Objective reporting and science

The Reveres consider themselves progressives (check the masthead), a word used for people who believe government has a role to play to make the world better, but also tend to be social libertarians. Many scientists and doctors are progressive in that sense. But it's a mighty big tent, and apparently covers some folks whose politics I agree with on many issues but can still be very far from what progressives also call the "reality based community." Very far. Far, as in "they can't see it from where they are."


Atlanta Progressive News has parted ways with long-serving senior staff writer Jonathan Springston. Apparently, Springston’s affinity for fact-based reporting clashed with Cardinale’s vision.


In an e-mail statement, editor Matthew Cardinale says Springston was asked to leave APN last week “because he held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News.” (Creative Loafing Blog)

While at first blush this sounds ludicrous, it is more serious than might appear. In the science studies area there have long been warring camps between scholars whose main emphasis is on the role that social ideas play in constructing scientific ideas and the more empirically oriented science community. The Reveres are not in the social-construction-of-reality school because, like most scientists, we adhere to a naive realism: we believe there is a real world out there; it exists independently of our perceptions or ideas of it; and science is one of the ways we gain some idea or knowledge of that world. But we do acknowledge that real science is public and intersubjective and as such has a social component. All science is social in that sense. The history of science is replete with examples of how social, political and ideological notions permeated scientific ideas and theories. But science is also about understanding a real world and has some claims to relating it as it is, not just as scientists or politicians or corporation presidents or workers or the homeless have decided to perceive it for their own purposes.

To their credit the Editors didn't deny the essential "facts" of the story, if we may be so ironic. Here is part of their statement:

At a very fundamental, core level, Springston did not share our vision for a news publication with a progressive perspective. He held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News. It just wasn’t the right fit.


We believe there is no such thing as objective news. Typically, mainstream media presents itself as objective but is actually skewed towards promoting the corporate agenda of the ultra-wealthy.

APN, on the other hand, does not pretend to be objective. We believe that our news coverage is fair and that our progressive principles are fair. We aim when possible to give voice to all sides, but aim to provide something different than what is already provided by corporate sources.”

It is a forthright and honest statement of conviction, but one we can't share, even as we share APN's desire for a country with "universal health care, living wages, affordable housing, peace, a healthy environment, and voting systems we can trust." APN's charges against the mainstream media are accurate. There is ample evidence the MSM is heavily influenced by corporate interests and have a long and dismal history of shaping the news to suit their paymasters. We don't see the solution, however, as shaping the news to shape another interest, even if that interest is our own. It is our belief that everyone's interest is best served, in the long run, by representing and recounting events in the real world -- a world we believe exists independently of us and which we can know -- in as accurate and faithful fashion as humanly possible. That can be difficult and any effort to do so is certainly fallible.

But if APN's claim there is no such thing as objective reporting is true -- and we aren't even sure what it would mean for something to be "true" in their world -- then there is no such thing as science, either.


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It is our belief that everyone's interest is best served, in the long run, by representing and recounting events in the real world -- a world we believe exists independently of us and which we can know -- in as accurate and faithful fashion as humanly possible.

Which "events in the real world"? All of them? Yes, there is a real world out there, but no, it is not possible to describe it perfectly objectively, because there is far too much of it. You have to decide which bits of it are worth paying attention to, and that is never an objective decision.

Dunc: Of course. What you say (almost) goes without saying. And there are deep issues involved with seemingly simple questions like the status of propositions, etc. We don't mean to gloss over those difficulties. Neither do we intend to take them as excuses to say whatever we think is good for "our side."

Neither do we intend to take them as excuses to say whatever we think is good for "our side."

Is that actually what they're saying though? Or are they just saying "we must recognise that we are not unbiased, and in fact we don't intend to try to be, or pretend to be"? It's not at all clear to me (and I suspect it's impossible to know without understanding a good deal more about the internal politics) that "Springstonâs affinity for fact-based reporting clashed with Cardinaleâs vision" is an accurate summation of the underlying issue. Surely if APN was reporting things that were actually counter-factual, some examples would have been citied?

Dunc: Your points are valid. I don't know the answer. But I have been around long enough to have seen many people with politics I agree with be seduced by the idea that there is no possibility of being perfectly objective slide to the idea there is no need to try to be objective or that trying to be objective doesn't matter or worse, is bad. For a scientist trying to be objective does matter. Then there is the problem that if you don't believe in objective reporting, how could there be counterfactual reporting? That's why I don't consider APN's position to be ludicrous but a fairly deep yet still problematic one. APN is right in their observations about the MSM, but have drawn the wrong lesson from it, in our opinion.

Then there is the problem that if you don't believe in objective reporting, how could there be counterfactual reporting?

Report a biased selection of true facts is entirely different from reporting "facts" which are unequivocally false. No matter what your views on the possibility of objectivity, black is not white and up is not down. There's a big difference between bias and lying.

There is a perfectly valid argument that one should not deliberately court bias, and I'd be very strongly inclined to agree. But saying someone got canned because they declined to embrace a particular bias in the selection and reporting of the facts is very different from saying they got canned simply for reporting the facts.

Whether there is a âworld out thereâ that exists independently of our social discourse depends on what one takes as an exemplar of independence. If you take the periodic table of the elements as your pattern, you are describing substances that existed before there was anyone to discuss them, and you also have a certain completeness of your description. There are no elements in between carbon and nitrogen, for example. The categories are there to be discovered, and are not created by the act of description. And while it is true that there is much too much of the real world to describe objectively, it is overwhelmingly likely that all of the naturally occurring elements are already in the periodic table, and that their catalogue is complete.

But if you are discussing race, there is a very great dependence on the social description and the construction of the categories. There are some realities that exist independently of their social descriptions; for example, the distribution of the genes for sickle cell and for cystic fibrosis are strongly correlated with skin color. These differences can lead to the difference between a live kid and a dead kid; those differences are pretty robust to social construction. But a host of other descriptors are heavily conditioned by the social discourse that shapes the descriptions.

So, before I agree that science describes an objectively existing world that does not depend on our descriptions of it, I need to know if the subject under discussion is more analogous to the periodic table than to race. I suspect that examples of the latter outnumber examples of the former. But each example needs to be looked at separately on a case-by-case basis.

By Ed Whitney (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

By his wording disdaining 'objective reporting/reality' Mr Cardinale has now opened his Atlanta Progressive News to attack; anybody disagreeing with APN's reporting will now be able to point to this, and be able to dismiss their reporting as obviously biased (without need to address any points actually reported) Apart from being wrong, this also diminishes APN's impact.--
The reality as I see it is bad enough, and supportive of progressive views enough, so actual 'objective' reporting of it is most likely lead to progressive perspectives ('Reality has a liberal bias'), so there is no need to visibly bias one's reporting.--
Note how much care the MSM take to correct insignificant errors, so they can claim to be 'objective' [or 'fair and balanced'](and to better hide significant errors, including choice of items reported on).

Doug: I have read it (in fact I have a first edition) and I know Noam personally, so while I never asked him the direct question I don't think he would disagree with the essence of what I said. There is no question that the MSM have been part of what Althusser would call the Ideological State Apparatus. That's not the issue. The issue is the very possibility of knowing something (and by what method) about the world around us in a way that doesn't just depend upon you/us or our interests. If you deny that is possible, then science isn't possible either, or at least it is a far different exercise than most of us think we are engaged in (always possible, of course, but then that opinion itself is corrigible). If saying that objective news is not possible is something different, than tell me how it is different.

So they want universal healthcare but they don't care if it exists in objective reality? They just want to report that it exists.

By antipodean (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

News, or what we tend to call "the news," is properly a reportage of events that have actually taken place. Really, actually, objectively have taken place. If reportage does not concern things that satisfy the condition of being real, actual and objective, it is not news, merely gossip. Ergo entertainment. For those who are so easily amused.

By Cronkite and Sevareid, 'struth! Call me a fossil if you will but no other approach works for me.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

As Mark Twain said, those who don't read the news are uninformed, those who do are misinformed. There has never been objective reporting since the invention of the printing press. You must question everything.

Much of the news that is reported is of course stuff that has taken place. However, the anlaysis part goes beyond reporting on what has taken place, but of explaining the cause and effect, impact, magnitude, etc. It is here that the reporting can be biased to present it in a way consistent with the news agencies ideology (corporate or progressive, both of which are controlled by elitists via ownership, donations or sponsorship).

Unfortunately, most folks tend to read or watch only news that is presented in a way that fits their own beliefs about reality. The echo chamber if you will. Those who don't look at both sides (actually all 4 sides, top and bottom being outside the mainstream) and make up their own mind about what is going on, live in a reality based more on illusion and propaganda than fact.

The real world is a far more fascinating place than that presented by CNN and Fox and the major MSM newspapers and blogs, but it is not for the faint hearted. Best to stay in that world where high level conspiracies don't exist, and things are presented as black and white, with good vs evil. In this world the good guys keep us safe and sound, and spread justice and liberty around the globe. In this illusive version of reality, I call it the CIA version, every man-made adverse event is due to Coincidence Incompetence and Accident.

Also, much news from overseas by the international news agencies is from reporters who are recruited by intelligence agencies and much of it is just psyops, especially those reporting on civil disturbances in countries where relations with the good guys are strained.

Cronkite and the news reporting from the networks in the 50's-70's was heavily influenced by Operation Mockingbird. Supposedly, Congress forced the end of the operation in the 70's, but if you believe that, well, whatever.

Some argue that the media was critical of government policies (Vietnam war, Watergate), hence it was not controlled. However, most folks don't recgnize that the period from 1963-1974 there was a revolution fought among our elite for control of the country, and it was in their interest to destabilize the country during the process, and the media performed it's role very well. Nixon was a human sacrifice to restore the credibility of media and government, and to show the system of checks and balances works. The revolution was over, it was time to restore trust.

BTW, the good guys lost, and the deindustrialization of this country at the behest of the Trilaterals began, in order to facilitate globalization. Since then, real living standards have dropped for the majority in the US and Europe (and improved in Asia). It is only the hedonistic manipulations of the economic indicators (such as CPI) by the BLS that allows the media to present a reality that is more illusion than fact.

@Revere: You know Chomsky PERSONALLY? WOW! How come? Oh and btw, Chomsky and Hermann have sent out a second ed. of Manufacturing Consent in 2002. That's the one I have. I don't know if much was added though. Getting back to the subject, I disagree with you here. I do not believe there can ever be objective reporting in the news. I also believe that "objective reporting" should not be attempted for another reason: I don't see a point in trying to reach something which cannot be reached. Instead, I propose that every news producer reveal it's biases before presenting anything. While all viewpoints news consumers will have to chose from will be biased (as is already the case), they will already know the biases of each and will never watch the news passively, simply absorbing information without thinking critically.

"The issue is the very possibility of knowing something (and by what method) about the world around us in a way that doesn't just depend upon you/us or our interests"--so this issue is about whether there is anything "out there" "independent of us" to know? And how would this situation differ from the case where this not an independent anything "out there," and how are we to (know this and/or to) tell these apart? I mean, it's not just Chomsky to be checked with, it's Ludwig himself.

"The issue is the very possibility of knowing something (and by what method) about the world around us in a way that doesn't just depend upon you/us or our interests. If you deny that is possible, then science isn't possible either...."

The only requirement for the "possibility" of science is the preservation of appearances. And the thing about appearances it that it's nearly impossible *not* to preserve them.

Even if these guys were denying ontology wholesale--which they're not, as plural minds are essential to the game, and by induction all the players wind up having to be "objectively real" to avoid hurt feelings--it wouldn't compromise scientific empiricism.

Otto: You make the solution to this puzzle sound trivial. It is not. It remains a puzzle. As for "scientific empiricism," you are hauling out a very large kettle of fish. Surely you know how much effort has been expended untying that knot. Regardless, I can tell you that after many decades as a scientist, the attitude of scientists to social constructionism is almost uniformly unfriendly. That doesn't make them right. It says something about scientists and social constructionists, however. I think the philosophers with the most sympathetic and reasonable positions on this question are Ian Hacking and Susan Haack, if you want my reference points.

"...the attitude of scientists to social constructionism is almost uniformly unfriendly."

That is because most scientists do not think that nature is a text.

By Ed Whitney (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

To the extent that the existence of "objective reality" is at issue, I think the response is indeed trivial. What would change in the limiting case in which "it's all in your head," say, monist idealism? It's an easy enough experiment. Phenomenological order doesn't fly out the window, in my experience.

My point is that this strikes me as a turf battle (among materialists, even) more than some sort of grave threat to the possibility of knowledge. That said, I'm going to go listen to some Hacking courtesy of the CBC, and I appreciate the pointer.

The thread has diverged from the initial post. I wonder if the APN editor has mistaken a commitment to "objective (itself a construct)" for "balanced (including various views with no commitment to judging connection to reality)." Or whether the reported put too much irony into his writing.

Separate are the philosophy of knowledge issues. Kuhn demonstrates convincingly (to me) that in natural science, reality is a mental construct. Observations mean nothing without that constract (paradigm), and natural scientists frequently ignore observations which are contrary to the paradigm. How often have we made experimental observations contrary to prediction, and then concluded that the experiment was "wrong?" (Happened with my son's science fair project about wet bulb globe temperature.)

"Incommensurability" is a potent Kuhnian term for the phenomenon of important observations in one paradigm not even being recognized as reality by partisans of another.

By Frank Mirer (not verified) on 06 Mar 2010 #permalink

Frank: Kuhn convincingly dealt a death blow to positivism, but since then there have been many developments. In particular, Kuhn's notion of a "paradigm" (which you use) is very slippery and vague. What exactly is a paradigm and what does it mean for it to shift? How big a model does something have to be to be a paradigm and what is a model, anyway? In my view (and the fact that there are now many views indicates how thoroughly the mid 20th century consensus on epistemology has disintegrated post-Kuhn) is closer to Quine's naturalism. In particular, the Quine-Duhem "underdetermination of theory."

I'm not sure what the original disagreement was in the APN case, but I don't think the crux of it was "balance," which in any event doesn't get at the question of reality and if and how we can know it. My point was not to solve that problem (obviously) but to highlight how a very natural idea for progressives (including myself) that there is a strong social component in our theories clashes with some spontaneous but fundamental beliefs of scientists, even progressive ones. Trying to figure out how to walk that line is a task politically engaged scientists haven't tried to do. We have been very lazy in our theoretical aspirations and tend to gloss over the truly deep complexities, perhaps on the assumption those complexities have no practical or political significance. In my view they do, and this is an example of it.

I find this story very confusing. As a publisher myself, I agree on many levels that there's no such thing as objective reporting - or maybe what I mean is there's no such thing as an objective reporter. Most reporters I know are fairly intelligent and therefore happen to have an opinion on most of the things they write about. From a publication standpoint, that opinion shows in the stories we choose to publish.

The media, however, is resistant to acknowledging this, and in an effort to appear objective, will give equal voice to opposing opinions on an issue, even when one of those opinions might have very little that's 'factual' to back it up.

The task for a writer and a publisher then is first, to understand their opinion going in, so as to be aware of the times when that opinion may block their ability to evaluate information objectively... it's hard to do but can be done.The second is to report the facts that exist as we know them... and this can also be hard to do because you have to determine which facts are relevant to the story you're telling. If any of those facts stray into the area we call "science," then it gets even harder, because most people, even reporters, don't understand science in the least, and therefore treat it more like a religion than they do a body of knowledge (which, now I think of it, may be why we get such a debate over things like teaching creationism in school - because people don't understand the difference!).

I've digressed, however... because while my sympathies are with APN's stated editorial objectives, I simply can't understand how believing there's an objective reality that can be reported objectively could in any way not fit into those objectives. It sounds like they're saying they fired a reporter for printing a truth they did not agree with, while acknowledging that whatever he printed really WAS the truth. Astounding.

It has always seemed to me that one of the best traits of a progressive was a willingness to be proved wrong (one of the best traits of science, as well, though perhaps in that case it would be "proved incomplete"). Or as a good friend (and role model) of mine used to say, "I never learned anything from someone who agreed with me."

The difference between reporting and science, however, is that science can control (or tries to control) for variables which reporting can not do. Therefore science can, with some level of confidence, reach an underlying 'fact.' Most of the facts we report on, however, don't reach that same level of confidence.

Trish: You bring up lots of good stuff. Unfortunately they are all very problematic in their own right once you dig into them more deeply. As the kind of scientist that deal with uncontrolled variables because we take the world as it is and don't experiment (control the underlying causal factors) epidemiologists, seismologists, astronomers, etc., are all in the same boat as the reporter. We try to figure out what is going on by triangulating (looking at it in different ways from different directions) to figure out what is going on or how the world works. We take lots more time at it than a reporter, of course. But the analog might be the engineer or better, the doctor, who makes (we hope) scientific decisions on the basis of incomplete evidence. He or she may do some cross checking (do some interviews with others is the reporting analogy) but pretty much it's a short term required decision, like reporting. The question about objective reality versus a socially constructed one roils the science studies and science community (when the latter bothers to pay any attention to it) but it is the same question as APN. It seems to me a working reporter has a spontaneous (unreflective) epistemology much like a scientist while the APN view (and perhaps many editors) look at it like the social constructionists. The two strands don't always collide, but when they do you get this kind of situation.

'As the kind of scientist that deal with uncontrolled variables because we take the world as it is and don't experiment (control the underlying causal factors) epidemiologists, seismologists, astronomers, etc., are all in the same boat as the reporter.'

True enough insofar as observational epidemiology deals with variables that the scientist does not manipulate, but the definition of "epidemiology" has two parts: the study of the distribution and determinants of disease, and the application of that knowledge to public health problems.

Part 1 means figuring out the mode of transmission of cholera. Part 2 means taking action to separate the sewage from the drinking water. Astronomers may not be able to take action to prevent gamma ray bursts, but epidemiologists can take action to change the course of influenza pandemics.

The "transmission of cholera" could be a social construct in the sense of depending on there already being a generally accepted theoretical framework of disease: that diseases are specific entities caused by specific agents, for example. Thanks to Paracelsus and others, John Snow had a social construct within which he could pursue his investigations.

That does not mean that Vibrio cholerae is a social text. Those organisms exist independently of our observations of them. Their entry into the drinking water is influenced by social conditions, and their elimination from the water supply depends on social institutions. In this sense, they are just as much socially constructed as miasmas. But their identification leads to actions that make the difference between live people and corpses. Those differences are recognized by all societies and by animals who possess no language. In this sense, they are independent of society and its constructed realities.

By Ed Whitney (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink