Objectivity

OBJECTIVITY….Mark Kleiman comments on the convention of objectivity in the reporting of straight news:

A news account isn’t an editorial. The ideal-type “reporter” is supposed to give “just the facts, ma’am,” and not his or her own opinions.

This creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat….should the reporter “objectively” simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?

Mostly, reporters find it more comfortable either to copy down the b.s. and let the reader sort it out, or to find a source willing to be quoted as saying that the world is round….So the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth.

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven’t yet come across a single person who’s proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren’t subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

The problem with the convention of objectivity isn’t that no one recognizes that it’s a problem. Everyone recognizes that it’s a problem. Entire tank cars of ink have been spilled discussing it. The real problem is that so far no one has come up with a solution — a practical, functional, real-world solution — that’s broadly acceptable. Any ideas?

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, the economist, says the answer is better writers. Matt Yglesias, the writer, says the answer is market competition. How about them apples?

Actually, this kind of response is pretty common. Anyone who’s been involved in corporate life knows the drill: sales says the problem is that R&D needs to make better products; R&D says the problem is that marketing needs to do a better job of analyzing customer requirements; marketing says the problem is that sales needs to recruit better resellers. Meanwhile, finance wants to cut everyone’s budget.