The New Objectivity

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2010 8:17 am

Great post yesterday by fellow Discover denizen Ed Yong, asking “Should science journalists take sides?” Honestly, it shouldn’t be a hard question, although the answer depends on how you visualize the sides. If you have in mind

He said vs. She said,

then the job of a journalist is not to take sides. But there’s another possible dichotomy that is much more crucial:

Truth vs. Falsity.

In this case, it’s equally clear that journalists should take sides: they should be in favor of the truth. Not just passively, by trying not to make things up, but actively, by trying to figure out whether something is false before reporting it, even if it’s been said by someone.

All sounds kind of trivial, but it’s easy to lose sight of this principle by hewing to a misguided definition of “objectivity.” Ed pulls an extremely damning quote from medical journalist Jeremy Laurance:

Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.

That sounds about as wrong as it it possible to be wrong. It reflects a kind of lazy pseudo-objectivity that stems mostly, I would uncharitably suggest, from fear — the fear that one will make a mistake in trying to judge whether someone is lying or telling the truth. If journalists are just mindless stenographers, they can’t be accused of making that particular mistake. But they are actually making a much more serious mistake, abandoning the search for truth in favor of the goal of not being blamed.

It’s hard to argue against this mindset, which is often mis-labeled as “objectivity.” So maybe we should be defending the New Objectivity: the crucial duty of reporters to separate what is true from what is false. If a scientist says “this drug will cure cancer,” but the peer-review study doesn’t back that up, it should be a journalist’s duty to make that clear. If a politician says “my plan will cut the deficit,” but a GAO report suggests otherwise, it should be a journalist’s duty to highlight the inconsistency. “Objectivity” shouldn’t mean “report what is said and don’t pass judgment”; it means “uncover the truth, no matter who says what.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science and the Media

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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