Objective Journalism

In my previous entry I wrote that correspondents who are fond of the country where they are stationed will practice better informed, more complete, more critical and more objective journalism than those who don’t care much about that country.  Of these terms ‘objective’ is the trickiest, and here’s why:  In all research in the natural sciences knowledge is acquired by destroying an object, whether it is a frog, a chemical substance, or an atom.  Scientists extract knowledge from their object by dissecting it, starting a chemical reaction that changes it, or shooting a particle that splits it.  Knowledge extracted from objects by destroying them is called ‘objective’ knowledge.  But by dissecting one frog, knowledge about all other still living frogs, and by changing a substance, knowledge about all remaining substance of that kind, and by destroying an atom, knowledge about all other, similar atoms, is acquired.  So our understanding of nature and matter has been enriched and no harm has been done.  But how about the social sciences?  How do they acquire knowledge and what effect does that have on their object, if any?

From an epistemological perspective, research in the social sciences also destroys its object.  Research changes social reality, and the better the reseach and the more relevant the topic, the more social change it will effect.  But unlike the natural sciences, in the social sciences the original object does not exist anymore after the research has been done and published about, and that is the reason why the same research has to be duplicated over and over again.  The classical example of research changing social reality are the Hawthorne experiments of the 1920s, but what was true then is true now, even for the simplest marketing survey or election poll.  So knowledge generated by the social sciences is not ‘objective’ in the way knowledge generated by the natural sciences is, and that is a reason for some modesty among social scientists.  Knowledge generated by the social sciences can only be the ‘best available,’ instead of objective, because what was true today may very well no longer be true tomorrow.  And it requires critical thinking skills and devotion, if not doggedness, to identify that best available knowledge.

Journalists ideally work with the best available knowledge, next to the products of their own investigations, which are often a first, primarily descriptive, stage of social science research. Correspondents who are fond of and have a deep interest in the country where they are stationed are more likely to study its history and economics, and try to understand the ethnic and cultural divisions of its population, as well as the political preferences of different social groups, just to mention a few important items.

Just like research in the social sciences, journalism changes social reality, and probably even more.  Unfortunately it’s not always the best journalism that produces the strongest social effects, as Fox News demonstrates on a daily basis.  Therefore it is so important that journalists are not only informed and honest, studious and devoted, but also critical and, yes, opinionated.

A journalist who treats Clinton, Sanders, Trump and Cruz and their ideas as equal does not care about the future of the United States, and can do a lot of damage if widely read or listened to.  He or she may have the illusion of practicing objective journalism, but the opposite is the case.

Hugo Kijne


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