On Friday I was walking to the subway station and thinking through an essay that I want to write about objectivity and journalism. After I got to work, I learned that Marty Baron had just written a long piece about the topic (free link) for The Washington Post, where he’s the former executive editor. (He’s also a former editor of The Boston Globe.) It’s actually a speech he recently gave at Brandeis University.
I’ve heard Baron speak about objectivity before, so I wasn’t surprised that he got the nuances exactly right. The issue isn’t whether objectivity is good or bad — rather, it’s how you define it. Here’s the heart of what he had to say:
Objectivity is not neutrality. It is not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. It is not false balance or both-sidesism. It is not giving equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction. It does not suggest that we as journalists should engage in meticulous, thorough research only to surrender to cowardice by failing to report the facts we’ve worked so hard to discover….
The idea is to be open-minded when we begin our research and to do that work as conscientiously as possible. It demands a willingness to listen, an eagerness to learn — and an awareness that there is much for us to know.
We don’t start with the answers. We go seeking them, first with the already formidable challenge of asking the right questions and finally with the arduous task of verification.
I still plan to write my own essay about objectivity. Baron’s speech will be an important part of it.