Tom Rosenstiel Profile picture
Jun 24, 2020 22 tweets 4 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
1... I’m not avid on Twitter, but at others’ urging I want to offer a thread in response to @WesleyLowery’s powerful essay in the @nytimes on objectivity, which I liked. But the call for “moral clarity” I believe could use more clarity... Please be patient. This is 1 of 22.
2... When the concept of objectivity migrated to journalism in the ‘20s, it was not intended to suggest journalists were without bias. Actually it was just the opposite... 2 of 22
3... The idea migrated from the sciences to journalism as a sophisticated response to the discovery of unconscious bias in reporting (in particular of Russia)... 3 of 22
4... The idea was that journalists needed to employ objective, observable, repeatable methods of verification in their reporting--precisely because they could never be personally objective. Their methods of reporting had to be objective because they never could be... 4 of 22
5...That meaning is so misunderstood by journalists it has almost been turned on its head. That is a residue of many sins, the field’s stubborn anti-intellectualism and resistance to theory and a journalism education system built too much around the apprenticeship model. 5 of 22
6... To understand objectivity’s true meaning, think of transparency of method and discipline of verification. Objectivity is not neutrality or disinterestedness. Those notions invite unconscious bias--the very problem the objective method or process was meant to combat. 6 of 22
7 ... Lippman talked about “a more scientific spirit” in journalism. Bylines and datelines were early examples of objectivity. Objectivity replaced “realism” as the dominant concept, which was if you made it seem real people would believe it. It invited pure fiction. 7 of 22
8...This notion of objectivity never was meant to simplistic as balance, or “he said he said” reporting. Journalism was always aimed at truth--not mere accuracy. The Hutchins Commission 1947 warned against accounts that were “factually accurate but substantially untrue.” 8 of 22
9...It cited stories that failed to cover minority communities by failing lacking context, noting race gratuitously and reinforcing stereotypes. “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” 70 years ago. 9 of 22
10... For generations the best journalists like David Halberstam, Homer Bigart, George Orwell and many more were warning about the difference between political stenography and journalism and the risk of being a mouthpiece for establishment authorities. 10 of 22
11... Passionate independent inquiry does not mean mindlessly giving both sides equal treatment, thinking there are just two sides to a story, or using balance as an excuse for not doing the work of finding the truth. 11 of 22
12...Far from denying personal background, this kind of inquiry recognizes that people’s background always enriches their journalism, be it WASP or Buddhist, White, Black, Jew, Latina or Latino, male or female. This is the way to recognize bias and avoid unconscious slant...
13... There can be no default culture in journalism. That is a terrible, alienating, unconscious bias. 13 of 22
14... These ideas have thrived and battled in journalism for as long as journalists have tried to rise above mere partisanship. 14 of 22
15. I loved Wes' essay and thanks for the mention of the book Elements, where Bill Kovach and I make these points. But I fear a new misunderstanding is taking root in newsrooms today, one could destroy the already weakened system of journalism on which democracy depends. 15 of 22
16... That misunderstanding is the idea that if we adopt subjectivity to replace a misunderstood concept of objectivity, we will have magically arrived at truth--that anything I am passionate about and believe deeply is a kind of real truth. 16 of 22
17... Wes suggested the term moral clarity as a guiding principle. If that invites people to think that simply opining is some kind of truer or more moral form of reporting, they would be wrong and the effect would be tragic. 17 of 22
18... If journalists replace a flawed understanding of objectivity by taking refuge in subjectivity and think their opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry, journalism will be lost. 18 of 22
19. Point of view journalism is the highest form of work. But as one alternative newspaper editor put it long ago, no reporter should assume a point of view until they have tried to understand all the other points of view. And let those advocates to make their best case. 19 of 22
20 ... If we reduce objectivity to a stereotype and a strawman--and abandon the aspiration of deeply reported open minded inquiry--then the points of view we arrive at as journalists will be shallow and unhelpful and just another form of advocacy. 20 of 22
21. If we mistake subjectivity for truth, we will have wounded an already weakened profession at a critical time. If we lose the ability to understand other points of view we will have allowed our passions to overwhelm the purpose democratic society requires of its press 21 of 22
22... I don’t believe this was Wes’ intention. But if his fine essay is not clearly understood, it could be an unintended effect. - 30 -

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