Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Misunderstanding Journalistic Objectivity

Prof. David Bernstein questions whether the BBC is objective, complaining about a story he heard on BBC radio "a few years ago". His complaint, frankly, suggests that the only way he would find news coverage to be "objective" is if he agreed with everything it aired.

Specifically, Bernstein claims that with "perhaps slight (but only slight) exaggeration, the report" involved a Chinese national asserting that market reform of the healthcare system had everything coming up roses and daffodils, and the reporter asking a series of questions about the possible downside of reform. The Chinese national kept coming back to "Nope, not a problem, sunshine and daffodils." Bernstein's reaction, "Outside the BBC and the Shining Path, who pines for the days of Chinese Maoism". Because, you know, the only possible choices are a market system where "if you can borrow the money, you can save a sick child" and Chinese Maoism.

Let's start with the question of "What is objectivity?" In Britain, much of the mainstream media has a known bias. You want your politics covered with, on the whole, a left-wing slant? Read The Guardian. You want a right-wing slant? Read The Telegraph. You want balance? Read both. It's much more a U.S. phenomenon where every media network that doesn't proudly identify itself as right-wing scrambles to claim "objectivity" while those aligned with the political right sneer that everybody else is biased toward the left.

Bernstein also displays confusion about the British style of reporting. "Oh my goodness", he announces, "The reporter asked follow-up questions that are skeptical of the initial answer! That must mean that the reporter is biased." Because, you know, you always get the full story the first time around. Especially when you're interviewing somebody in a totalitarian state about government policy.

It's easy to imagine a different context in which a lack of skeptical follow-up would have had Bersntein screaming at the radio. Let's say it's the early 1980's, Russian Jews are scrambling to get out of that country, and Bernstein hears an interview of a Jewish Russian who says that things are actually very good in Russia, and he has no idea why anybody else is complaining let alone trying to leave. "How could they take such a statement at face value? Why aren't they at least asking him why so many other people have complaints, or about the known problems in Russia that are inspiring people to leave? Why would they even think that somebody in a country like Russia would go on the radio and risk retaliation from the government by telling the truth?"

But more than that, it's not at all uncommon in my experience for British reporters to use a "But what about..." series of questions to challenge the initial answer they're given, whether they're speaking to a politician, business leader, or random guy on the street. It may not be the approach to which Bernstein is accustomed, but it's actually not a bad way to tease out some extra details about a story that may run contrary to an initial statement. Sure, it sounds skeptical, but it is journalism - and it sure beats the credulity Bernstein seems to expect a reporter to display when confronted with a statement consistent with Bernstein's politics and assumptions, facts be damned.

Man, every couple of years a reporter does her job and makes Prof. Bernstein's head explode? "Get them off the air!"

1 comment:

  1. You're using the wrong measure. If I agree with something, it's objective. If I don't, it's subjective and probably wrong.

    If you're confused in the future about whether or not something is objective, ask me.


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