The Frontal Cortex

The Pretense of Journalistic Objectivity

It’s Michael Kinsley day here at the Frontal Cortex. Over at the Guardian, Kinsley has another stupendous piece lamenting the sharp division that American newspapers (especially the NY Times) try to draw between fact and opinion.

According to a column by its “public editor” (aka ombudsman, or official busybody), the New York Times has been asking itself whether it does enough to distinguish between fact and opinion in its pages. A “newsroom committee on credibility” looked into the matter and decided that what was needed was a “news/opinion divide committee”. The nine lucky editors on this committee “worked for months” to come up with a new system for helping Times readers who can’t figure out that “President Bush flew to Texas yesterday” is a fact, whereas “President Bush is a bozo” is an opinion.

Of course, from the perspective of neuroscience, Kinsely is exactly right. It’s neurologically ludicrous to believe that the human mind can exercise perfectly objective judgment, or analyze information free from bias. Our subjective emotions distort every iota of information that enters our head.

That said, I still think the sharp division of fact and opinion should be preserved at newspapers, if only as an act of aspiration. Journalistic objectivity might be impossible, but it’s still a laudable goal. If we stop trying to describe the world as-it-is (and not as we want it to be), then what’s to keep us all from becoming Bill O’Reilly’s?

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    September 29, 2006

    I remember listening to Howie Carr on the radio. I only listen because the sheer idiocy of both him and his callers is entertaining on a level that couldn’t be achieved by even the most talented comedian.

    Anyway, when listening to him one day during his many bashing sessions aimed at the Boston Globe, one of his callers suggested that the paper “stop putting the editorials on the front page” to revive circulation (ignoring the fact that newspapers are losing circulation across the board, not just the more liberal-leaning ones). It’s amazing. He is essentially complaining that the Boston Globe (and the NYT and others) aren’t simply recycling the conservative zietgeist daily and are sometimes reporting inconvenient facts.

    A perfect illustration of what you’re talking about. As a side note I’m ashamed to be from the same state and city in which Howie Carr was born (Portland, ME).

  2. #2 paul
    September 29, 2006

    Simply trying to maintain the division between fact and opinion isn’t suitable for newspapers in any case. It’s a fact that millions of people in the US, some of them in positions of wealth, power and/or public trust believe that a supernatural entity, typically modeled as a white man in beard and robe with an august expression on his face, created the heaven and the earth and all that is therein roughly 6,000 years ago. It’s also a fact that tens of thousands of scientists, who have had the training and education to evaluate such claims about the natural world, say that the first group of people is (insofar as the empirically discoverable universe goes) spouting a load of baloney. If I simply report the first fact, with lots of supporting quotes, I doubt anyone would call me an objective reporter.