A few weeks back, The Crimson held its first News-Editorial social in recent memory. I bring this up not to reminisce on the bacchanalia that may or may not have ensued, but rather to point out the significance of the event, the announcement of which brought with it joking cries to “tear down this wall.” The reason for this reaction was not a belated response to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, but rather a wisecrack meant to poke fun at the institutional norm that defines the daily activities of The Crimson: the News-Editorial wall.
This (non-physical) wall separates the personnel and work of the News Board — which is devoted to objective, unbiased journalism — and the Editorial Board, which opines on topics. This strict separation is one of many structures put in place to ensure that The Crimson remains an objective source of news for the general public.
But, if not torn down outright, the wall and the goal of objective journalism it exists to attain needs to be reconsidered.
Firstly, objective journalism is impossible to begin with.
The Crimson, when deciding what news to cover, inherently makes a decision about what information is newsworthy. For example, this newspaper’s extensive coverage of the sexual harassment allegations and subsequent investigation against Professor John L. Comaroff reflects its judgment that abuses of power are so important to expose that every twist and turn of the situation merits coverage. This is uncontroversial in this case, but it is still an implicit value judgment.
The reason news organizations can never be truly objective is because their purpose is not just to give information to the public, but to construct a narrative that shows why it matters. Former Crimson editor and “father of modern journalism” Walter Lippmann ’10 wrote that “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” In constructing these narratives, news organizations are inherently making judgments about what sort of narrative is useful to the public.
That truly objective journalism is an unattainable ideal is not a unique claim, though. Many believe that even if newspapers will never be unbiased, objectivity remains an ideal worth seeking. Yet objectivity is still a flawed goal.
In pursuit of objectivity, journalists follow a set of industry norms built up over time that defines what is newsworthy. As Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, put it, newsworthiness becomes like “a machine that nobody remembers how it was built.” In so refusing to make a conscious, agential decision about what constitutes newsworthiness, newspapers attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility and give readers the false impression that they are merely showing them reality.
But newspapers aren’t ethereal mirrors that offer, to quote Rosen, a “view from nowhere.” Like it or not, they play an active role in society, and failure to recognize that leads them to have problematic effects on the very news they report.
Take the Trump presidency. Whenever mainstream organizations reported on an outrageous, bombastic action by Trump, they were relying on the implicit judgment that a bombastic president was newsworthy. In doing so, they incentivized Trump to continue acting this way to dominate the news cycle. But did it have to be that way? As Ezra Klein has wondered on his podcast, what if the bar for covering Trump was that he had to “produce policy plans and say something worth covering as opposed to acting like an insult comic dog”?
In 1976, economist Robert Lucas published a paper that later became known as the Lucas critique. The idea was as follows: If economic models rely on the optimal actions of agents and the policy recommendations that they make inevitably change the economic structure and therefore agents’ optimal actions, then the recommendation itself becomes invalid. From then on, actors like the Fed needed to anticipate how the public would react to their actions in order to properly administer policy.
News organizations should do the same. In some sense, to pursue objectivity at all, they must be self-conscious of their non-objective role in society.
Where do these critiques leave journalism? At first, it seems like the only alternative to objectivity is subjectivity. But journalism can retain its mission of creating informed, active members of society without attempting to be objective in the strictly-defined present sense.
After Paris was liberated during WWII, Albert Camus advanced a new view on the ideal role of news organizations with his newly-founded newspaper, Combat. Camus argued that newspapers should embrace the fact that they need to make critical judgments to construct effective narratives. This “critical journalism” would then enable citizens to participate in society by making informed judgments. Most importantly, newspapers should be completely transparent about their critical mission.
Newspapers today should heed Camus and Lucas. It’s impossible for them to avoid making value judgments about the stories they publish. Instead, they should make concrete what their priorities are (Democracy? Civil Rights?), publicly acknowledge these priorities, and be honest with themselves about the role they play in the narrative. This is the only way that news organizations can fulfill their true purpose, to provide citizens with the information necessary to become active and productive members of society.
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.