Pragmatic News Objectivity: Objectivity with a Human Face

By Stephen Ward

A paper by Stephen Ward, spring 1998 fellow, considers the journalistic value of objectivity from a philosophical perspective. The concept of objectivity has come under assault, not only through violations by practitioners, but also through a concerted attack by modern and post-modern media critics, who believe that “objectivity” is (depending on the critic) deceitful, erroneous, incoherent, or downright irrational. Ward examines the idea of objectivity through modern analytic philosophy. Like other critics, he is troubled by traditional formulations of the concept of “objectivity” as applied to journalism. But, he also seeks to revise and recast the term into a new concept called “pragmatic objectivity.” A report is “pragmatically objective” if it meets the test of three available standards: empirical standards that test a report’s accord with facts derived by careful observation, controlled experiments, or statistical measure; standards of coherence that tell us how consistent an interpretation is with what else we believe; and standards of rational debate that include a commitment to rational persuasion and tolerance, and openness to rival views and counter-evidence. Ward argues that the virtue of this reformulation of news “objectivity” is that it explicitly recognizes the inherent qualities of judgment that reporters must employ, and entails an understanding of the inherent fallibility of such judgments, while holding them to community or collective standards that usefully promote the central goals of reporting itself.

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