Objectivity Versus Balance

George Packer recently sent out a newsletter hawking subscriptions to the Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for many years, so I was preparing to delete the email, but it contained a description of genuine journalism that was so apt and timely–especially in the era of Fox and its clones–that I decided to share it.

Packer, as many of you know, is a highly respected political scientist, and author of several well-received books. He also writes for the Atlantic. He began his newsletter as follows:

When I went to Ukraine last May to report the story that appears in The Atlantic’s October issue, I didn’t go as a neutral observer. I very much wanted Ukraine to win the war, and I was happy to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies to Ukrainian doctors who would make sure the equipment reached soldiers at the front. If I’d been asked to do the same for doctors on the Russian side, I would have had no trouble refusing. Intellectually and morally, none of this was complicated. Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, it is a smaller country bullied by a larger one, and it is a democratic society threatened by an imperial dictatorship. The stakes of the war were as clear and high as those of any event in living memory.

For all the high-minded, public-spirited justifications that journalists offer for what we do, at the bottom lies a fundamentally selfish motive. Some stories attract us for their novelty, others for their scale, or their complexity, or their sheer excitement. Ukraine attracted me because I wanted to see a cause in which I’d come to believe—because I’d chosen sides.

Isn’t “choosing sides” exactly what we don’t want journalists to do? Packer weighs in with an explanation of why that is the wrong way to think about the nature and necessity of objectivity.

Should this partisanship have given me ethical qualms? Should it bother readers of the article? Journalists are not licensed according to a professional code of ethics, but there’s a long-standing sense that we shouldn’t take sides—at least not openly. A reporter covering a presidential election is not supposed to announce which candidate he or she supports, and some reporters even abstain from voting at all to remain above suspicion. At an extreme, the idea of neutrality leads to an absurd pursuit of balance in which a lie on one side of a political divide is given equal status with the truth. At the opposite pole, journalists with a strong bias might hide important facts and shade their storytelling in intellectually dishonest ways to manipulate the reader to a prefixed conclusion. In one famous example, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, a Stalin sympathizer, denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in the early 1930s that killed several million Ukrainians.

Welcome to the Fox proclamation that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.”

As I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “balance” is most definitely not the same thing as “factual” or “objective.” The emphasis on balance has given us what observers call “stenography journalism”–he said/she said, we report, you decide. (For years, that approach undercut efforts to explain the gravity of climate change; it gave equal time and emphasis to the 97% of scientists who were issuing warnings and the 3% of outliers and outright cranks who denied it.)

Packer addressed the danger–and dishonesty–of that false emphasis.

There’s a great deal of space between both-sides-ism and Duranty-ism, between spurious balance and outright deception. In that space, journalists are bound to take sides. But choosing sides requires objectivity, which is very different from neutrality. Objectivity is the pursuit of truth regardless of subjective impulses or political commitments. It’s what makes it possible to choose sides and remain credible. Partisanship imposes an extra burden to keeping our minds open to whatever might challenge our biases, to being on guard for any impulse to suppress or self-censor. As Bob Dylan put it: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” (Emphasis mine.)

Journalists are human, and they will get things wrong. As with all humans, they can see only through their own eyes. What we have the right to demand is not a”balance” that abdicates responsibility for truth-telling– the stenography approach. Instead, we have a right to expect journalists to do as Packer counsels–keep their minds open to information that challenges their biases. 

As we have all seen in discussions that accompany this blog, that’s not easy. When people are convinced that their understandings are more accurate and trustworthy than the perceptions or reports of others, they will cherry-pick sources and evidence.

Objectivity is beyond them, so passion substitutes.


  1. I noticed during the Trump era how mast outlets bedides Fox and its clones were reporting 90-95% negative. Now that he has been ousted and his policies have been overturned our country is headed into a heavy recession. From day one Obama has distanced himself from the new administration and economists have said everything he has done is wrong. Im notcworried about Fox or its clones reporting today but the reporting worldwide of the overwhelming embarrassment Kamala Harris is when she stated we are in alliance with North Korea. Bidens laptop cover up and absolutely no reporting or investigation on who the big guy is.
    When you work with the poor and see the lack of compassion now. We a train wreck about to happen thats headed over a cliff
    The NYT said Trump lied 30,000 times but gives the current President a pass when he says there is no change in inflation citing the CPI in July? Balance in the media? None

  2. Jour-nalism? Or Jour-nilism?

    Jour-nalist? Or Jour-nilist?

    Or, how about Jour-nullist?

    The human tendency is to promote opinions and ideas compatible with their own worldview and those who have a similar mindset.

    Today, objective reasoning is just subjective reasoning in disguise!

    Take philosophical ideals, but what philosophical house shades one’s opinion? So, when people lay out philosophical reasoning, it’s usually based on influence of others and their life’s experiences in politics, religion or conflict whether that conflict is internal or external is another point altogether.

    Take the philosophy of Gnosticism, many mainstream amateur philosophizers call themselves gnostics! But what is it? Well, it’s a philosophy that all flesh is evil, they reject marriage and also procreation because Satan had originated them!

    Wow! How about that?

    Thomas Huxley coined the phrase agnostic, (agnosticism) a much more current philosophical opinion. Basically, his reasoning was, ” seeing is believing” if you can’t see it, you can’t believe it! So basically it lends itself to personify faithlessness and hopelessness. And yet, all of the intellectuals or so-called intellectuals embrace it!

    To all of those who consider themselves atheists, or agnostics, wouldn’t it’d be sublime to formulate opinions on actual facts? Don’t let a conscience slow you down, facts are important when making statements and decisions on opinion. Unfortunately, those who claim sublime intellect and reasoning really have just been subjected to, and use, subliminal manipulation to make up their own facts and realities, whether knowingly or unknowingly!

    When people use the mob mentality to disparage anything, whether it’s literary or visual or verbal, it does a disservice to intellectual reasoning.

    If you look and listen to individuals flail about, they reveal their personal biases and irrational knee-jerk opinions based on nothing but personal desires and relationships.

    I love you therefore? Yes, love is important and it does cover a multitude of sins! But it does not endorse the lie! Nor, does it abandon Faith or Hope!

  3. This is a complete fabrication – “Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression…”

    Suppose you review history from only February 2022. However, the issues in Ukraine go back to 2004, and “unprovoked” is a preposterous claim if you start with 2014’s Euromaidan, a coup supported/provoked by the USA with the help of NeoNazis.

    Suppose AMLO let Russia put military bases along our border with missiles aimed at the USA? What about in Cuba?

    Don’t waste your money subscribing to any news outlet in the US/UK. You’ll be paying good money to be misinformed.

    If you want to find out about a subject, take some time to research it with discernment because the internet search market is controlled. Google prioritizes keyword searches and outlets via its algorithms, as does Twitter and Meta.

    The new disinformation police are the censorship police straight out of Orwell. Anything even close to the truth will be censored and marginalized off the grid.

    Once Fox and MSNBC start sounding like CNN, you’ll know what’s happening behind the scenes.

  4. To take one of George Packer’s statements a bit further, “Objectivity is the pursuit of truth,” and truth is subject to facts. Too many people these days ignore that second phrase.

  5. Journalists will be the first to go if authoritarianism prevails – seems it is in their best interest to follow his advice and lead!

  6. I don’t believe Fox News uses the “fair and balanced” tagline anymore. The network couldn’t do that with a straight face.

    MSNBC has several fair and balanced hosts who (mostly) treat issues fairly and put on some great guests. But it also has several hosts who don’t even try to be objective. They’re every bit as bad as the talking heads on Fox News who don’t even try to be fair. Hopefully MSNBC doesn’t become another Fox News.

  7. The scientific method requires testing suppositions. Facts that can be tested and verified are the basis for accurate conclusions. Without these tests, any theory or hypothesis must be put in the box that says: “To be determined”.

  8. I agree with you, Vernon, but even the “scientific method” doesn’t nail down the truth with “facts.”

    While all this makes a great conversation, we’re at the launch of homogenized news, with AI coming faster than you can imagine. We will be dictated the “truth” by people and AI with very sophisticated algorithms.

    We talk about top-down structures on this blog, but it will add a withering from the edges to the middle or mainstream thought. It’s already happening in Silicon Valley with funding from the US government.

    And Paul, MSNBC is for the Democratic Party as Fox News is for the GOP (for now).

  9. Hey guys, Vern and Todd,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on scientific method, if people truly and with all honesty research and explore trying to find truth and fact, then yes, scientific method is a valuable tool.

    All too often, objective reasoning, as mentioned earlier, is confused with subjective reasoning, or, one could say scientific reasoning.

    Also, can one equate philosophical reasoning with scientific reasoning? Is philosophy science? That’s an interesting notion, considering the philosophies and philosophists in ancient times of Aristotle and Plato amongst others, used philosophy as science!

    These very diverse and many times incompatible philosophies had a huge impact on science and even to this day those philosophical opinions hold more sway than almost anything else.

    Interestingly, when the apostle Paul was at the areopagus, all of the philosophical teachers were calling him a chatterer, so they asked him, what he believed! Well, they actually had an altar in the areopagus for the unknown God or gods. And Paul told them that he was representing and speaking for the unknown God. With that, the Apostle Paul had quite a large audience of philosophers listening to his preaching. And, I might add, it turned out quite well for Paul.

    So, is science objective? Subjective? Philosophically based? Or as the agnostics say, seeing is believing? Is science based on faith at times? Is it based on Hope at times? Is it based on a personal individual wisdom? If one were to be honest, modern science is linked to all of these. So, is modern present day reasoning or lack thereof, consider the willful delusion and willful ignorance of alternate realities? One side or another really does not hold a monopoly on that.

  10. I personally could not stand to be around people who were always fair and balanced with no opinions of right and wrong. For one thing, it would be impossible to have a normal conversation. There would be nothing to agree or disagree on.

    What we agree or disagree on, what we see as right and wrong, what makes us happy or prepares us for fight (anger) or flight (fear) is the stuff of all entertainment and plots. Tension is what makes both pathos and comedy.

    That’s the dilemma of all forms of “free” entertainment which is only useful as bait that keeps us watching between commercials that pay for it. We could not afford most of the entertainment in our present lives if we weren’t so in need of entertainment. It’s the mark of our times.

    Unfortunately, the combination of what entertains us, and what is not monetarily worth to us what it costs to present, over time, makes us extremists by our choice as to how to be entertained between commercials. If we are going to donate our time to free entertainers we might as well choose those who make us feel good by reinforcing what we believe.

  11. During my watch in Jerusalem for the YMCA, the section on King David Street was known as the “neutral zone” past, present with intention into the future at the seam (the green line) of crisis. The Y was headquarters for the UN Peacekeeping Force during the 40’s and the International Red Cross .

    At a meeting hosted by the YMCA, student officers of university student unions from across Europe gathered in Jerusalem to listen, learn and debate the meaning of conflict resolution amidst a sea of crisis. Student leaders asked the Y to present its views. I asked Rizek Abusharr, the first Palestinian Director General of the Jerusalem International YMCA to speak for us. When Rizek talked about the YMCA’s role in the neutral zone, a student retorted: “well …. that means you don’t do anything!”

    Rizek responded directly to the student sitting in the assembly: “why then do you realize your organization selected JIY to be your venue? You have been free to express your views without reprisal or judgement.”

    Then Rizek went on to share all that comes into play to sustain an organization that is chosen first as a venue for Arabs, Israeli’s, and international stakeholders to discuss timely issues in atmosphere that holds mutual respect in trust. Being neutral in a war zone assumes a great deal of risk and consumes intense human energy.

    When Rizek finished, he was given a standing ovation including the student who confronted him

  12. Sometimes, it comes down to this…can big, well-armed guys arbitrarily beat up on little guys who don’t want/didn’t start a war? There’s a school-yard principle here which seems obvious to me. And schoolyard principles are often the foundation of how we manage societies.

  13. Sometimes the lack of objectivity is simply choice of what to cover, what to “show” visually. Any longtime watcher of PBS and/or reader of the New York Times can see how unbalanced the reportage is regarding minority “identities” – Blacks, Latinos, LGBT, etc. – literally and in pictures pounding away. I understand the need to give exposure to the underexposed, but is that the purpose of journalism? One can understand how those in the non-urban, non-coastline world feel that this is somehow “elitism”.

  14. Fox claims that their talking heads are not newsmen, so they are not liable for their rants, which may skirt the line of libel, sometimes crossing over. When they began being sued, they used the “reasonable man” defense. If they know their followers are NOT the “reasonable man” should they be liable for the threats that their targets are frequently subjected to?

    BTW it seems that the effort to be balanced, although somewhat universal in all media, frequently leads to disaster. I give you DJT as a prime example.

  15. Just because Fox is horrible, does Not mean that – MSNBC is “good”! Just because Trump and the Republicans are horrific, does not mean that the Democrats and Biden are “good”. Money – talks! Israel/Palestine – does anyone realistically believe that Palestinians are given more than 2% of the coverage and “credibility” – that – The Christian Right, Israel, the “Jewish Mainstream” – and similar! When is someone like Rashid Khalidi – given more than token time to speak, and when are serious, well-thought out individuals like him – sharing a stage with others like Joel Beinin – and/or – Peter Beinart. For those who don’t know – Khalidi is a professor at Columbia U and Beinin – is retired from Stanford. Beinart – recently had John Mearsheimer – (U of Chicago professor) – on a zoomcast hour – and Mearsheimer said much that was very contrary to Beinart’s view= showing (to me at least) much more empathy for the Russians – than seemed reasonably related to Ukraine. Look – to alternate sources – KPFA/Pacifica, Jewish Currents, The Nation etc. – along with Atlantic – and listen also to some of the Right – despite their often horric messages. The never-ending – false binaries of coverage “right vs. left” – and other profit-making approaches – MSNBC – is mostly very limited. We don’t demand – what we need enough – even for those of us who really care! Racism/Sexism/Fascism/Capitalism – are all meshed together – with Ukraine (good “white” people) – ignorance of the continuing Nazi influences etc. It isn’t that Russia and Putin are “good”! They are horrible! There is much more, however, to the story!

  16. I often miss Walter Cronkite. I felt he simply tried to present the facts.

    I wonder if the Russian men being coerced into the invasion of Ukraine will simply surrender as soon as they can. I hope so.

    What Putin fails to understand is what the US has often failed to understand. History has demonstrated that you cannot defeat an insurgency. They will just keep up isolated attacks and sabotage.

    Sadly, I think, that Ukraine has become a proxy war between NATO and Russia.

  17. I read the article by Mr. Packer. He ends his article by bringing in the concept of fairness. Fairness is something that even small children understand. Somebody big beating up on somebody little isn’t fair, in the schoolyard or anywhere else. His article is excellent.

  18. Another great post, Sheila.

    Paul – just one point – I admit that several MSNBC are biased and report on stories that match their biases, but, and this is important — they don’t make things up out of whole cloth — Fox does.

  19. I agree with pam and Jan. Kids have a built in sense of what’s fair. Its their gut instinct and should be everyone’s.

    Todd, with your way of looking at things, I’m surprised you “know” anything. Besides,where do you get the time to spend on such a fruitless pursuit? Besides you end up sounding like a Russian apologist.

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