's all look at it from the other side".
I recall my school debates back in New Zealand where this UK bit of fun and discipline carried over. It was a toss-up of which side I would land arguing for -- and, half the time of course, It was the opposite of my personal opinion. What happened though was pretty rigorous uncovering of facts, challenges and arguments all round -- that is, for us kids I mean.
The structure is all important -- a bit like democracy really.
I'm going to go all 18th century on you and suggest Reason as a standard. Reason was not conceived as dry rationality or neutral objectivity (by them or the Greeks). It possesed a moral and emotional component. It was the whole person thinking. A good journalist should be a whole person reporting. When the truth is not clearly fact-based, they have to make a value judgment on how they present the material. Knowing Trump is a vicious demagogue should absolutely influence their decision. That's what Edward R. Murrow concluded. Knowing that The Woken are narrow and authoritarian should influence good journalists, as well. Being reasonable means being free of cant from all stringent ideologies. It means being well informed and possesed of a broad humanistic inclination to see the best ideas and individuals prevail.
I think of what the press should be in terms of sports, where you have a play by play announcer paired with a color commentator. The former represents the reporter while the latter represents the editor. Each has a distinct role and the best of them don't cross roles.
I greatly appreciate this article, perhaps because I agree with the premise that we must, no matter what else is involved, simply listen to each other. There is not doubt that many who invaded the capital on January 6th did so because they believed in Trump’ flood of lies about the election, but not all. It’s those people, the ones with a legitimate grievance, that I want to hear from.
Great article. I've been thinking of subscribing to FT lately as it is often included in the News Items substack and seems on the level. Interesting to me that these comment sections always seem to devolve into tribal sniping even when the subject matter of the article discusses transcending tribalism. Oh well, human nature is cracked online I suppose.
I see the problem in a slightly different way. Objectivity, balance and the other journalistic virtues have been overtaken by the dominance of narrative.
That is not entirely new; partisan journalism from ages past has consistently been based on whatever partisan narrative the editors preferred. The way I see it, narrative is the context in which facts -- as well as opinions, biases and leanings about those facts -- are presented.
Facts, themselves, are neutral. Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Joe Biden was elected president in 2020. On January 6th, a riot took place in which supporters of Donald Trump breached the security of the Capitol building while Congress was in session to confirm the results of the 2020 election.
To the extent journalism is more than just that, it is necessarily seeking to place those facts into a larger context. But as those of us who are lawyers know well, you can take one set of agreed upon facts, and the lawyers for two (or more) sides can present them in very different contexts. The criminal trial of OJ Simpson was a landmark in our understanding of how that happens, but it is only one example among many. It happens every day in courtrooms everywhere.
Journalists aspire to doing more than just reporting contextless facts, but could do a better job of understanding how their choice of the context affects which facts will be included, and how. It is not alternative facts that are the problem, but alternative contexts.
In that sense, journalists are too often tempted into the ways of dramatists. Telling stories demands heightening emotion, capturing the interest and attention of the reader/viewer, and, in the end, satisfying the audience. In a world steeped in the dramatic style -- in a way that I've argued in the past is unprecedented in history -- this dramatic style is probably unavoidable. It is a cliche now that editors, readers and viewers of news expect a (hopefully) named individual's story to lead off the reporting of what is said to be a journalistic piece about some larger issue. But the effect of this personal, storytelling style on journalism -- and politics -- is not well understood.
The comparison of many of the protesters inside the Capitol to cosplayers is not incidental. This was a crowd whose emotions had been deliberately manipulated and whipped into frenzy. They were acting out a heroic narrative that had been constructed for them based on the materials in Donald Trump's faulty imagination. The same can be seen on the left; the people who occupied a large section of Seattle last year to create their own faux society were prompted by the same dramatic righteousness about their cause -- and were infected with the same inability to understand a context other than the one they possessed. They were living out a story they had told themselves
Journalism did not create this problem -- or at worst, they have been participants in its development over the last half century. But some attention to its workings can perhaps deepen their understanding of what their job is in the world we now inhabit.
Journalists, like all market makers, can serve a few masters, but must ultimately answer to one God ... the deity of evidentiary veracity. This means completeness as well as accuracy. This simple axiom is sadly honored mostly in its breach by our Hamlet pining press.
The collapse of independent journalism in the US has many root causes (Sullivan v. NYT, failure to enforce competition laws, etc.), but FT and other foreign journalists CAN pick up the slack if they choose.
The first order of business is to discard the false notion they are meant to be vanguards of some movement or another (Europholia or BlueAmerica self congratulation). They should distinguish themselves by their commitment to the higher cause of truth rather than their servile skills to a cause that will discard you once used anyway.
I am curious what media institutions readers here see as most closely embodying this brand of journalism? I want to support the ones doing it best -- both as a form of voting with my dollars and as a way to get better information.
In addition, it seems to me that some of the journalists/writers who have migrated to Substack as of late and other like-minded columnists from across the political spectrum (Persuasion, Dispatch, etc) have an opportunity to form a sort of collective that could crowdsource their factual reporting, not their opinion columns, to make a sort of Daily News and/or Nightly News 30 minute, just-the-facts-please, video/email update. That way, those writers could continue to build their journalism brands individually while pooling some of their resources to back an intentionally multi-perspective editorial board with the goal of this style of reporting. For example, I read the Economist Espresso each morning to try get a quick facts-based digest of the goings-on of the world. Much ink has already been nostalgically spilled looking back to the evening news of CBS, NBC, and ABC when Americans had a relatively common factual fount to pull from. While this is probably too rosy of a view of history and those broadcasts were not without their problems, I guess I am hoping that something similar could be built in its place.
Hopefully with a foundation of liberalism, less of a need to be ad/profits-oriented because of the pooling of resources from subscription models, and a commitment to broad span of bipartisan review of the framing of news content, readers could find a pure news outlet that they could become more comfortable with and we could pull from a more common factual set.
I understand that part of the problem here is that while this might be able to put together a political constellation that encompasses right-wing and left-wing voices, the non-liberal wings of the right and left would likely feel unrepresented. For example, my relatives who believe the election was stolen would probably think the reporting there was inherently biased and not just the factual reporting. Likewise, my friends who think both-sideism is really just preferencing and placating those in power might not feel like this is just-the-facts. As a result, the pooling news body probably wouldn't be able to fix the problem of our political teams living in separate worlds with their own separate facts, but perhaps the attempt to build that coalition is still worth it?
I am probably missing something huge financially here that makes this a non-starter, but listening to Yascha and Jonah Goldberg's podcast along with reading this post makes me think that what those of us committed to little-l liberalism need something like this.
Perhaps we already have these resources (which is why I started this post with my first question about where people get their news from), but I wonder if we need to build a new one that is free from baggage of the past and that no longer uses ad revenue as its largest money-making engine. Interested to hear people's thoughts.
Bravo. Great piece. Much-needed.