Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Occasion: A program on The 1A show on WAMU of NPR from 9 June 2020:

When Journalists Say They’re Objective — What Does That Even Mean?

From Chemistry 101, day one, in 1961: "The observer is part of the system." So observers can't report on what "the system" — anything happening — is in itself, but only what it appears to be, as observed.

So even the best trained anthropologist can't tell you about The Village, but only — in one kind of work — the village with an anthropologist in it. An astronomer can't tell you some absolute truth about the Crab Nebula, but only the Crab Nebula as observed by a human being with a given set of senses and instruments. It's a good guess that observing the Crab Nebula from Earth isn't going to change it, but it could be that the most important thing about the Crab Nebula is going on in ways humans are going to have real problems observing.

This is a practical issue for reporters, most clearly a TV crew with lights at a demonstration where people in a crowd know they're at least potentially on camera and might make the evening news or a posted video. But even with a word reporter in the The New York Times there are issues, perhaps especially in the NYT and respectable publications in its tradition.

"NYT" style tends toward "omniscient narrator": the literary technique of telling a story with a narrator with a god-like overview and entry into people's thoughts and who doesn't identify himself or herself as a "self," and avoids using the word "I". So in that "objective" style you do get a form of transparency: pretending the reader looks through this transparent pane of a reporter and sees The Story in Itself.

Nah. The reporter is at best a kind of lens, and as said on the show the best the reporter can do is to work industriously and diligently and try to be open about any biases s/he'll bring to the picture — and try to be honest and accurate, which is hard enough without trying for the impossible of objectivity.

Also not desirable. If you want an idea of truly objective reporting — detached dealing with people as objects — think of a "nightcrawler" cameraman filming the carnage of an auto accident without helping, and when the reporter he's recording gets attacked for his cruel questioning of a survivor, just keeps on filming this new story.

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