the media

Millennials Aren’t Killing ‘Objective’ News — the Market Is

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

In debates over journalistic ethics, objectivity is in the eye of the beholder.

As reporters and editors have quarreled over the merits of “objective” journalism in recent years, conflicting interpretations of that word have muddied their disputes. In the Washington Post last week, the paper’s former executive editor Martin Baron defended the ideal of journalistic objectivity while disavowing virtually all of the practices that critics of that concept associate with it.

Baron defines objectivity as a commitment to reporting that is “conscientious and careful,” evidence-based, open-minded, and that seeks to correct for its authors’ “own suppositions, prejudices, preexisting opinions and limited knowledge.”

In this account, objectivity is the opposite of reflexive neutrality. It is “not false balance or both-sidesism” and does not give “equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction,” Baron writes. Rather, objectivity demands the dogged and disinterested pursuit of the truth, even when that truth may challenge the prejudices of one’s subscriber base or the political imperatives of one’s government.

It is difficult to argue against this credo. And few critics of “objective” journalism would try. In his widely read 2020 op-ed denouncing objectivity, reporter Wesley Lowery articulated an alternative ideal that is nearly indistinguishable from Baron’s. Lowery wrote that journalists owed their readers “an assurance that we will devote ourselves to accuracy, that we will diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree and that we will be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.”

Lowery calls this a commitment to “fairness and truth” over objectivity. Baron calls it a commitment to objectivity over false balance. But they’re both describing the same basic North Star.

If Baron’s abstract principles are unobjectionable, however, his account of how and why his ideals have come under threat is unsatisfying. The celebrated editor suggests that “a rising generation” of journalists has repudiated its profession’s traditional values out of fealty to ideological fashions. Baron acknowledges that white male dominance of journalistic institutions has historically led that group to launder its peculiar point of view as objective truth. But he argues that such insights only underscore the importance of compensating for one’s biases through open-minded reporting.

Alas, “encouraged and enabled by many in the academic world,” some younger journalists have taken the difficulty of transcending one’s narrow perspective through dogged inquiry as license to forgo the effort entirely, Baron suggests. Rather than holding their tongues until they’ve gathered the relevant facts, such journalists indulge in the “madcap rush to social media soapboxes with spur-of-the-moment feelings or irrepressible snark and virtue signaling.” Instead of thoroughly researching a story from all relevant angles, they perform a facsimile of reporting, in which “source selection is an exercise in confirmation bias and where comment is sought (often at the last minute) only because it’s required and not as an essential ingredient of honest inquiry.”

I think there is more to Baron’s critique than some of my fellow millennial polemicists may allow. Yet his column bizarrely fails to acknowledge the economic underpinnings of both the journalistic norms that he champions and those that are (arguably) taking their place. This renders his piece imprecise in its analysis and deficient in its prescriptions.

To understand why so many journalists see objectivity as synonymous with false neutrality, one must appreciate the former’s roots in the ad-based business model of 20th-century newspapers. To advance the ideals of intellectual humility and conscientious reportage, meanwhile, one must recognize how the demands of the digital-media market militate against those values. Objective reporting, as Baron defines it, is worth defending. But the primary threats to its production are commercial imperatives, not virtue-signaling millennials or postmodern professors.

Historically, “objective” journalism has worked better in theory than in practice.

Baron writes that the origins of “this idea of objectivity” are “a bit murky.” But he ultimately attributes them to Walter Lippmann’s 1920 book, Liberty and the News, in which the liberal journalist implored his peers to counteract the propaganda and ignorance that threatened to make a mockery of self-government. There could be “no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies,” Lippmann wrote. Therefore, journalists needed to provide the democratic community with as “impartial an investigation of the facts as is humanly possible.”

Lippmann’s point of view was hardly idiosyncratic before 1920, and his essay did much to further popularize it. Progressive reformers in the early 20th century sought to professionalize all manner of democratic institutions and instill within them a scientific ethos. But Lippmann’s outlook did not secure dominance in the media industry by pure strength of argumentation. The decisive development was not the advent of technocratic ideology but rather the mass consolidation of municipal newspapers.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, American newspapers were overwhelmingly partisan, often deriving some of their funds from political parties and machines. In 1850, 95 percent of newspapers were politically affiliated. The concept that reporters should comport themselves as impartial fact-gatherers was therefore not widely accepted in the profession.

As the historian Matthew Pressman, among countless others, has written, this began to change in the early 20th century. The 1920s witnessed a wave of newspaper failures and mergers that left major cities with a select few surviving papers. At the same time, the meteoric rise of consumer capitalism swelled the market for advertising. Together, these trends catalyzed a transformation in journalism’s core business model, which then dictated a transformation in the profession’s ethics.

As municipal-newspaper markets grew less competitive, the surviving papers had less incentive for specialization and more for reaching the broadest possible audience. The existence of corporate advertisers eager to reach Democratic and Republican consumers alike made the economic logic of targeting a wide audience virtually irresistible. Overt partisanship threatened to alienate one or another segment of a paper’s potential audience. Thus, the industry embraced a bastardized version of Lippmann’s credo: Papers adopted an ethos of objectivity, one ostensibly motivated by a desire for accuracy but actually animated by a will for inoffensiveness. For much of the 1940s and ’50s, “objective” journalists did not ruthlessly interrogate government propaganda or popular prejudice so much as they served as dutiful stenographers for various disputants in public controversies.

Beginning in the 1960s, in reaction to McCarthyism, competition from television, and a rising generation of New Left reporters with a critical posture toward authority, “objective” journalism started evolving toward Lippmann’s ideal. Reporters began injecting more analysis and context into their copy.

Nevertheless, the mainstream media never fully outgrew its penchant for equating objectivity with reflexive political neutrality. After all, the latter better served the economic imperative to maximize the breadth of one’s audience. And this compulsive pursuit of false balance did facilitate the radicalization of the Republican Party over the past three decades.

To take one example, in 2013, the GOP threatened to force the United States into a debt default unless Barack Obama repealed his signature health-care law. This attempt to coerce coequal branches of government into repudiating their core commitments by threatening to sabotage the global economy if they refused was plainly antithetical to responsible governance. And yet the Post, Time magazine, and NPR characterized the crisis as an example of “Washington breakdown” in which Obama and Republicans were both childishly saying, “It’s the other side’s fault,” instead of coming together to “do the right thing” and compromise. Thus, the GOP’s historically unprecedented act of extortion was repackaged as a generic instance of perennial D.C. dysfunction.

More recently, the New York Times’ efforts to balance out the near-infinite supply of negative stories about Donald Trump in 2016 with overheated coverage of Hillary Clinton’s failures of email management arguably gave voters a false impression of the two candidates’ relative levels of corruption.

Objective journalism may be unimpeachable in theory. But precisely because its true origins lie in the commercial incentive for reflexive neutrality, it has, in practice, often meant false balance, bothsidesism, and every other supposed straw man that Baron wishes to disavow. By neglecting to grapple with this reality, Baron does not give critics of objectivity their due.

Skepticism of “objectivity” can enable journalistic irresponsibility.

There is nevertheless some legitimacy to Baron’s critique. For all the overlap between his journalistic ideal and that of objectivity’s critics, there are some tacit disagreements. Both Lowery and Baron want journalists to counter their biases through disciplined skepticism. But the former is primarily concerned with counteracting the corruptions of power: the myopia of privilege, the complacency of the comfortable, and the strategic mendacity of the authorities.

Baron claims to share this concern. And he famously took on the perfidy of powerful institutions during his leadership of the Boston Globe. But Baron’s op-ed also evinces a preoccupation with the corruptions of journalistic subculture, which is to say the corrupting desire of extremely online journalists to “win affection” from their followers through “virtue signaling” and the incentive to “precook” reporting so that it affirms the ideological preconceptions of one’s peers. His column also arguably implies that calls for prioritizing “moral clarity” over objectivity risk providing a high-minded rationalization for such pandering.

In my view, Twitter-addled journalists pandering to their subculture is not so detrimental as local reporters reflexively deferring to police sources or national news networks imposing false balance onto disputes between the far right and center-left. But I do think that the problem Baron gestures at is real. Social media does give journalists a strong incentive to both comment impulsively on news events before ascertaining all relevant facts and to do so in a manner congenial to their existing followers and industry peers. On occasion, these incentives, combined with laudable concerns for social justice, have led journalists to forfeit their allegiance to objectivity in the best sense of that term: a disciplined commitment to factual accuracy and intellectual humility.

The media’s collective response to the 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta is one example. In March of that year, a 21-year-old white man killed eight people at three massage parlors staffed by Asian American women. The heinous crime came amid a spike in anti-Asian violence — and after years in which the U.S. president routinely engaged in anti-Chinese demagoguery. So once the initial details of the attack became known, observers quite naturally interpreted it as an expression of homicidal hatred for people of Asian descent.

Objectivity, however, should have compelled journalists from withholding judgment about the killer’s motivation. After all, it is a truism in the news industry that initial reports on mass shootings are often misleading. And just a few years earlier, the press had seen its seemingly safe assumptions about the motivation behind the Pulse-nightclub massacre unravel under scrutiny. When an avowed ISIS sympathizer murdered 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, the media quite reasonably assumed that he had targeted his victims on the basis of their LGBTQ+ identities. The notion that a man who subscribed to a fundamentalist ideology that deems homosexuality a crime worthy of death would have randomly targeted a gay nightclub for violence seemed incredible. To propose such an idea would have made one sound willfully blind to the very real perils facing LGBTQ+ individuals in a heteronormative society. And yet proposing that idea would have also made one right.

Nevertheless, many journalists on Twitter immediately asserted that the Atlanta shootings were motivated by anti-Asian racism. This generally reflected laudable impulses. Anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are genuine scourges, which overwhelmingly white news institutions have often ignored. Failure to describe an attack on three separate Asian spas as a hate crime could seem like a willful refusal to grapple with racism’s corrosive influence on American life. Given the Pulse-nightclub precedent, however, journalists could not responsibly deduce the motive behind the attack from the fact that six of its eight victims were of Asian descent.

And subsequent revelations called the initial conventional wisdom into question. The killer told authorities that he suffered from a sex addiction that ran afoul of his evangelical Christianity and that he had targeted establishments where he had previously paid for sex; the race of the workers at those spas was, in his account, immaterial.

Of course, intellectual humility requires journalists to take a skeptical view of a killer’s statements. True, perpetrators of racial terrorism generally are not shy about advertising their motivations, since the point of such violence is to make racial minorities feel less safe in their own country and/or to spark racial conflict. But it remained possible that the killer was motivated by racial animus, even at an unconscious level. His decision to purchase the sexual services of Asian women might have itself been informed by racist fetishizations of Asian sexuality.

At the same time, it was also plausible that the race of the killer’s victims was truly incidental. It’s conceivable that a guilt-ridden sex addict would have preferred to procure sexual services at ostensibly licit businesses — in which case, he might have been attracted to the spas for their plausible deniability rather than the ethnicity of their staff. In that scenario, the fact that it was Asian women who worked at such businesses might have reflected racial inequalities in the global economy, but their ethnicity would have been genuinely immaterial to the homicidal misogynist who murdered them.

This interpretation derived some support from both the fact that the killer was apprehended on his way to Florida, where he reportedly planned to shoot up some venue of the porn industry, as well as his willingness to murder two white people during his shooting spree in Atlanta.

If the killer’s own account of his motives were indeed true, then describing the shooting as an anti-Asian hate crime risked making Asian Americans feel less safe on the basis of false information while obscuring the reality that the attack’s true targets were sex workers, an even more vulnerable and marginalized minority group, whose struggles surely deserve greater mainstream attention.

Nevertheless, after this contrary evidence came to light, many journalists not only persisted in asserting that the killer’s anti-Asian motives were an established fact but criticized others for refusing to do the same. In a column on coverage of the attack, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan rightly implored her fellow journalists to take a skeptical attitude toward police accounts of the shooting. Yet Sullivan simultaneously chastised her peers for failing to universally affirm the “unavoidable racial component” of the attack and ascribe the relevance of “anti-Asian racism” to the violence.

The stakes of suspending epistemic humility in this case were not terribly high. And it remains possible that anti-Asian animus motivated the shootings. But a journalistic culture that stigmatizes reluctance to affirm unproven interpretations of breaking-news events is not a healthy one. There can be no moral clarity without intellectual honesty.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Baron isn’t entirely wrong to insinuate that an ascendant ideological critique of “objectivity” can lend itself to rationalizations for incautious commentary. Nevertheless, his focus on ideas to the exclusion of economics is misguided.

Lippmann’s case for “impartial” journalism was not unrelated to the media’s subsequent embrace of objectivity as an ideal. But commercial incentives were more decisive. And when the imperative to reach a broad audience came into conflict with Lippmann’s high-minded prescriptions, his vision of scientific impartiality devolved into false neutrality.

Similarly, the progressive critique of journalistic objectivity is laudable in its purest expression. Throughout modern American history, the mainstream media has routinely mistaken the peculiar perspectives of the white (upper) middle class for neutral descriptions of social reality. And it has just as regularly projected a false balance onto asymmetric political disputes. In an economic context that rewarded conscientious reporting more than hasty pontificating, afforded journalists a modicum of job security, and made it possible for publications to remain solvent without chasing clicks, these critical observations might have coalesced into a more nuanced and robust version of Lippmann’s credo. Amid the widespread collapse of journalistic business models, however, the progressive critique can sometimes devolve into a rationale for closed-minded pandering and perfunctory reporting.

Between 2000 and 2020, total ad revenue at U.S. newspapers fell from $49 billion to under $10 billion as Facebook and Google gobbled up more than 70 percent of the American ad market. Over the same period, the number of newsroom employees at U.S. papers fell by more than half, from 71,600 in 2004 to just over 30,000 in 2020.

These job losses were nowhere near fully offset by hiring in new media. Indeed, in recent years, many formerly heralded digital-media start-ups have found themselves no more immune to journalism’s economic headwinds than their legacy predecessors. Media layoffs persisted throughout the long post-2009 economic expansion, the four-year carnival of the Trump presidency, and the post-COVID boom. Should the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hikes push the U.S. economy into a prolonged recession, the journalism sector’s contraction will (almost certainly) be profound.

Even as newsrooms have come under financial strain, outlets have found themselves facing ever-steeper competition for the public’s limited attention. Consumers today can watch virtually every movie or TV show ever made on their phone. They can binge algorithmically curated shortform videos on TikTok. On their Twitter and Facebook feeds, a thousand different headlines compete for their clicks.

Put these realities together and the trends that Baron laments scarcely look like a choice. Late in his column, he rues the fact that in-depth reporting is losing its journalistic “primacy” in an age where “hot takes, quick analysis and riffs are held in such high esteem.” It is bizarre that he does not pair this complaint with any acknowledgment of his industry’s economic woes.

Conscientious reporting takes a lot more time to execute than hot takes. And the former does not reliably attract more monetizable eyeballs than the latter. Sometimes, a monthslong investigation drives an extended news cycle; other times, it gets buried beneath that day’s culture-war discourse. In a context where publications are scrambling to compensate for a shrinking share of ad dollars by expanding readership, it is little wonder why they are investing more in opinion, and less in fact-gathering, than they did in more flush times.

Moreover, as the ad-based business model that undergirded “objectivity” falls apart, outlets have naturally sought to convert their core readers into paying subscribers. Given that America is now home to a vast conservative-media ecosystem, the readerships of mainstream publications are generally liberal. And in an era of polarized politics and algorithmically inflamed culture wars, those readers are liable to demand ideological confirmation from the outlets they patronize.

At the same time, precariously employed journalists have every incentive to build up their personal social-media brands. After all, their employers cannot credibly promise them job security. The more followers they accrue, the more favorable their odds of finding a new job after a layoff or launching a successful Substack or Patreon. And if you wish to maximize your Twitter following, it is not generally advisable to refrain from sounding off about breaking-news events before all relevant details are confirmed nor to prioritize epistemic humility over affirming the ideological preconceptions of your core audience.

None of this means journalists can’t be blamed for behaving irresponsibly. But it does mean that lecturing them about the virtues of “open-minded and empathetic reporting” will not restore the primacy of such journalism.

What would help to sustain objective reporting, as Baron understands it, would be greater public subsidization of civically vital journalism. At present, the U.S. federal government spends roughly $1.35 per person annually on public broadcasting, while Norway spends over $176, Britain around $100, and Japan over $40. Far more than other peer nations, we have entrusted the funding of journalism to the market. But there has never been a strong overlap between the kinds of reporting that are most indispensable for effective self-governance and those that are most profitable for shareholders.

Back when newspapers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the market for classified advertisements, the tension between journalism’s civic purpose and its fiduciary obligation could be managed. In a hypercompetitive ad market, it cannot.

A better system of media subsidization could include larger outlays for public broadcasting, direct funding for local and community newspapers, fellowships for investigative reporting, and subscription vouchers that allow Americans to individually allocate a small share of their tax dollars to the media enterprises of their choice.

Subsidizing careful and conscientious reporting won’t necessarily persuade Americans to consume it as avidly as they do hot takes. But insulating more journalists from the demands of the market would ensure the survival of such reporting. And if you allow journalists to practice their craft in peace, they will periodically unearth revelations that captivate the public and discomfit the powerful, as when the Miami Herald put a spotlight on Jeffrey Epstein’s predations.

The reflexive neutrality of 20th-century newspaper reporting was a betrayal of journalism’s highest values. And the hasty polemicizing of 21st-century microblogging is, too. Arguing over whether false objectivity or specious moral clarity is a greater obstacle to true impartiality won’t get us closer to realizing that ideal. Insulating journalists from the market’s corrosive influence plausibly would.

Millennials Aren’t Killing ‘Objective’ News — the Market Is