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The Problem with Objectivity in Journalism

The final keynote speaker at Future of Journalism 2017 is Linda Steiner, who begins by introducing us to feminist standpoint epistemology: bodies of knowledge are socially situated and embodied, and this both limits and enables what one can know.

From this perspective, it is clear that there is a thin procedural view of objectivity at the basis of journalism – and this is a problem. This is simultaneously also a reason that Donald Trump and other critics of the mainstream media are able to attack the press as 'fake news' when it does not live up to a narrow standard of objectivity, and a reason that journalists themselves will choose to cover more straightforward stories rather than topics that would challenge their ability to remain objective.

There is therefore now also a moral panic over news consumption, as many audiences are turning away from the sometimes anaemic news coverage of the mainstream media and towards more engaging, partisan, energetic, and entertaining forms of news coverage and discussion. Indeed, these audiences are increasingly also admitting and celebrating their preferences for 'soft' and entertaining over 'hard' and dry news. This means that the paradigm of objectivity is now beyond repair, and needs replacement, Linda suggests.

Feminist standpoint epistemology, then, is a knowledge project that challenges ethnocentric, sexist claims to value-neutrality in science; it aims to reshape science to be less false; and it seeks to be more democratic and more engaged. These aims can also be applied to journalism: objectivity serves dominant groups; conventional views of objectivity are too weak to identify the interests and values that shape agendas, contents, and results of inquiry; it seeks to improve the process of fact-finding, not of selecting issues and topics in the first place; and it focusses on the point of verification rather than the process of discovery of facts.

Instead, there is a need for strong method, strong reflexivity, strong objectivity, and strong ethics to combine in journalism in order to produce strong information. The approach resists the suggestion that we all have our equally valid interpretations of the facts; instead, it allows for historical and cultural relativism, meaning that our personal backgrounds influence how we evaluate information, but not for epistemological and judgmental relativism. Indeed, outsiders to social order are more likely to generate critical questions about received beliefs, due to their own bifurcated consciousness, even if they are themselves also grounded in their own historical specificities.

Strong method, then, means transparency, accountability, comprehensiveness, interrogated with reflexivity and and awareness of subjectivity. Inquiry starts from the lived experience of people who are usually excluded from knowledge production; this generates more critical questions and can generate greater insights into the object of study. The aim is for the provisionally least false, discarding false beliefs when counter-evidence or new conceptual frameworks offer better insights.

In this, the work of alternative media, when they represent a diverse range of journalists, adds crucial diversity by drawing on a variety of non-privileged sources; they develop transparency and self-conscious politics; they share control over their stories with the subjects and sources of those stories; they experiment with accountability; and they commit to group self-reflexivity. In this, they clearly stand apart from conventional news media. Given the perilous state of mainstream news, we have little to lose from further embracing this revolutionary model.