Radical Journalism Ethics in the Time of Trump: Engagement and Pragmatic Objectivity

    by Stephen J. A. Ward
    March 22, 2017
    Creative Commons image.

    In a time of Trump, how should journalists serve the public? Should they join the protests? Become a partisan, opposition press? Or stick to neutrally reporting the facts? In this three-part series, media ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward, author of “Radical Media Ethics,” rejects these options. A proper response requires a radical rethink of journalism ethics. He urges journalists to practice democratically engaged journalism, which views journalists as social advocates of a special kind. They follow a method of objective engagement which Ward calls pragmatic objectivity. Journalists of this ilk are neither partisans nor neutral reporters of fact. In the first article in the series, Ward defines democratically engaged journalism. In this, the second article, he explains and applies pragmatic objectivity. In the final article, Ward will show how democratically engaged journalism opposes Trump’s tribalism of Us versus Them.

    In the first article in this series, I argued for a radical rethink of ethics to respond properly to the challenge of journalism in a time of Trump.

    We need to practice democratically engaged journalism, which views journalists as social advocates. But they are advocates of a special kind: objective advocates for plural democracy.


    Here, I’ll examine the method of objective engagement, what I call pragmatic objectivity. Journalists of this ilk are neither partisans nor neutral reporters of “just the facts.”

    Objective engagement sounds strange to some ears; it runs against a strong strain of dualistic thinking in journalism ethics: I can be a disinterested journalist or an interest-driven advocate but not both.

    Facts versus opinion, facts versus values, neutrality versus engagement. These dualisms are the trouble-making heritage of a journalism ethic from a different media era a century ago.


    Pragmatic objectivity rejects the dualisms, but not objectivity. It redefines it. But how can journalists be engaged and objective?

    Objectivity as Testing

    What does it mean to be objective, and why be objective?

    Since philosophy in antiquity, objectivity has been an ideal of inquiry. Objectivity in this tradition is ontological, i.e., it is knowledge of the world as it exists independent of mind. Objective beliefs map the world. Subjective beliefs fail to map.

    To be concerned about objectivity is to ask: Which beliefs, reports, and theories are reliable representations of the world? Humans make mistakes. The sources of error are known: our desires, ideologies, prejudices, faulty logic, and interests.

    How decide which beliefs map the world? There is only one way. We examine how we formed a belief. We evaluate its reasons and its methods. Objectivity becomes epistemological. Objective belief is supported by evidence. Subjective belief lacks support.

    Objectivity comes down to testing beliefs by the methods and criteria of good inquiry. For example, we test beliefs to see if they follow valid statistical methods. The most familiar modes of testing are the methods of science. But criteria for objective inquiry populate philosophy, logic, critical thinking, social science, law, and journalism.

    Objectivity is an ideal. Even if never fully realized, it is a target at which to aim. Being objective is not easy. It requires mental discipline and a willingness to critique one’s views.

    So “Why be objective?” becomes, “Why value well-evidenced belief?” For two reasons. We need objective beliefs to guide actions. And, we need objective methods for adjudication: Teachers need to mark exams objectively; judges need to adjudicate disputes by law and fact.

    Too much time has been wasted of late on the flabby, unfocused question as to whether objectivity exists, or whether it is valuable. Of course objectivity exists, if we mean there are people capable of reasonably objective judgments. That happens every day. And, it is clear that objective judgment has value in many domains of life.

    So what is the debate over objectivity in journalism about, anyway?

    The real issue is what type of objective testing is appropriate for journalism?

    Old and New Objectivity

    Historically, journalism objectivity has been reductionist. Testing for objectivity is reduced to testing for facts and neutrality. The conception, adopted in the early 1900s for professional newsrooms, is that a report is objective if and only if it neutrally reports only observable facts. The sphere of objective belief is reduced to beliefs derived from the senses.

    Traditional objectivity is dualistic: it draws a firm line between observation and interpretation of fact, neutral reporting and advocacy. It is exclusive: Reporter’s opinions and interpretations are to be excluded from good reporting.

    This is the old objectivity. It makes objective engagement ‘sound strange.’

    This way of thinking continues to haunt debates, even if people doubt objectivity. Reporters still balk at the suggestion they interpret events. They worry about losing neutrality when covering Trump. Too many commentators reject objectivity because they think of it as strict neutrality, as if there was not some other conception.

    Pragmatic objectivity is a new objectivity. It is plural and holistic. It evaluates beliefs with a variety of standards. It is inclusive, open to the evaluation of many kinds of writing. It denies dualisms, viewing journalism as both factual and interpretive, an engaged chronicling.

    For pragmatic objectivity, the sphere of objective belief is larger than the sphere of fact.

    What we know depends not only on observation but on our perspectives—webs of belief and values. Knowledge is an interpretation, in which fact and theory are entangled. Even what we consider a fact is determined by our webs of belief.

    Hence, expert analysis of political events and scientific theories of unobservable forces in nature can be objective, even if not reducible to observable fact. They are objective to the extent that they are reliable indicators of the world and guides to action.

    Journalism stories are web-dependent interpretations. They are not pure observations of fact. Even apparent facts-only reporting, e.g., reporting a news conference, require the journalist to select salient statements, decide on quotations, and make sense of the conference for a public. Salience, choosing content, and creating meaning are interpretive functions.

    If this view is true, then we need a notion of objectivity that disciplines and tests our interpretive tendencies, rather than tries to eliminate them. We need appropriate standards of evaluation. Pragmatic objectivity provides a list for journalism. They are:

    1. Standards of attitude: Journalists should adopt the objective stance, step back from their beliefs, display a passion for truth and give reasons that others could accept.
    2. Standards of empirical validity: What is the empirical evidence for the story? Are the facts carefully collected, verified, complete and placed in context? Are counter-facts treated seriously?
    3. Standards of clarity, logic, and coherence: Does the story cohere with existing knowledge in the field? Is the interpretation logically consistent? Are the concepts clear? Are fallacious arguments or manipulative techniques used?
    4. Standards of diverse and trusted sources: Are important sources taking into account and fairly assessed?
    5. Standards of self-consciousness: In constructing a story, are we conscious of the conceptual frame we use to understand the topic? Are there other frames?
    6. Standard of open, public scrutiny: Have we subjected our views to the views of others? Are we prepared to alter our views?

    The standards apply to many forms of journalism from ‘straight’ reporting to editorial commentary and advocacy journalism. It is a flexible, platform-neutral method.

    Objectivity within Engagement

    How is pragmatic objectivity compatible with journalism as engaged?

    Objectivity and engagement are compatible because there is a difference between methods and goals. Goals are the aims of engagement in life and society. We are partial about our goals, favoring them over others. But our methods of achieving goals can be objective or subjective.

    The value of objectivity is that it helps us to be engaged, to achieve certain goals or perform certain functions. Scientists follow objective methods to create new technology to solve a problem. Judges follow the objective methods of law to pursue their goal of justice.

    Democratically engaged journalists have a dual commitment: they are committed to impartial methods as a means to their partial commitment to plural democracy. They commit themselves to rational and objective methods for deciding what to publish and how to persuade. Their desire for objective belief is part of a desire for reason-based democratic processes.

    In contrast, there are engaged citizens, such as extreme partisans, who use partial methods for partial goals. They do whatever it takes to advance their cause. Their manipulative strategies exploit the sources of subjective belief such as fears, biases, and stereotypes.

    Objective engagement does not require an all-encompassing neutrality which precludes expressing a view or coming to a conclusion. Both scientists and judges are impartial in method but they rightly come to conclusions and take sides in conflicts.

    Objectively engaged journalists are impartial or disinterested because their do not let their partialities or interests undermine objective judgment and inquiry. They do not prejudge the story before fairly weighing all relevant evidence. But after such inquiry, journalists are free to draw an informed conclusion. Such is the method of investigative journalism.

    Objectivity is not a value-free zone.

    Trump and Pragmatic Objectivity

    Creative Commons image.

    How might pragmatic objectivity shape our response to journalism in a time of Trump?

    It would open up the space in which we think about journalism, refusing to reduce the options to a forced choice between neutral stenography and biased partisanship.

    Calling for a return to traditional objective journalism is like proposing that we go backward in time. Not only do many journalists not practice traditional facts-only reporting but the public sphere that once justified such an ethic has greatly disappeared.

    The situation is too serious for outdated solutions. Evidence, fact, and truth are ideas increasingly defined by politics, power, and manipulative persuasion. What is a fact is too often what someone claims is a fact, for self-interested reasons.

    Partisans and leaders, including Trump and his advisers, tweet unsubstantiated claims for political reasons: to galvanize their base of support, to maintain their ideology; and to distract the media. One strategy is to insert fake news into the infosphere knowing it will be there forever, influencing someone, diluting the influence of other interpretations.

    This insouciance toward objective reasons and disciplined thinking is disturbing. We face the end of the ideal of informed and reasonable democratic publics.

    In this corrupted media sphere, journalists should not be passive or neutral. Such a climate needs an active journalism with a method that resists subjective claims. Pragmatic objectivity encourages journalists to do the things that need to done:

    • There is no better antidote to fake news than real news, objectively tested. Fake news and alternate facts are just other terms for biased, subjective belief.
    • There is no better antidote to a passive, manipulatable press than a press objectively engaged as watchdogs for plural democracy, who fact-test political claims and investigate conflicts of interest among Trump’s family and advisers.
    • There is no better antidote to illiberal and intolerant media than an objectively engaged journalism that performs the political explanatory journalism noted in the first article.

    Finally, news media that follow pragmatic objectivity, aimed at protecting plural democracy, can justifiably take legal and other action against a presidential decision, law, or policy that violates a constitutional principle, such as free expression, or the rights of minorities.

    Are We Unfair?

    Photo by Tom A La Rue and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Since this approach may appear to be unfair to Trump, I add two caveats: First, pragmatic objectivity is to be applied to claims made by all parties and groups. Promoting plural democracy is not identical with promoting the Democratic Party and its agenda.

    Second, the focus on Trump is justified because it is the media’s job to test the accountability of the most powerful politician in America, if not the world. Also, Trump’s style of attacking critics, and of making bold and worrisome statements, justifies special consideration of how to respond to his presidency.

    Are journalists making progress on sorting out their responses to Trump time?

    It appears so. In recent months, there has been a steady stream of articles on how journalists should respond, such as how to get things right in a “post-truth” world.

    However, isolated ideas are not enough. They need to become components of a new ethical philosophy of journalism.

    Democratically engaged journalism, guided by pragmatic objectivity, is my proposal for a new and overarching journalism ethic.

    Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

    Tagged: engagement ethics fake news journalism ethics objectivity trump

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