Monday, January 29, 2007

The objectivity asymptote

So, as I said yesterday, Semi Chellas's article "Good to Go"* got me thinking. The article is about embedding journalists in Afghanistan (or, more accurately, about a course Chellas took part in for journalists who will be embedded).

The question/concern for Chellas (and, of course, for many journalists and observers of the war) is that embedding journalists will detract from the ideal of objective reporting. Living side-by-side with the soldiers on "your" side of the battle, depending on them for your life, as well as livelihood, will undoubtedly create bonds of camaraderie that will bring bias into the reporting.

Here's my question: when aren't reporters living side-by-side with the military? I mean yes, there are a few brave or foolish souls who go it entirely alone, but whether in an official or unofficial capacity, aren't most journalists required by the circumstances to avail themselves of the protection of their home-state's deployed forces? Even the first war correspondent did so, although in an unofficial capacity. Another example: Peter Arnett, who has been highly critical of US war strategies and foreign policy, was in fact fired in 2003 for expressing that opinion, has also travelled with troops. So to did Dickey Chapelle, and Ernest Hemingway. And does anyone remember Nora Dunn's character in Three Kings? Yeah. I can think of a few reasons why, too...
  • The risk of being shot at while reporting amongst the locals ("friendly" fire)**
  • The risk of being shot at by the locals**
  • Language barriers
  • Transportation
  • Access

There are also positive benefits to forging a bond with the troops, as they are more likely to trust you and be open with you.

The bottom line, for me, is that most journalists are, in one sense or another, "embedded". The ideal of objectivity is just that, an ideal, and while it is something to strive for, to emulate, I do not believe it can be perfectly achieved by any person, let alone the multi-faceted leviathan that is the world, the modern media reporting it, and the audience of billions. Reality is the asymptote, always approaching but never touching the axis of objectivity.

Relativist? I think it's simply realistic. A cognitive bias is a powerful thing. Postmodern/cognitive psychology analysis is helpful here: the human brain is designed to think in heuristics and categories, to value the in-group, et cetera. These aren't just random errors, but rather "shortcuts" the human brain has evolved to make, because it lacks the computational power to make detailed objective decisions about every stimulus to which it is exposed. The point is not to pretend the biases are not inevitable, that they do not exist, but rather, to acknowledge the fundamental slant in our thinking.

Knowing that we cannot be 100% objective, we are obligated:
(a) to publicize that caveat (for instance, embedding reporters, but make openly acknowledge that the reporters are embedded), and
(b) to seek corroboration from other sources and from empirical data whenever possible.

* The article is for registered readers only (odd...) but you don't need to read it to get the idea. Here is the Wikipedia primer. Here is the article on war correspondents.

** The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 93 journalists and 37 media support workers killed in Iraq since 2003.

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