Virtue Epistemology and Journalistic Objectivity

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Reporters briefing at Guantanamo. License: Public domain, Source: Wikipedia

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of PublishingPublishing Research QuarterlyThe Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of  Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

The journalistic principle of ‘objectivity’ is often presented as at best flawed, and at worst, ideological.  This article outlines the various criticisms, and argues that they stem from a misleadingly reductive view of journalistic objectivity, as a fixed set of ‘action imperatives’ or rules of conduct.  The article goes on to argue that journalistic objectivity should be viewed as a ‘virtue imperative’ that calls for the cultivation of a particular attitude, one that may be illustrated but not exhaustively defined by rules of conduct.  Such a view provides a fresh and promising approach to the common criticisms of journalistic objectivity.  

Journalistic norms of objectivity and impartiality arose in the early 20th Century, when they were formalised in codes of practice such as the ‘canons’ of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).  The ASNE code defines impartiality as “sound practice [which] makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion”, adding that “new reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind” (Allan, 1997: 308).  ‘Impartiality’ is often included in the journalistic concept of ‘objectivity’, which has the added connotation of focusing on incontrovertible, mind-independent and scientifically verifiable facts (Dunlevy, 1998: 120).  In practice, the terms ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ are often used interchangeably by journalists, to refer to notions of balance, fairness, lack of bias, accuracy and neutrality in news production (Dunlevy, 1998: 120).  In this article, ‘objectivity’ will be used as a collective term for these notions, unless otherwise stated. 

Two schools of thought have developed regarding the status of journalistic objectivity.  One which may be called the ‘conservative school’ regards objectivity as a legitimate norm (Berry, 2005; Lichtenberg, 2000), though some members argue that the concept has been mis-applied (Gauthier, 1993), or over-emphasised at the expense of other values such as ‘watchdog journalism’ (Cunningham, 2003).  The other ‘revisionist’ school contends that objectivity is a myth that inhibits critical enquiry and legitimates existing structures of power (Overholser, 2004; Rosen, 1993; Schudson, 1978).  

The conservative-revisionist split stems from a fundamental difference in epistemologies.  Codes of journalistic objectivity emerged in the West at the height of the positivist movement in the Sciences, and such codes reflected the positivist ideals of separation between ‘fact’ and ‘value’, between the ‘objective’ realm of mind-independent reality and the ‘subjective’ domain of preferences, prejudices and emotions (Schudson, 1978: 73-74).  Revisionists tend to accuse conservatives of holding on to an outdated and misleading positivist epistemology.  The argument is summed up by Rosen in the following terms:

…we must consider the intellectual problem of distinguishing something called information from something called opinion, of distinguishing facts from values. Almost the entire history of 20th Century thought in the human sciences has tended to work against these separations.  In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that journalism is the last refuge of objectivity as an epistemology. (1993)

It is argued that the conservative school views reality as constituted by empirically verifiable ‘facts’, and ignores the role of less tangible social phenomena (such as ideologies or political-economic structures) in shaping facts.  The conservative-revisionist divide is illustrated by Lichtenberg’s discussion of differences in British, American and Belgian coverage of elections in Ireland.  Arguing from a conservative perspective, Lichtenberg contends that the issues raised by such differences “go beyond the question of objectivity, but they do not subvert objectivity” because the differences are of interpretation rather than “facts” (2000: 247).  Revisionists would argue that interpretations are constitutive of facts, and under the influence of positivism, Lichtenberg draws too sharp a distinction between the two.

To the revisionist, the primary carrier of meaning is the ‘message’ as a whole, with all its implications and connotations (including what it leaves out), not merely (as the positivist would have it) the empirically verifiable elements of the message.  The revisionist regards the positivist fact/value, denotation/connotation and objective/subjective divisions as at best highly misleading and at worse, ideological.  Such divisions may be viewed as ideological because they support a façade of ‘objective truth’ made up of empirically verifiable facts, while concealing the manipulation of facts or the shaping of concepts to convey certain connotations and promote certain ‘values’, at the expense of other equally valid perspectives.

‘Objectivity’ is deemed ideological because in seeking out ‘verifiable’ facts and ‘reliable’ sources, journalism ends up favouring the powerful and privileged, who have the material, intellectual and cultural capital to legitimate their views as ‘reality’ or ‘mainstream’ and thereby protect newsmen from charges of bias (Lichtenberg, 2000: 239-240; Rosen, 2005; Tuchman, 1972: 676).  On the other hand, journalists’ attempts at ‘balance’ may lead them to give equal coverage to opposing views, even if it means giving undue prominence to a fringe minority at the expense of the broad middle ground, or neglecting to analyse the ambiguities that lie between the extremes (Lichtenberg, 2000: 251; Rosen, 1993).  For example, it may be argued that attempts by journalists at ‘impartial’ coverage of the War on Terror neglects the complex issues of Middle East politics, in favour of an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy that misleads more than it informs.  Revisionists would argue that journalists should look beyond the ‘facts’ to the message, and consider if it perpetuates a stereotype or retards social, economic or political progress.  Rosen (2000) argues that journalists should promote democracy rather than objectivity, while Overholser (2004) contends that journalists should jettison objectivity in favour of transparency and accountability. 

Conservatives would reply that journalistic objectivity does not rule out reflexive and critical reporting, as equally important aspects of good journalism.  Though a conservative, Lichtenberg agrees with revisionists that “we should not underestimate the significance of [the] ‘meaning construction’ function of the mass media” (2000: 247).  However, conservatives would argue that values and facts are mutually constitutive, that “disagreement about…matters of ‘interpretation’ will in turn depend partly on…facts” (Lichtenberg, 2000: 247).  Without the presumption of an accessible objective reality, interpretive disagreements would be irresoluble through rational dialogue alone. 

Parties to such disagreements could only resolve their differences by arational means such as the direct or subtle use of force.  Revisionism would be a slippery slope towards a radical relativism that undermines the value of journalism itself, other than as a tool of ‘epistemic violence’ (Foucault 1980).  Conservatives would argue that principles of objectivity create a valuable space for rational dialogue, offering opportunities for the non-coercive and democratic resolution of differences.  Objectivity does not demand neutrality between opposing views, if one view has the preponderance of reason and evidence behind it (Lichtenberg, 2000: 243-242, 251).  Principles of journalistic objectivity can play an important role in sustaining progress towards the kind of democratic and transparent ‘public sphere’ that revisionists claim to be seeking, while a ‘free market of ideas’ that neglects objectivity may retard such progress. 

Habermas (1989) conceived of the public sphere as a space between the state, with its top-down apparatus of control and domination, and the private sphere of individuals pursuing their narrow social and economic interests.  The public sphere consists of arenas for political debate among ordinary citizens, such as associations and clubs, as well as the media that contribute to these debates, such as newspapers and magazines.  The public sphere distills the private interests of citizens into expressions of ‘public opinion’ which tend to oppose the authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies of the state, thereby helping to protect and enhance democratic freedoms.  Habermas argues that since the late 19th century, there has been a ‘refeudalisation’ of the public sphere as it came to be increasingly dominated by powerful state and corporate interests, to the detriment of democratic citizen participation. 

It may be argued that values of journalistic objectivity help to mitigate the effects of refeudalisation, because such values preserve the editorial freedom of journalists against the increasing concentration of media ownership, provided  such values are shared by readers and contributors. Having said that, the ‘public sphere’ argument for journalistic objectivity raises difficulties as soon as its practical aspects are considered.  Habermas has been criticised for idealising the public sphere as a forum for free and democratic discussion, when it has always been a domain of competing interests in which many voices were marginalised (Kellner, 2004: 7).  Media consumption tends to be politically polarised, contrary to the potrayal of the public sphere as a forum for informed and balanced debate.  An American audience survey in 2004 found that “Republicans have become more distrustful of virtually all major media outlets over the past four years”, with the exception of right-wing outlets such as Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh radio show, which attract rising Republican audiences (Pew, 2004: 1). 

Some may contend that in a ‘public sphere’ of competing interests and partisan audiences, objectivity is an over-rated virtue.  Given the divisions in the public sphere, who will enforce the rules of objectivity, and whose rules will prevail?  Revisionists are mainly concerned about the subtle framing of news, a practice that easily bypasses (and may subvert) any attempt at enforcing objectivity.  For example, Martin Gilens (1999) observes that 62% of pictures of the poor in American news magazines and 65% on American television news are of African-Americans, although they make up only 29% of the American poor.  His findings demonstrate how systematic bias, reinforced by institutional racism, can pervade the mass media.  It is difficult to envisage how such biases could be filtered out by any code of journalistic objectivity, and how the interpretation of such codes could itself be free from charges of bias. 

Conservatives would reply that there can never be an exhaustive code of journalistic objectivity that ‘interprets itself’, but the content and interpretation of such codes are themselves subject to negotiation and debate within the public sphere.  Accusations of ‘bias’ presuppose standards of objectivity.  Ideals of objectivity, however vaguely understood, are important touchstones for guiding democratic decision-making.  Vague concepts are not always devoid of meaning or utility (Wittgenstein, 1968), and it is often easier to build consensus around a vague principle than a precise one.  It may be argued that the unattainability (or even impossibility) of a ‘perfectly objective’ point of view does not rule out the desirability of principles of journalistic objectivity.  ‘Perfect democracy’ is a tenuous concept and a practically unattainable goal, but democratic principles play a key role in guiding political discourse and processes.  

Some recent work in ethics may help to demonstrate how vague ideals can play a concrete and instrumental role in regulating public life.  The ‘virtue ethics’ approach argues that detailed codes of conduct can often be distilled into relatively vague ‘virtue imperatives’.  A virtue imperative calls for the exercise of broad character traits (virtues), rather than the performance of specific acts (Athanassoulis, 2004; Hursthouse, 2003).  ‘Objectivity’ can be understood as a virtue imperative that calls for the exercise of virtues such as intellectual courage, thoroughness, reflexivity, critical thinking and fairmindedness (Baehr, 2004). 

The main advantage of a virtue ethics approach is that it side-steps the debate on the political or epistemic value of objectivity, by arguing that journalistic objectivity is primarily an extension of everyday morality.  Like everyone else, journalists are expected to exercise objectivity by default.  Objectivity can only be suspended in limited circumstances that are clearly marked out, such as works of fiction or art.  Otherwise, individuals could exempt themselves at will from the demands of objectivity, undermining it as a social norm.  Virtue ethics is less concerned with whether the journalist has faithfully reproduced an external reality, than whether he or she has exercised objectivity as a character trait.  As a result, a virtue ethics perspective allows for a wide range of mutually conflicting but equally ‘objective’ (qua virtue) voices in the media.

From a virtue ethics perspective, the various failings of ‘objectivity’ cited by revisionists (such as the hollowness of strategic rituals, the tendency to legitimate the status quo, and distortions caused by attempts at ‘balanced reporting’) stem from a reductive view of objectivity, as a fixed set of procedures rather than a virtue imperative.  It may be argued that revisionists are not attacking objectivity at all, but a pervasive stereotype of objectivity that is really the opposite of the virtue.  A further advantage of the virtue ethics approach is that it allows conservatives to defend objectivity without defending positivism. 

Virtue-based epistemology is able to accommodate the revisionist argument that reality is (at least to some extent) socially constructed.  However, virtue epistemologists would argue that the social construction of reality is not an arbitrary process, but is governed by virtue imperatives such as objectivity (Baehr, 2004).  The exercise of virtues such as objectivity tends to produce consensus among practitioners, while vices such as pride, impatience, arrogance and carelessness contribute to disagreement.  Virtue theorists would agree with revisionists that objectivity (like any virtue) cannot be exhaustively defined or enforced through codes of conduct.  Virtues are mainly fostered through mentoring and practice, and indirectly through the creation of conditions in which they can flourish (Athanassoulis, 2004). 

The virtue ethics perspective shifts the emphasis away from top-down regulation of journalistic objectivity (with the attendant problems of bias) towards a broader approach that includes familiarising journalism students with the ideals of objectivity through examples and case studies, fostering diversity in media ownership and access, and legislating to curb the worse abuses such as hidden advertising.  Disagreements are bound to arise on what constitutes objective reporting in particular cases, but the virtue ethicist would argue that such disagreements are best settled by referring to broad virtues and vices than to a rigid formula which cannot capture the full sense of ‘objectivity’, and is itself open to dispute. 

The virtue-based approach to journalistic ethics is in early stages of development, but already has its detractors.  Christians, Ferre and Fackler (1993) argue that virtue ethics places too much emphasis on agency, and ignores the structural constraints on journalists.  They point out that “institutions and systemic structures reduce the choices of virtuous people and therefore limit their impact” (1993: 79).  The same criticism is made by Levy (2004), in the light of psychological findings that structural factors rather than ‘character traits’ explain much of the difference in ethical behaviour between individuals.  However, these are criticisms of virtue ethics as a theory of moral motivation, rather than as a way of operationalising moral concepts like ‘objectivity’. 

A virtue ethics approach need not rule out an essential role for structural factors in shaping and sustaining character traits, but would argue that institutional constraints cannot be identified, negotiated and criticised without recourse to the moral vocabulary of virtue imperatives.  For example, institutional structures are often criticised as ‘tempting vice’ or having a ‘corrupting effect on character’.  Institutional reform is often successfully carried out through the replacement of key individuals within the institution, a method that recognises the symbiotic relationship between structure and agency.  Virtue ethics strikes a realistic balance between structural and institutional factors on the one hand and individual autonomy and responsibility on the other.  Virtue ethics can inform critiques of the institutions and structures that limit objectivity by suppressing autonomous virtue-based reasoning in favour of rigid rules of conduct. 

Re-framing objectivity as a virtue imperative allows journalists to go beyond strategic rituals and simplistic notions of ‘balance’, without falling into either skeptical relativism or rigid dogmatism.  By presenting journalistic objectivity as an extension of everyday morality, virtue ethics counters the view that the principle is merely a ‘professional’ norm and therefore not a moral issue.  Although the implications of the virtue-based approach for journalistic ethics are yet to be fully explored, it represents a potentially fruitful departure from the standard arguments in the conservative-revisionist debate on journalistic objectivity. 

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