Sympathetic Objectivity Part 3

By , posted July 8, 2013 at 6:15 am


Reporting should always pass through a zone of objectivity. This is a zone where one tries that super hard task of seeing as if a third party oneself and the people being interviewed. Fortunately, in this city of outsiders it should be easier to latch onto an outsider’s perspective. We try to accelerate this process by building an objectivity into our reporting process.

One way A Journey through NYC religions does this is through the use of four sensitizing questions that we always use during our interviews. We ask, what is unique and different about your religious organization? I.e. what is special, how would you convince us to check you out? What kind of impact is your synagogue, mosque, temple, or church having on your neighborhood or your network of people? And can you give an example of this impact from the last couple of weeks? If you were mayor of NYC, how would you change the city?

You can see right away that we start with sympathy by asking how the religious group is special. However, we also give a chance for the religious person to prove the fulfillment of their hopes. This step toward objectivity comes with the participation of the respondent. It is a joint project.

We assume that if a person says that they have a big impact on youth but can’t give an example of that impact, then either the person isn’t involved with that aspect of the religious organization or the religious organization’s hopes for impact hasn’t happened yet. The questions act as a sounding board by which the respondents can hear themselves talk. Often, we get explanations of problems encountered and future plans. We get to know the history of the group and their deepest hopes and fears for the future. Of course, the person may have forgotten their successes. In some cases we have interviewed people who had such a reluctance to brag that they would discount their own successes as “not much.”

Then, we ask in a questionnaire for a congregational leader to list their three biggest programs and to check-off a list of programs to indicate what the congregation does. If we don’t see “youth” listed as one of the three biggest programs or checked off as one of the programs of the congregation, then these discrepancies raise further questions. In such a way we act like good psychologists who use probing questions to bring recognition about what the truth of the situation is.

Innumerable debates have grown up around “objectivity” as a philosophical idea. Some journalists have derided the idea that any report can be objective (except maybe the report that objectivity doesn’t exist!). No individual embodies all perspectives of a society. In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped “objectivity” from its ethics code. However, very few reporters operate as if objectivity doesn’t exist. Their operational code is to get accurately the who, what, when, where, what, why, how many and how much. It seems that reporters can’t live without objectivity.

Our reporters live with the incompleteness of objective descriptions. We recognize that story telling always ends with “and tomorrow the rest of the story.” Sympathetic objectivity is fated to constant realization just as skepticism is fated to always die over and over again as new facts come into view.


The origins of journalism’s doctrine of objectivity

The history of the doctrine of objectivity is a reflection of religion, philosophy, economic and socio-cultural trends. With varying degrees of success this history has been covered by many scholars. At about the same time journalism, the religious reformations, and the scientific revolution arose in the West. Somewhat later, perhaps the 19th Century, current ideas of objectivity gained a foothold.

Some historians propose that the formation of the Associated Press by New York City newspapers in 1848 to utilize the new invention of the telegraph led to a neutral factual reporting style that didn’t favor any of the various opinionated styles of the partner papers. Upon receiving “just the facts,” each paper could tailor them with their own partisan opinions. Others pinpoint the rise of objectivity to the New York Time’s decision in 1896 to use an “information model” rather than a story model for journalism. Others argue that objectivity became the dominant doctrine only in the 1920s and 1930s. Michael Schudson argues that the news media set up two institutions at about that time to sustain the rules and procedures to create objective reporting. First, the newspapers emphasized that journalism is a profession taught at educational institutions. Second, the journalists must have “insulation from the public” to be able to make independent judgments.

Many people don’t realize that one of the most important sources of modern ideas of objectivity lay in Max Weber’s existentialism. Weber, one of the founding giants of modern sociology, was put off by what he believed was the Unitarian irrationalism of his mother and the obnoxious, callous conservative nationalism of his father.

His mother was a follower of the transcendentalist preachers like Stockard Channing. These Christian theologians had accepted the German scholarship that the Christian story of Jesus was not historical fact but was narrative invented by a community in the process of discovering itself. They claimed that much like the Jewish refugees from Egypt and elsewhere made up the saga of the Exodus from Egypt, the Christians made up the story of the death and resurrection to show the true essence of their new faith. Some scholars argued that the tale had more insidious origins in elitist attempts to control the minds of the lower classes.

However, the transcendentalist preachers, whom Marianne Weber admired, couldn’t bring themselves to conclude that a stark materialism is all there is. Instead, Weber Jr. believed, they claimed that if one wants to have humane, loving values and a sense of higher purpose, that one must sacrifice the mind and believe in God despite the rational evidence to the contrary. It seems that Max Jr. believed that at best they claimed limits to reason; at worst they rejected reason entirely.

Weber’s mother had a tender heart toward the poor and couldn’t accept the “reasonable laws” of Darwinian economics that the poor need to be eliminated in favor of economic progress of society as a whole. Weber’s father tended to favor a much tougher approach to the poor, an approach that was rooted in the contemporary rationalism. The wife and husband did not get along very well.

The son Weber, Jr. sided with his mother’s heart but against her irrationality. He sought a place for both the heart and mind. He said the world of the heart and mind are incommensurable but both have authentic spheres of existence. He tragically said that those who favor the heart need to do so but not to fool themselves that compassion was rational in the scientific sense. Weber was utterly sympathetic with the worker priests who “sacrificed their mind” in order to help the poor. He saw this as an existential choice on behalf of certain values.

However, if one wants to be a scientist, one must put aside the heart in favor the mind. Science is based on a cold objectivity, Weber said. The scientist must existentially—make a decision about one’s own fate, face the lonely road of dispassionate scholarship. It is a fateful decision to sacrifice some of the deepest values of the heart upon the altar of scientific objectivity. The scientist must not let values like political and religious values extraneous to objective science to influence one’s conclusions. He denounced the socialists and nationalists alike for parading their opinions from their academic lecterns as if they were scientific truths. Weber’s discussion has sometimes ill-influenced discussions of values and objectivity in journalism.

The choice shouldn’t be that one must be objective and sacrifice the heart or be tender and merciful but sacrifice the mind. Sympathetic objectivity may help us to bring together the sympathy of the heart with the objectivity and skepticism of the mind. In fact the heart and mind are inextricably connected to each other through the entire reporting process. The proof will be in our results which are still incomplete. We still have much to do.


Originally appeared in A Journey through NYC religions, March 5, 2013.

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