It is impossible for journalists to be completely objective, according to Katrina vanden Heuvel, at least.
Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, a magazine which describes itself as “the flagship of the left,” addressed the Yale Political Union on Monday night to discuss the role of opinion in American media. She spoke in support of the resolution “The Press Should Not Try To Be Objective.”
Vanden Heuvel drew a distinction between reporting with an openly acknowledged point of view and injecting a secret bias into the news. “Objectivity is less an ideal than a conceit,” she said, something which often prevents reporters from questioning the status quo. Vanden Heuvel cited the media coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war as a failure of “objective” journalism because correspondents over relied on official sources.
“Spurious objectivity insidiously promotes conformity under the veneer of disinterestedness,” she said.
Vanden Heuvel also worried about the loss of reasoned debate in the American media and the combination of entertainment with news.
“Abandoning the myth of objectivity does not mean abandoning fairness,” vanden Heuvel said.
Although journalism cannot be objective, it must still be accurate, she said. For The Nation’s article on Blackwater, a private contractor employed by the United States government in Iraq, vanden Heuvel said the magazine had to “investigate carefully with a rigor that exposes what they are doing.” She repeatedly emphasized the importance of fact-checking, particularly on controversial topics.
Students attending the debate displayed a variety of views on objectivity in journalism. Vivian Nereim ’09, a member of the Independent Party, said a reporter with a strong opinion on a story should excuse herself from covering it.
“Objectivity is a myth that grounds us,” Nereim said. “That’s really important for a journalist sitting down to write an article to keep in mind.”
But fellow Independent Party member Joyce Arnold ’10 pointed out that the process of choosing which stories to publish also introduces bias.
“We think that there is something called ‘the news,’ ” Arnold said. “It doesn’t exist.”
In addition to offering her take on the proper role of the American media, vanden Heuvel aimed a few jibes at the procedures of the Yale Political Union.
“Your hissing makes Chris Matthews look like a pussycat,” she said, referring to the YPU custom to pound on desks in support of a comment and hiss loudly to show disapproval.