The question of objectivity in the 2016 Presidential Election

In 1896, during the heyday of the sensational, opinionated, and interventionist newspapers of Yellow Journalism, New York Times owner Adolph Ochs boldly declared that the paper would report “impartially, without fear or favor”—a nod toward the norms of neutrality and objectivity that would mark American newspapers in the 20th century. These norms became professional values, undergirding journalists’ claims for authority. Journalistic objectivity has long been subject to scholarly critique for either too simply dismissing human subjectivity or for disarming journalists from being able to stake positions of advocacy. 

Yet, 120 years after Ochs’s statement, the question of objectivity was thrust into public view by Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. His front-page column on 9 August 2016 made waves in journalistic circles by questioning whether the Republican nominee Donald Trump deserved to be treated neutrally:

If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

The question exposes the dilemma of journalists trapped in a system that prides neutrality. Trump was positioned as extraordinary and therefore worthy of extraordinary coverage. Journalist Jorge Ramos argued this point on the web site of Time magazine:

“Just providing both points of view is not enough in the current presidential campaign. If a candidate is making racist and sexist remarks, we cannot hide in the principle of neutrality. That’s a false equivalence.”

Meanwhile, the digitally native Huffington Post staked out an oppositional stance early on, first by only running stories on Trump in the entertainment section until his emergence as a frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination forced him back into the news pages. However, the site continued to treat Trump as an unusual threat not to be normalized by appending the following editor’s note to stories on Trump:

“Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.”

As an anchor at the bottom of every Trump story, this statement strived to hold the candidate as contemptuous and unworthy of normal news treatment. 

One way to make sense of this handwringing over objectivity is through Daniel Hallin’s sphere model, which he laid out in his seminal book The Uncensored War. For Hallin, journalists sort events into three categories, or spheres anchored at one end by the sphere of consensus in which objectivity is not necessary because of shared beliefs, and, at the other end, the sphere of deviance in which objectivity is supplanted by shared loathing. Ordinarily, political contests fall squarely in between these sphere, in what Hallin labels the sphere of legitimate controversy. Disagreements between candidates occur, and the journalists’ job is to stand aside and let the campaigns make their case without the intervention of partisan journalists. This fits squarely with rationalist models of democracy that place the news media as the conduits between campaigns and the mass public. The press is there to provide information; news audiences-as-the-voting-public are to make up their minds. It also confers the news media with tremendous cultural and political power to dictate the divide between normalcy and deviancy.

Trump struck a nerve that threatened how journalists think about what qualifies as legitimate controversy. And it was not only his controversial stances and actions that sparked soul-searching among journalists. More to the point, his callous disregard for the unwritten rules of political communication coupled with a penchant for perfidy regardless of countervailing information put him at odds with this system. Rutenberg and others took this as an affront, and suggested that Trump be cast into the sphere of deviancy—that is, as illegitimate. But to place the nominee of a major party into the sphere of deviancy requires a clear-eyed argument and commitment to parting with precedent. It asks journalists to break with ingrained ways of thinking and acting—a difficult request, even in the face of Trump’s transgressions.

These questions have become only all the more pressing now that Trump has been elected President. His electoral surprise defying conventional polling wisdom presages an equally unorthodox presidency. But journalism does not respond well to unorthodoxy; it is regimented and orthodox, driven by patterns that make possible the unending crush of news stories. The next four years will test how journalists actualize their normative commitments, and whether this President is treated as other Presidents have, or if they come to occupy a new critical space. Either position is risky and will alienate part of the populace at a time when news industry economics are already flagging. But the choice still must be made.