This is not a call to scrap objectivity, but rather a search for a better way of thinking about it, a way that is less restrictive and more grounded in reality. As Eric Black, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says, “We need a way to both do our job and defend it.”

An Ideals’ Troubled Past

American journalism’s honeymoon with objectivity has been brief. The press began to embrace objectivity in the middle of the nineteenth century, as society turned away from religion and toward science and empiricism to explain the world. But in his 1998 book, Just the Facts, a history of the origins of objectivity in U.S. journalism, David Mindich argues that by the turn of the twentieth century, the flaws of objective journalism were beginning to show. Mindich shows how “objective” coverage of lynching in the 1890s by The New York Times and other papers created a false balance on the issue and failed “to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation.”

After World War I, the rise of public relations and the legacy of wartime propaganda — in which journalists such as Walter Lippman had played key roles — began to undermine reporters’ faith in facts. The war, the Depression, and Roosevelt’s New Deal raised complex issues that defied journalism’s attempt to distill them into simple truths. As a result, the use of bylines increased (an early nod to the fact that news is touched by human frailty), the political columnist crawled from the primordial soup, and the idea of “interpretive reporting” emerged. Still, as Michael Schudson argued in his 1978 book Discovering the News, journalism clung to objectivity as the faithful cling to religion, for guidance in an uncertain world. He wrote: “From the beginning, then, criticism of the ‘myth’ of objectivity has accompanied its enunciation … . Journalists came to believe in objectivity, to the extent that they did, because they wanted to, needed to, were forced by ordinary human aspiration to seek escape from their own deep convictions of doubt and drift.”

By the 1960s, objectivity was again under fire, this time to more fundamental and lasting effect. Straight, “objective” coverage of McCarthyism a decade earlier had failed the public, leading Alan Barth, an editorial writer at The Washington Post, to tell a 1952 gathering of the Association for Education in Journalism: “There can be little doubt that the way [Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges] have been reported in most papers serves Senator McCarthy’s partisan political purposes much more than it serves the purposes of the press, the interest of truth.” Government lies about the U2 spy flights, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War all cast doubt on the ability of “objective” journalism to get at anything close to the truth. The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer was in part a reaction to what many saw as the failings of mainstream reporting. In Vietnam, many of the beat reporters who arrived believing in objectivity eventually realized, if they stayed long enough, that such an approach wasn’t sufficient. Says John Laurence, a former CBS News correspondent, about his years covering Vietnam: “Because the war went on for so long and so much evidence accumulated to suggest it was a losing cause, and that in the process we were destroying the Vietnamese and ourselves, I felt I had a moral obligation to report my views as much as the facts.”

As a result of all these things, American journalism changed. “Vietnam and Watergate destroyed what I think was a genuine sense that our officials knew more than we did and acted in good faith,” says Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times reporter and columnist. We became more sophisticated in our understanding of the limits of objectivity. And indeed, the parameters of modern journalistic objectivity allow reporters quite a bit of leeway to analyze, explain, and put news in context, thereby helping guide readers and viewers through the flood of information.

Still, nothing replaced objectivity as journalism’s dominant professional norm. Some 75 percent of journalists and news executives in a 1999 Pew Research Center survey said it was possible to obtain a true, accurate, and widely agreed-upon account of an event. More than two-thirds thought it feasible to develop “a systematic method to cover events in a disinterested and fair way.” The survey also offered another glimpse of the objectivity fissure: more than two-thirds of the print press in the Pew survey also said that “providing an interpretation of the news is a core principle,” while less than half of those in television news agreed with that.

The More Things Change

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.