Journalists in politics, and the myth of objectivity

The news of Donwald Pressly’s suspension from Independent Newspapers (allegedly following his putting himself forward as a candidate for the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 elections) has given rise to some discussion on journalistic “objectivity”, and whether journalists should be members of political parties. I’m largely in agreement with Eusebius McKaiser’s views on this, but want to add a few comments of my own.

Both Pressly (and previously, Brendan Boyle) were suspended when it emerged that they had put their names forward for internal consideration by the Democratic Alliance (DA), in a process that is meant to be confidential. They had not yet been appointed to any position, nor been selected or assigned to any ranking on the Party’s list of candidates. Leaving aside the leaking of this information (itself involving ethical issues), they had indicated that they would be willing to leave their current jobs for a career in Parliament, rather than already taken up jobs involving representing a political party.

In other words, they already held the political viewpoints that made this a plausible career choice for them. All that changed was that those viewpoints were made more public. And despite already having those viewpoints, their ability to report fairly on matters political hadn’t been called into doubt before this, at least not to my knowledge. As a friend remarked, “both are excellent and ethical contributors in the public sphere, and, in their professional lives, have upheld the journalistic standards expected of them”.

Despite already holding these views, and doing their jobs (at least) competently, the view seems to be that once readers are made aware that you hold those views, you can no longer be trusted – even if you (arguably) write the same sorts of things before and after. This seems to imply that readers are unable to judge the content of the writing as presented to them, including considering whether details are accurately presented in whatever it is that they are reading, and whether or not the journalist is trying to nudge them into taking one side over another.

In other words, readers need their hands held, but more importantly, their hands are being held by an arbitrary fiction. First, arbitrary because not only do most people already hold political views, but also because it’s only certain forms of view that get counted in these situations. If you’re a member of Greenpeace, you can’t be “objective” in the strong sense demanded of Pressly and Boyle. If you’re a democrat, or a constitutionalist, or a non-racist, you’re expressing a view – but some views are deemed to not impugn your “objectivity”, while others apparently do.

And the arbitrary defining line between objectivity and not is simply party membership, regardless of what you write, or how you write it, because judging whether you’re making sense on the page is apparently beyond us. This seems a paternalistic, and infantalising, view of my competencies as a reader.

Then, objectivity itself is an impossible standard to set. What you’re looking for is balance, not objectivity, because we’re simply not capable of what Nagel called “the view from nowhere”. Whatever you write is going to include certain sources, exclude others, chase some leads and not others – and all of these decisions are made by a person, with existing beliefs. In other words, by a subjective human agent. But his or her job is to offer as balanced a report as they can – and this involves being aware of your biases to the extent that you are able, so that you can compensate for them when necessary.

So, I disagree strongly with how Boyle and Pressly were treated. We need to develop new norms about this, in my view – the traditional interpretation of ‘objective’ journalism simply isn’t sustainable, and was always a myth that we were simply afraid to acknowledge. Awareness of biases is what should be cultivated, with people being deployed on a different desk only when bias is interfering with accuracy. Anything else is, to my mind, awarding yet another victory to paranoia and fear-mongering – assignation of guilt by means of whispers and innuendo, in a way that rewards readers for the logical error of making ad hominem judgements about journalists.

Then, there’s also a practical problem, in terms of timing – both Pressly and Boyle are being asked to give up their jobs months before an election for the hypothetical possibility that they might become DA representatives. That doesn’t seem fair, and is most probably unconstitutional.

Having said all that, of course editors need to respond to the market as it is, not how I’d like it to be. So I can understand why these journalists were suspended, while still hoping that we can realise it’s an error to respond in this way.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.