“Objectivity” in political reporting

Is it “objective” to call a bigoted remark a bigoted remark?

Steven Thomma of the McClatchey chain prefaces his account of the whacko anti-Mormon flier handed out at the Iowa straw poll with “On the darker side …” To put it bluntly, that’s considered OK in an “objective” news story only because the group involved isn’t rich or powerful. Thomma’s editors wouldn’t let him get away with using that phrase to introduce an account of Rudy’s latest claim that Democrats don’t believe in defending the country.

That said, it’s hard to figure out what Thomma should have done. To report bigoted statements “straight,” without comment, is to put them on the same level as other sorts of statements.

A related question: what should reporters do when reporting falsehoods?

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 (or that tax cuts lead to revenue increases, or that there’s still legitimate doubt about anthropogenic global warming, or that soldiers in Iraq are mostly fighting al-Qaeda) 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, but without offering the reporter’s own judgment about who is right. In the presence of phony think-tanks, it’s always possible to find someone to contradict any assertion, true or false. So the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth.

Right now, that situation has a partisan tilt to it, since many of the statements central to Republican ideology are false-to-fact. That’s the point of Steven Colbert’s remark that “Reality has a liberal bias.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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  1. 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 crea…

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