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Sympathetic Objectivity Part 1

After the PBS television broadcast about A Journey through NYC religions, some people asked for more detail about what we mean by “sympathetic objectivity.” Here are some preliminary thoughts.

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Photo illustration: A Journey through NYC religions based on a mural from a religious school on Livonia Avenue, Brooklyn

A Journey through NYC religions calls its type of journalism “sympathetic objectivity.” Although it might seem obvious to say that a reporter should start with sympathy towards his or her subject matter, many journalists often greet such an approach with disbelief.

The usual method of journalists is to start with skepticism in order to arrive at an objective picture, then to add sympathy toward the end of the reporting process. Over time, the reporter’s skepticism can harden into cynicism about their informants and, at worst, about life itself. The public too has become cynical about journalists. The public believes that the journalist tactically fakes sympathy at the beginning of the interviews in order to advance their reporting. So, it would appear that an important source of the distrust between the journalists and their public lays in the philosophy and training of modern journalism.

In journalism a reporter is often taught that objectivity is best served by skepticism and keeping a distance from the subject and the public. While they seek maximum revelation from their sources, reporters are loath to reveal anything about themselves. Sometimes, the closedness of reporters is done to serve the tactical goal of winning and keeping the trust of the informants. In religion reporting reporters fear that the revelation of their religious, secular or even anti-religious views will hinder their reporting (in big stories revelations of a reporter's partisan viewpoint usually provoke a massive firestorm). Of course, the average person is pretty quick to spot that the reporter is holding something back; so by a typical journalism practice the reporter is planting seeds of doubt about journalists and their reports. These reporters fool themselves that their lack of honesty about how they present themselves means that they are successfully communicating that they are “unbiased.” Opinion surveys reveal that this goal of journalists is not really met in the eyes of the majority of the audience. In the eyes of the public, journalists rate down there with money-changers and harlots. The findings of public opinion surveys over the last decade are a drum roll of bad news about distrust for journalists.

In early February, IPSOS Mori issued the results of a poll 1018 respondents that found that 72% of the general public in Great Britain do not trust a journalist to tell the truth. In contrast 66% trust clergymen and priests to tell the truth. We might dismiss the results as a reflection of the present troubles of British journalism in regard to the phone-hacking scandal. Shortly before the poll was released, Scotland Yard arrested six more journalists who had been involved in the scandal at the News of the World.

However, the crisis is more widespread and long term. Social media is adding fuel to the fire. According to the flap copy for Ron Smith’s handbook for journalists Ethics in Journalism (2011), “The reputation of journalists is continually being questioned. Nearly every public opinion poll shows that people have lost respect for journalists and lost faith in the news media.” Researchers at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government polled 1,207 adults in September 2007 to ascertain the public’s “confidence” in American leaders in a variety of sectors, including the military, business, government and the media. The poll found “leaders in the press have inspired less confidence than leaders in any other sector during each of the three years of the National Leadership Index (2005-2007).” The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a report on August 17, 2008 which found that “virtually every news organization or program has seen its credibility marks decline. ... Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate.” That’s a major decline in public trust since 1985, when “55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate.”

Various types of “new journalisms” have not really escaped this iron trap of mutual distrust. The new journalists have drawn attention to how powerful elites and institutions manufacture a so-called objective reality that hides their hands of dominance. Consequently, the new journalists abandon “objectivity” as a philosophically unsupportable doctrine that covers up elite biases.

However, they hold onto “skepticism” as if it were a life raft of truthfulness, masquerading it as a new snarky, hip approach that gets at the “truth” more effectively. They are often fun to read; like most deconstructive acts, the fire and energy of taking things apart seems to work -- until everything is unwrapped. By this time the new journalists’ know-it-all, opinion-laced journalism has alienated the general readership even more. The credibility of news reporting plummets more. Logically, the next step is self-deconstruction. A competent postmodernist reporter has prepared the audience to deconstruct the reporter as a scheming, lying manipulator.

So, the postmodernist journalists’ claim that all reporting masques attempts to dominate twists back onto them as the audience wonders about what kind of domination on the general public is being perpetrated by the rich, powerful national news media and their reporters. Are they trying to propagate a secularist narrative? Why do they have so very few theologically conservative religious reporters on staff? Among some segments of our public, the proverb is, if the news media says it’s true, then the opposite is probably really true. The existence of this attitude helps explain why the general public shrugged off the “fact-checking” claims of the press during the election.

It is a sad irony that most reporters entered into journalism because they cared deeply about people and their communities. However, the education of a journalist is all about not showing that one cares and that one is outside and distant from the community. Is it any wonder that reporters come to feel a distance from the people that they care about? It is also not surprising that small community newspapers, who are closer to their communities, have been able to retain their readership and profit margins. Many journalists have also questioned the traditional skeptical approach and are rediscovering how to speak about their love for all the people in their communities.

Often, the argument for the typical journalistic triad of skepticism—objectivity—sympathy is rooted in the highest esteem that journalism gives investigative reporting. Many discussions on the decline of the news business are centered on laments about the loss of investigative reporting. While we also highly esteem investigative reporting, we don’t think it is the primary paradigm for journalism. Rather, most reporting in democratic societies should be rooted in a concern for building a healthy social trust and community well-being. Journalism should start with genuine sympathy or empathy, move to objectivity, and then if called for, add criticism.

Part 2 will discuss the sympathetic objectivity triad: sympathy; objectivity; and skepticism if needed.

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See Sympathetic Objectivity Part 2,

Sympathetic Objectivity Part 3, &

Sympathetic Objectivity Part 4.

The wrong approach to interviewing:

14 Responses to “Sympathetic Objectivity Part 1” Leave a reply ›

  • Great work here. This is a model for Christian engagement with culture, universities, and much else besides.

  • Thank you John. This is also a model for people of all faiths on how they can learn from each other in friendly appreciation and disagreement for the betterment of their communities.

  • Here's a link to the interview on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly where the idea of "sympathetic objectivity" as the guiding standard for reporting by Journey thru NYC Religions was first voiced.

    http://www.pbs.org/...-2013/nyc-houses-of-worship/14793/

  • Important essay

  • This feature is genuinely a wonderful walk-through to a new journalism.

  • I am going to try this at my paper in China.

  • Cool

  • This series by Tony Carnes about sympathetic objectivity in journalism is absolutely brilliant. It expertly describes the need for journalists, even journalists, to speak the truth in love (and to represent the other character qualities inherent in that).

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