‘Objectivity’ As a Goal? No: Accuracy and Fairness

I agree with the essence of Professor Phil Meyer’s essay on objectivity in the launch issue of the Yale Forum, except that I’ve always argued that objectivity ultimately is impossible.

It goes out the window as soon as we choose which story to write and how we frame it (which used to be called “finding an angle”), which always requires judgment calls. Instead of objectivity, the achievable goals, to my way of thinking, are accuracy and fairness.

I agree completely that science-savvy reporters have an obligation to move beyond what I call naive balance – the giving of equal time or space to people on opposite sides of a controversy. We have enough education, access, databases and search engines to enable us to dig deeper, truth-squadding and putting stuff in context.

Smart journalistic balance these days should produce stories in which the balance is in rough proportion to the credible scientific evidence. If 90 percent of the evidence on an issue points one way, for example, the story should apportion 90 percent of its persuasive impact in the same direction.

One form of interpretation that smart science journalists should do more of involves disaggregating technical controversies. It would help many nonspecialists to understand that some elements of the climate debate have never been controversial, even among the so-called “skeptics.” That carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, for example, even the most die-hard skeptic likely does not question. Or that the physics dictates that CO2 has a forcing effect toward warming.

But still there are varying degrees of uncertainty about other elements of the debate, such as questions involving just how fast warming will proceed, and how fast sea level will rise.

These uncertainties will benefit not only from the best science, but also from the most robust journalism.

AUTHOR

Boyce Rensberger, a former science reporter with The Washington Post and The New York Times, is Director, Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at M.I.T.

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