Examining the failings of the classic definition of objectivity and what we can do instead.
The definition of objectivity is slightly different depending on its context. In philosophy, it is truth that is separate from an individual’s subjectivity, while in science, it refers to judging impartially. In all definitions, there is an emphasis on removing ourselves from the resulting product. But humans aren’t truly objective, because we always bring all of ourselves into every situation. This includes the best of us and the worst of us. All of the implicit and explicit biases that our society has ingrained in us from the moment we were born. There are always going to be perspectives that I don’t fully understand, because I don’t have to experience them myself.
So often objectivity is lauded as the best way to present information; like as a journalistic code that values neutrality and truth. But, anyone can use data and present it in a way that supports their argument, and journalists often don’t have the time to understand an issue fully enough to distinguish these different interpretations, so “objectivity” dictates they give equal attention to contrasting viewpoints that are not equally supported by scientific knowledge.
Objectivity is also, more often than not, not impartial. In “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” Lowery discusses how journalism’s neutral “objectivity” is mostly from the perspective of white editors and writers. It’s most decidedly not neutral and presents an incomplete picture of events in an effort not to offend their white audience. Oppressed groups see the world in a different way, which allows them access to knowledge the dominant perspective doesn’t have.
But there are other ways to interpret objectivity to try and make up for these flaws. Environmental journalism has been using an alternative approach to objectivity for decades. As Fahy describes, there are three aspects to it: weight-of-evidence reporting, trained judgement, and the use of a transparent method. Weight-of-evidence reporting communicates where the majority of scientific evidence and expert opinion lies on an issue, instead of giving equal attention to a value that isn’t truly equal. Trained judgement is the idea that journalists should “develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening.” Controversial science topics won’t be resolved by the application of more facts. Information overload is actually a big problem in the spread of false information on social media, and people’s beliefs and preferred stories are attached to these issues. These values should be reported in order for them to be explored in public debate. A transparent method involves being candid about how the information was obtained and analyzed, as well as the motivations of their sources. This transparency is similar to the concept of strong objectivity in standpoint theory. Strong objectivity is characterized by “demand[ing] that a knowledge claim be defended along with its biases, rather than apart from them.” If we present our biases in our work, we can encourage the development of critical thinking among the audience, and give readers a chance to form their own opinions.