Objectivity in Journalism

David Brooks
Journalist, New York Times

David BrooksDavid Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and a regular analyst onNewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Prior to joining the Times, he was a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of two books, BoBos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense.

The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 16, 2005.

The real core of journalism is objectivity-seeing the truth whole and being fair about it. Thus the answer to liberal bias is not conservative bias. It is objectivity.

There is some dispute about whether objectivity can really exist. How do we know the truth? Well, I’m not a relativist on the subject. I think there is truth out there and that objectivity is like virtue; it’s the thing you always fall short of, but the thing you always strive toward. And by the way, I think that opinion journalists have to be objective just as much as straight reporters. Opinion journalists, too, have to be able to see reality wholly and truly. As George Orwell said, they have to face unpleasant facts just as much as anybody else.

What are the stages of getting to objectivity? The first stage is what somebody called negative capacity-the ability to suspend judgment while you’re looking at the facts. Sometimes when we look at a set of facts, we like to choose the facts that make us feel good because it confirms our worldview. But if you’re going to be objective-and this is for journalists or anybody else-surely the first stage is the ability to look at all the facts, whether they make you feel good or not.

The second stage is modesty. And here I think one of the great models of journalism is someone we just saw at a Senate confirmation hearing-Chief Justice John Roberts. He was asked by the Senators to emote. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance, asked him how he would react as a father to a certain case. It was as if she and other Senators wanted him to weep on camera. They wanted him to do the sentimental thing, in order to make them feel that he was one of them. But he absolutely refused, because his ethos as a lawyer and as a judge is not about self-exposure. It’s about self-control. It’s about playing a role in society-a socially useful role. Roberts kept explaining that judges wear black robes because it’s not about them; it’s not about narcissism. It’s about doing a job for society. Judges have to suppress some of themselves in order to read the law fairly and not prejudge cases.

The same thing has to happen for journalists. We live in an age of self-exposure. But journalists have to suppress their egos so that they can see the whole truth, whether they like it or not.

The third stage of objectivity is the ability to process data-to take all the facts that you’ve accumulated and honestly process them into a pattern. This is a mysterious activity called judgment. How do you take all the facts that are in front of you and fit them into one pattern? If you pick up a cup of coffee, one part of your brain senses how heavy it is. Another part of your brain senses how hot it is. Another part of your brain senses the shape of the cup. Another part of your brain knows that you’re shaking, which creates ripples across the surface of the coffee. All these parts are disconnected and we have no idea how the human brain processes that information. But some people are really good at connecting the dots and seeing the patterns and other people are not. And surely that’s the third stage of objectivity-the ability to take all the data, not just the data you like, and form it into a generalizable whole.

The fourth stage of objectivity is the ability to betray friends. In Washington, there’s loyalty to the truth and loyalty to your team. And in government, loyalty to your team is sometimes more important than loyalty to the truth. If you’re a U.S. Senator, you can’t tell the truth all the time. If you work for an administration, you can’t tell the truth all the time, because government is a team sport. The only way you can get something done is collectively-as a group. It takes a majority to pass a piece of legislation. It takes an administration working together to promulgate a policy. And that’s fine.

Politicians betray the truth all the time in favor of loyalty to a higher good for them. But for journalists and for most citizens, loyalty to the truth should supplant loyalty to the team. And frankly, that no longer happens enough. For example, when I came to the New York Times, there was a guy at the Times named Paul Krugman writing against President Bush twice a week. I had to decide whether I wanted to be the anti-Krugman and write pro-Bush columns every week. It would have been good for the team. But I decided it wouldn’t be good for the truth. So I decided not to do that.

The fifth stage of objectivity is the ability to ignore stereotypes. This is the oldest rule of journalism. Walter Lipmann once noted that most journalism is about the confirmation of stereotypes-preexisting generalizations we all have in our heads. The ability to ignore these stereotypes is crucial to objectivity.

And the last bit, the sixth stage, is a willingness to be a little dull. It’s easy to write a lambasting, vitriolic attack on someone. But usually-unless that person is Adolf Hitler-that’s not fair.

I’m someone who fails every day at being objective. But I still think that’s the old-fashioned virtue that has to be respected above the good of partisan opinion-the reason being, again, that there is something that exists out there called truth.