The sky is blue. This is an objective fact. Unless of course you happen to be color-blind or you happen to know the sky only appears to be blue—but in reality is a neutral atmosphere that refracts light. So maybe the objective truth is that the sky actually isn’t blue. But then why is it that most people say it’s blue?
It is difficult to be objective about something even as simple as the color of the sky. But for journalists—objectivity has been the moral imperative for many years. As journalism has developed since the invention of the printing press, the concept of journalistic objectivity has gone through many transitions.
In his book, Telling the Truth, editor of World magazine Marvin Olasky builds the case for what he calls “biblical objectivity” after he explains the four phases objectivity has transitioned through historically.
Journalism started out emphasizing the spiritual vs. material worlds. The contrast between Greely and Raymond as founders of the New York Tribune and the New York Times shows an interesting dynamic in the use of journalism for social spiritual battles. Greely popularized journalism as a means to advocate secular liberalism: with the basic idea that humans are naturally good and simply enslaved by oppressive social systems. Raymond, on the other hand, agreed with Greely that social problems were indeed great but insisted that their origin is deeper and more fundamental than simply oppressive social systems but rather that social problems were rooted in the depravity of man.
This raises interesting tension and forces me to wrestle through how my faith should affect my journalism and how I perceive the problems in the world. I have traditionally valued the type of journalism that Greely popularized when really it might seem Raymond’s style (based more on the understanding of the fundamental depravity of man) is more in line with a biblical worldview.
But under a new publication called the World with Joseph Pulitzer’s leadership, journalism began to shift into the mode of influencing and changing society directly. The “yellow journalism” pioneered by Pulitzer and Hearst was characterized by big headlines and exciting stories as well as sympathy for the underdog. This style of journalism combined sensation with hope. However, this style of journalism was known for stirring up panic and crudely exaggerating the truth.
While “yellow journalism” is generally perceived as a negative thing, I still appreciate the virtue of journalism as a mode of influencing society. And, I sometimes struggle to see how that can be done practically in a way that isn’t sensational and a little bit exaggerated. It often seems like people need to be shocked in order to be convinced to care at all. If we don’t show the pictures of the extreme suffering and violence, no one will be affected enough to rise from their comfortable couches and get involved.
But obviously yellow journalism can’t really be trusted so the field moved into a new era of balancing subjectivities. This is otherwise fondly known as straightjacket journalism. From the 1930s onward, the goal of journalists was to expose the corruption and problems in social systems instead of personal dishonesty in individuals. In this sense, progress meant changing the system and journalists dedicated themselves to this end of bettering humanity through locating the social problems in the environment.
This then led in the 1960s to the New Journalism movement that was more subjective in nature and sought fuller expression of social values. During this era of journalism, it became more acceptable for writers to reveal themselves in their pieces and they became objective about being subjective. This, to me, seems like the most honest style of journalism. It openly acknowledges personal background and bias while still seeking to report truth.
However, Olasky takes it one step further. He suggests rather than just writing objectively about our subjectivity, journalists need to follow the principle of biblical objectivity, which is an attempt to learn from the Bible first and then apply the Bible to our reporting. Discover more about online christian journal by clicking this link.
In this model of biblical objectivity, Olasky establishes 6 classes of articles through which to filter content. Class 1 subjects are explicitly either condemned or embraced in the Bible and therefore easy to determine their angle. Class 2 issues have clearly implicit biblical positions. Class 3 has partisans that quote scripture on both sides but careful research leans one way. Class 4 has biblical understanding backed by institutions. Class 5 subjects have a biblical sense of human nature and class 6 are navigable only by the experts who themselves might be overturned.
In Olasky’s structure, only class 6 issues deserve balance of perspectives in a Christian publication. Every other category will lean toward a biblical perspective if carefully considered.
The primary issue with this framework for objectivity in journalism is that it is a modernist perspective, which holds to a firm understanding of objective truth that is the same for everyone. Of course the Bible is truth, but is truth an objective thing which can be “had,” or is it more of an understanding of a way of life that is surprisingly different in different contexts?
It is true that Christian journalists need to have a Biblical understanding of this world to take analysis beyond conventional wisdom—but I don’t think it is fair to tag the term objectivity on to this concept. Ultimately what it comes down to is weak worship which contributes not only to lightness of belief but also decreased willingness to read tough-minded analysis of current events.