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Overrated Objectivity

by Rudy M. Baum
August 4, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 31

I wrote this editorial when I was C&EN’s man- aging editor; it appeared in the Oct. 6, 1997, issue. Its reception was mixed. I think it’s still valid.

Letters complaining about a story in C&EN often conclude with a statement along the lines of, “I expect a more objective treatment of controversial subjects in my profession’s official newsmagazine.” It’s a criticism journalists often hear—that we’re not objective enough.

I’ve worked as a professional journalist for almost two decades, during which time I’ve learned two lessons about objectivity. One is that perfect objectivity is an illusion; it doesn’t exist. The other is that the quest for perfect objectivity actually damages contemporary journalism.

A reporter’s job is to report honestly on a subject, usually one of some complexity. But a reporter is not a tape recorder or a video camera, playing back mindlessly the entire record of an event. A reporter assembles information, digests it, conducts interviews with knowledgeable subjects (on all sides of a topic, if it is a controversial one), brings to bear his or her expertise, and assembles a “story.”

That’s what we invariably call what we are working on—a story. Not a report. Not an analysis. Because that’s what we do, tell an honest story about a subject based on what we have learned. Good reporters have far more material assembled on a subject than can ever be used in a story. Deciding what to use involves analysis, synthesis, selection of facts and quotes—all subjective activities. If we are any good, we try to be honest storytellers, but we are not objective, at least not as defined by Webster’s.

A critic might respond that a reporter should simply present both sides of a story and let the reader (or viewer) come to his or her own conclusions. Some journalists do that, especially those reporting for a nontechnical audience on issues with a scientific or technical content. But this leads to problems, too.

The first big story in my career was covering the trial in federal court in Little Rock, Ark., of the suit challenging Arkansas’ law requiring creationism to be taught in public school science classes. I’ll never forget watching a television reporter during a break in the trial interviewing Harvard University’s Stephen Jay Gould, one of the world’s foremost paleontologists, and Duane Gish, a Ph.D. biochemist who worked for the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research, both of whom were witnesses at the trial. The reporter gave Gould and Gish each about 30 seconds to state their respective cases for evolution and creationism, turned to the camera, and said, in effect, “Eminent scientists disagree.”

Such a report may satisfy some standard of objectivity, but it is not honest. I am not saying the creationist arguments should have been ignored, but to present Gould and Gish as somehow equals in the scientific world is ludicrous. I know that many journalists disagree with me on this, but I think it is essential in situations such as this to take into account the credentials and credibility of subjects being interviewed.

C&EN has covered many similar topics, including the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on stratospheric ozone, the use of laboratory animals in biomedical research, the toxicity of Alar, and currently, global climate change. In the case of the global climate, critics of our coverage maintain we don’t present the views of the handful of scientists who publicly disagree that humans are affecting Earth’s climate. But we have reported that critics exist, and we’ve reported their views when their criticism has been published in peer-reviewed journals or presented at scientific meetings.

No, we do not give critics of global climate change the same amount of ink we give the far larger number of scientists who think global climate change is real. Quite bluntly, they don’t deserve it. They are a tiny minority whose analysis of the available data is rejected by the vast majority of scientists who have reviewed that data. As good journalists, we acknowledge the critics’ existence, and then move on to cover the dramatic story that is unfolding around us.

Thanks for reading.

I wrote this editorial when I was C&EN’s managing editor; it appeared in the Oct. 6, 1997, issue. Its reception was mixed. I think it’s still valid.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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