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“On Objectivity” – John Stuart Mill/Michael Schudson

Posted by: | October 21, 2009 | No Comment |

John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest advocates for freedom of speech and author of “On Liberty,” would disagree with objectivity in the news – he would advocate op-ed pieces and blogging.

Mill, who wrote “On Liberty” in 1859, like journalists, was concerned with finding the truth.  Mill, however, believed that conflicting opinions “shared the truth between them.”

John Stuart Mill (nndb.com)

John Stuart Mill (nndb.com)

Mill argued, “Truth in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness…only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.”

For Mill, truth can only be found through the reconciliation of opposing opinions.  Although Mill wrote about individual freedom of speech, the truth seeking qualities of his arguments could also apply to journalism.  Journalism students are taught to see through the tales and find the truth.  Mill would argue they are missing one key ingredient – students are also taught to leave opinion out of their writing.

The journalistic idea of objectivity is covering both sides of the story.  This gives opposing opinions a voice, and gets closer to the truth.  However, it is ultimately up to the news consumer to determine the whole truth.  The problem is that covering both sides of a story without analyzing the claims from either side can leave the news consumer with cognitive dissonance.



Journalism’s current obsession with objectivity is the basis of Michael Schudson’s book “Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers.”  Schudson maintains, “Journalists, as well as their critics, hold newspapers to a standard of objectivity.”  In his book, Schudson details journalism’s history and its morphing views of objectivity.

Michael Shudson (UCSD)

Michael Shudson (UCSD)

Discovering the News - Michael Schudson

Schudson concludes his book with, “Journalists, like other seekers, must learn to trust themselves and their fellows and the world enough to take everything in, while distrusting themselves and others and the appearances of the world enough not to be taken in by everything.”

Not being taken in by everything requires at least an opinion, if not knowledge of the truth.  Mill would require more opinion in news to get at the whole truth and Schudson asserts near the end of his book that there is a “simmering disaffection with objective reporting.”

Maybe history will repeat itself and journalism will return to pre-Jacksonian partisan news. Or, perhaps blogging and FOX news have already made the transition and the newspaper industry is just watching and waiting…

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