Objectivity as a method, not a result

In an e-mail to Poynter’s Online-News list, Philip Meyer alerts us this post on objectivity in journalism.

Meyer makes the valid points:

  • In the pre-digital age, information was scarce, so reporters were fact gathers and objectivity was based on “getting both sides.” This is an attempt to make objectivity a result, not a process.
  • Today, information is abundant and easy to get, so what we need are subject matter experts who can distill information and provide an informed, objective analysis of the facts. This is a methodology, like science.


In the age of the Internet, mere transmission no longer adds value to information. The way to add value to the surplus of data is to process it to help the reader select it and make sense of it. That requires interpretation, and interpretation requires objectivity in the scientific sense. I call this objectivity of method as opposed to the he-said/she-said objectivity of result. In other words, journalists should act more like scientists: collect information, look for patterns, construct a theory, and then provide an objective test of the theory. Objectivity in this sense means asking a question of the data in a way that will protect you from being fooled by the answer.

Journalism, like science, is tentative in its conclusions. It should be as transparent as science, leaving a paper trail of data that other investigators can retrace and arrive at the same or better conclusions.

To me, it’s clear that journalism needs to evolve rapidly into a profession that values subject matter expertise over generalization. The real value a journalist can deliver to a reader is being fully immersed in the subjects he or she writes about, and that isn’t something the average beat reporter really does. If you’re a crime reporter, for example, you should really be an expert in police practices and procedures and relevant law, theory and application. If you cover city hall, you should know everything there is to know about municipal governance. And rather than cozy up to sources to get stories, possess the expertise to get behind the story so that sources diss you at their own peril (general beat reporters tend to overly rely on getting along with sources, which tends to warp their ability to remain detached from the subject matter).

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