Agora & Polis

Subjective Virtues


L. Rhodes

1. Objectivity

Can we be objective? To what extent should we even try? For the last several weeks, objectivity has been a watchword for one group striving to rid journalism — especially that homely mode of criticism known as the product review — of corruption. If objectivity is the standard to which journalism aspires, goes the argument, then any influence that diverts us from that aim must be a corruption of the press. The only trouble is figuring out what we mean by objectivity.

But wait, some will say: Surely that’s a matter of common sense. Objectivity is presenting things as they really are; subjectivity is presenting them as you feel them to be, right?

If only it could be that simple.

2. Access

In 1887, an intrepid reporter writing under the name Nellie Bly faked her way into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. Once admitted, she experienced inhuman living conditions, treatments of dubious therapeutic value, and the indignities foisted on patients by an uncaring staff. After ten days, she emerged to write an exposé that ultimately influenced a grand jury to reform the institution. Bly in 1890, three years after her 10-day stay on Blackwell’s Island. (H.J. Myers, archived at the Library of Congress: cph.3b22819)

While Bly’s method is sometimes dismissed as “stunt journalism,” the basic idea is one central to most forms of journalism: put yourself in proximity to the story. Others have since used that method to report stories that might otherwise have been shielded from public view, as when a Mother Jones reporter, Mac McClelland, took a job with an Amazon contractor to report on working conditions in one of their warehouses.

In neither Bly’s nor McClelland’s cases are objectivity really possible. While undercover reporters may add factual context to their finished exposés, their reportage is ultimately anchored to the journalist’s subjectivity. Their account of what happened may be accurate down to the least detail, but it is nevertheless an account of experiences that others in similar circumstances may not share. The value of such reporting is not objectivity, but rather access, the hard-won fruit of the journalist’s resolve to go where most of us cannot go, bringing back understanding we might never have gotten otherwise.

3. Contact

Sometimes access is a matter of chance. When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in 2013, there happened to be a number of journalists in attendance. Reporting shifted rapidly from coverage of the race to coverage of the violence, and many of the best stories were penned by eyewitness who also happened to belong to news bureaus.

Often, though, there are no accredited journalists on hand when an unexpected event occurs. Then, getting the story becomes a matter of making contact with participants and witnesses capable of relaying what happened. Sometimes, that’s a matter of travel; other times, it’s a matter of who you know. Frequently, the process of building a career in journalism is a matter of cultivating sources whose occupations routinely put them closer to major stories than you’re likely to get on your own.

When a reporter relies on a source, they are relying, in the first place, on the particular circumstances that led to their meeting one informant rather than another. There, too, chance plays an important part. Further, if they’re lucky enough to have an informant on an important story, then they must rely, to some degree, on that person’s subjective experience. And having received a printable report, the journalist and their editor must still make subjective judgments about the relevance and reliability of the information they’ve been given. Thus, even when a reporter accurately quotes a source, their report is still several degrees removed from objectivity.

4. Context

There are, however, times when contact can be a liability. Particularly over the course of the last decade or so, declining newsroom fortunes have meant a greater reliance on press releases. Corporations, institutions, government agencies and others all have stories that they want to disseminate to the public. Insofar as those stories are newsworthy, the press will want to report on them. Helen Thomas, who covered the White House for 50 years, with Gerald Ford in 1976 (Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress: ppmsca-08533)

That isn’t always a bad thing. After all, official announcements are often the most direct, available source for, say, a police report, a consumer product recall, or the award of a culturally significant prize. Yet, without the resources to investigate further, journalists may find themselves in the compromising position of relying on a source with a vested interest in spinning a story in their favor. In doing so, they run the risk (in Hearst’s formulation) of publishing an advertisement, rather than news.

Here, too, writers and editors exercise their judgment in deciding which portions of a press release are actually newsworthy, as well as how to present them so as to avoid merely parroting the source’s talking points. More significantly, they can add context — additional information, usually gleaned from prior reporting, to situate the source’s claims alongside facts the reader may find relevant. Readers also bring their own context to the table, of course, but because professional journalists and editors spend much of their time covering current events, they can often provide us with valuable information that even the most diligent news consumers might have missed.

5. Impartiality

Naturally, context can be valuable when reporting on sources other than press releases, as well. Many stories center on differences or disputes between two or more parties. In those cases, the proper context for reporting what a journalist learns from one party will typically be the opposing party’s point of view. The most obvious examples typically involve politics. The Anti-Evolution League booth outside the trial of John Thomas Scopes, who was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school. (Literary Digest, July 25, 1925)

That said, context doesn’t require that a journalist devote equal space in the same article to both points of view. A profile on a key figure in a debate might restrict itself to a few oblique mentions of the other side’s position. The host publication can balance that focus against other articles that take a more expansive view of the topic. At times, an article with a narrow focus on one side can even serve as antidote to a media-wide bias in the opposite direction.

Even then, you’re not guaranteed objectivity. Reporting both sides of a story often means little more than reporting two positions, both arrived at subjectively. It’s always possible that neither side is right. In any case, what we’ll want from the journalist is a measure of impartiality. That doesn’t mean that she should altogether suspend judgment — it’s perfectly reasonable, for example, for a writer to give context to the claims of a climate-change denier by citing the scientific consensus — but as much as possible she ought to report even the claims of a party she favors as claims, and not as undisputed fact.

6. Subjectivity

Our difficulties with objectivity are epistemological, but we can paraphrase some of the complexities by treating it as a grammar problem. When we make a claim like “I know the capital of Malaysia,” the subject of that sentence is I, and the object — the thing I claim to know — is the capital of Malaysia. The breakdown is much the same when we try to justify that claim — by saying, for example, “I (subject) saw a map (object).” There, too, the verb (seeing) is something done by the subject. It is, in other words, subjective. You can try various tricks for flipping that relationship around — saying, for example, “the map reflected light to me,” to recast the map as our subject — but those appear to be nothing more than language games. The closer you get to making the knower completely passive, the more difficult it is to connect them to the act of knowing. Immanuel Kant

Thus, as Immanuel Kant argued more than 230 years ago, all the knowledge we get by way of experience is subjective to begin with. The trick is to somehow connect it to the object we claim to know (presumably Kuala Lumpur in this case) in such a way that our subjectivity could no longer steer us wrong. Grounding subjective knowledge in the object is what Kant meant by objectivity, and whether we recognize it or not, some such formulation is the historical and intellectual background just about anytime we talk about objectivity in journalism, politics, or nearly any other sphere of life.

The only problem is that, so far, no one has really worked out a reliable way to get our subjectivity far enough out of the way that we can be reliably sure that we know anything objectively. No matter how hard we try to present things as they really are, our justifications always end up hinging on what we, as subjects, do to either collect or interpret our experience of things. If you want, you could continue to insist that objectivity be the ideal of all good journalism, but the logical result would be the denial that there’s any good journalism out there. Until we get the philosophical kinks worked out, we’re better off asking our journalists to work toward virtues that can be reconciled with out inescapable subjectivity — like access, contact, context and impartiality.

7. Criticism

Conveniently, those virtues end up being applicable to most criticism as well. So, as it turns out, the standards of journalism do provide a reasonable model for critics — not because both ought to strive for objectivity, but because doing either well means, first of all, recognizing and grappling with the fact that our experiences are rooted in subjectivity.

Thus, the basic value of a professional review is that the critic already has access to something that interests us. This is, granted, a softer version of access than we find in a case like Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. After all, the utility of the review consists in the premise that the reader might want, and could hypothetically get, access to the object of the review. The question they’re out to answer, and which they look to the review for help in answering, is that of whether or not access would be worth the cost. And as a matter of trust, we will want our critics to be impartial, at least to the extent that their partiality for a creator or the creator’s competitors does not make the difference between a recommendation or a hack job.

The wrinkle here is that both the answer to the reader’s question, as well as the review that informs it, are contingent on subjective points of view. Sometimes, the two fit together snugly, like pieces of a puzzle, so that the reader finds himself reliably agreeing with a critic’s every judgment. But how does the critic bridge the gap between points of view when, as is more often the case, the two are less simpatico? She may call upon contact with other subjectivities to relativize her position (“Despite my complaints, my brother loved it”) or to situate the work in terms of intent (“The author was inspired by a trip to India”). Or she may provide information that contextualizes the work (“There are details that recall current events in the Middle East”) and which might interest or dissuade some readers more than any rationale the critic might give.

8. Responsibility

Even hedging all those bets, good critics and fair readers sometimes fail to see eye to eye. A consumer who comes away disappointed with an album or game for which they’ve paid good money may feel inclined to blame the reviewer that led him astray. Yet, given the inexorable role subjectivity plays, it’s unreasonable to make either critics and journalists bear full responsibility for the expectations of their readers.

That’s much clearer once we’ve acknowledged that journalism (including the portion that overlaps with criticism) is valuable not because it reliably tells us what to believe about the world. It cannot do that — at least, not reliably. Its real value is in giving us perspectives on the world that most of us could not have achieved otherwise. Those points of view may be guided by professional standards and honed by training and experience, but we’re wise to remember that they are, nevertheless, anchored to the subjectivity of other people.

It follows, then, that the less you rely on any one news source or review, the less bound you’ll be to the limitations of any one journalist’s or editor’s subjectivity. Read more than one review. Look for other reports on the same event. Seek out the opposing point of view. The more perspectives you take in, even on topics that appear to be narrow matters of fact, the better equipped you’ll be to arrive at your own, informed perspective. There are virtues other than objectivity we are justified in expecting from writers, but if you want to make good use journalism, that’s a responsibility you have to bear yourself.

Subjective Virtues first appeared at medium.com/@lrhodes/whats-652d3c81122e