On the Relation Between Journalistic Objectivity and the Fact-Value Distinction

[by Simon Visscher]

1 Introduction

Among the core values of contemporary journalism, objectivity ranks high. Ob- jectivity is important because it allows us to communicate. But what is it? In this article, I examine the connection between objectivity and the method- ological separation between facts and value judgements. I argue that such a separation is a requirement for objectivity in journalism. A consequence of this observation is that we should re-examine the role of words that both aim to describe and evaluate in a normative sense.

2 Objectivity and the capacity for interpersonal communication

Although there may be many different views on what, in effect, constitutes objectivity, there seems to be one generally acknowledged role it plays in jour- nalism. Objectivity of factual statements enables the communication of infor- mation between individuals regardless of their (possibly different) valuations of states of affairs. Without objectivity, journalism would not be able to do its job of providing a common descriptive framework between individuals of different evaluative stances; it is required for informing the public.

One could classify the primary audience for a quality newspaper to be its paying readership. It is thus that, narrowly conceived, a newspaper has to be understandable for a certain group of people; its primary readership. This pri- mary audience, by and large, holds certain evaluative stances that belong to a certain culture. In a broader context, however, it is desirable to have a con- ceptual framework whose validity bridges the normative gaps between people of different cultures. Although such an ideal might seem lofty, there are difficulties its realisation. An obvious obstruction is the fact that newspapers are printed in a specific language (e.g. Dutch or English), and thus are incomprehensible for those not acquainted with that language. I will argue that the use of value-laden terminology is another obstacle.

3 The problem with mixing value judgements and factual statements

There are words and phrases that simultaneously aim to describe a state of affairs, and pronounce a value judgement about these. Philosophers call these words “thick ethical concepts”. Let’s look at two examples of miscommunication due to this kind of language-use. Suppose that a Nazi perceives someone of certain non-aryan decent, and exclaims: “This is an Untermensch”. The word “Untermensch” was used in Nazi Germany to simultaneously describe a state of affairs, and give an evaluation about this. Most of us today would not concur with, nor perhaps even understand, the assertion “this is an Untermensch”. This is not because there is disagreement about what constitutes “a person of non-aryan decent” (assuming that this is sufficiently well-defined), but rather because we do not agree with the strong negative connotation this has.

Another example is the use of the word “terrorism” by popular media. Within, say, the community comprising the readership of a newspaper, it is as- sumed that this word unambiguously refers to a certain set of actions. However, the people committing acts of terrorism do not perceive themselves primarily as “terrorists”. It’s safe to say that all acts of terror are perceived as justified by their actors. This has the result that when a newspaper speaks about “ter- rorism”, this does not result in a pronouncement of universal inter-subjective validity. Let us see what we can conclude from these examples in relation to the purported objectivity of mainstream journalism. In both examples, the de- scriptive content of the terms is mixed with a normative stance. This makes the assertions in which these terms occur acceptable by some, but not by others. The acceptance of a sentence containing thick ethical concepts depends, inlarge degree, on the accepted values within a linguistic community. This means that this kind of language-use cannot be used for objective journalism.

4 Applying a fact-value distinction as a requirement for objectivity

The problems associated with the failures of communication mentioned above can, in principle, be resolved in the following manner. We can separate the descriptive part of a phrase from the evaluative stance depicted by it. This means that one should refrain from using thick ethical concepts like “terrorist” or “Untermensch”’. To combat the danger of miscommunication due to phrases in which facts and values are intertwined, we should try to do is give a value- neutral formulation of what we really want to say. Given that most human beings, including those that live in radically different cultures than our own, have a basic and shared capacity to recognize the truth or falsity of basic observation sentences, this in principle enables unambiguous communication between all people.

5 Conclusion

We have seen why the use of concepts that simultaneously aim to describe and evaluate fly in the the face of the journalistic ideal of objectivity. What one feels about a state of affairs is something intrinsically subjective, and thus thick ethical concepts can never attain the universal interpersonal validityconcurrence that can be expected from objective facts.

Journalistic use of ethically thick phrases can also be held responsible,part, for the further segregation of different linguistic communities. Journalists’ writing in terms of thick ethical concepts strengthens the boundaries between linguistic communities, as it normalises the failure of communication. People grow accustomed to perceiving the normative assumptions held within their own language community as self-evident, in contrast to those of other linguistic communities.

It is clear that news agencies make money by selling their stories to a read- ership. But news is supposed to be objective, and the language used by media should strive to maximize inter-personal validity.