Is it possible? If not, what should the standard be?
Journalism 101 instructs students to follow the facts, subjugate your bias and preconceived notions and save opinions for the editorial page. That’s what I was taught more than 50 years ago.
I always wondered, particularly as the editor of the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer, if I were really being objective when selecting lead stories for the front page and writing headlines. I wondered if I were fooling myself. When I developed and cultivated sources, did I select people with whom I felt socially and intellectually comfortable?
My most memorable story was coverage and commentary about political shenanigans on Kent Island by an experienced politician and local merchant who offered booze to folks waiting in line to vote. A long, quaint tradition, so I understood.
Raised in a political household by a mother who hallowed honesty in an uncompromising way, I despised political chicanery, especially when it affected voting.
Tainted voting was a sacrilege to me. Some may find this laughable in light of the massive amount of money raised and spent these days by candidates and PACs to affect the outcome through positive and negative advertising and sophisticated attempts to promote as well as suppress the vote.
Looking back, I am certain I did the right thing. The county official was furious with me. So what, if he offered booze to folks seeking distraction while waiting in line to vote? No big deal, just business as usual. He lost the election, if I recall correctly.
Clearly, I was swayed by my upbringing, my aversion to blatantly illegal election behavior. I couldn’t look the other way and dismiss the behavior as nothing consequential. It bothered my belief system.
My point is obvious. We can’t be objective, even if we’re right about rule-breaking. But suppose we were wrong and simply being self-righteous, imposing our high-minded views on others?
Journalists need to be careful about including their personal viewpoints in news stories. Maybe it’s unavoidable.
To take a more current, fraught tack, I believe that media coverage of African-American issues and challenges has been skewed by white reporters and editors. I now question if many years of coverage by well-intended, highly motivated white journalists has really been objective.
Raised in white enclaves, often in privileged circumstances, white journalists generally lack any reference points for adequate coverage of black neighborhoods, black schools, black churches, black poverty, black values and black grievances. They don’t understand another culture, one that might feel bitter about longtime racism, subtle and overt.
I seem to be suggesting that only black reporters report on black topics. I am not. What I’m suggesting is that newsrooms, including reporters, editors and editorial boards, must contain a greater number of African-American faces and voices to produce credible news coverage.
Decisions about what to cover and how and placement of these stories in the daily news lineup should be more diverse and more sensitive. In fact, they have to be.
If objectivity is impossible due to the human condition, even with an understandable obsession with facts, then another standard must govern the media. Some recommend that truth be the guide, that euphemisms and political correctness be consigned to the trash bin.
In some instances, objectivity–telling two sides of a controversy–might be considered unproductive. If the subjects are racism, police brutality, sexual assault and harassment, gender discrimination, economic inequality, ineffective education and other hot buttons, then the media should simply call it out without context.
I could not abide this approach. Yes, the editorial pages should be opinionated with a large dosage of reason. But, the media’s effort to offer differing points of view cannot cease.
Fairness and accuracy are acceptable standards.
Some may view objectivity dated and no longer applicable. I call upon readers to understand that this desirable standard is often unfeasible. However, readers have a right to expect balance, if possible, and inclusion of all voices and backgrounds.
And the unvarnished truth if attainable. Fairness, though, must rank first.
What I’m proposing is balanced coverage, including tough-minded, principled analysis identified as such—while avoiding inflammatory and bigoted language.
Fairness is essential in my view of the world; if that means a two-sided approach practiced well and sometimes boringly by PBS, so be it. It’s informative and thorough. It requires listeners seeking clarity.
A column about journalistic objectivity begs a degree of hubris. Injection of my own world view, developed through experience and familial values, colors my slant.
My default is balance, seasoned by fairness.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.