What's the object of objectivity?

by Paul McLeary, CJR Daily

We understand -- and generally support -- the conventions behind the idea of objective reporting; but given the complexities of certain kinds of reporting, that doesn't mean that sticking to this method is always the best way to tell a story.

We've recently documented some problems in the coverage of the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections, where in a replay of the 2000 and 2004 elections, reporters blithely allowed warring partisans to spin the story into a conflicted, contradictory -- and often misleading -- mess. In its own way, war reporting presents a similar problem when reporters allow government or military officials to offer assessments of a situation which don't jibe with the reality they're witnessing on the ground.

An AP piece that came over the wire this morning illustrates just how this blind adherence to balancing "both sides" can at times stoop to the level of black comedy, when the spin is directly contradicted by what the reporter had detailed just paragraphs before.

The AP piece is a long, sad catalog of bloodletting, chronicling "clashes between Shiite militia and Iraqi security forces [that] left at least 50 people dead Monday," which followed a day that saw the killing of more than 60 people, along with eight U.S. service members. One hundred and ten or so Iraqis killed over two days is certainly a big drop from the daily average of 110 violent deaths reported recently in the New York Times, but it's hardly a proud benchmark of progress -- yet the AP nevertheless attempts to give the "other side" of the events of the past two days. The newswire reports that, in the face of the continuing violence, "U.S. military authorities said there was less violence than before."

We learn that military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad that "We have reduced the amount of violence...Whether it is shops opening, banks opening, neighborhood trash being removed, women and children moving about in their neighborhoods ... Iraqi security forces are making progress." Caldwell's claims and comments stand unexplored by the wire service, as if they were matters of fact.

The situation in Iraq, of course, is hardly black and white. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported today that while the body count in Baghdad seems to be ebbing -- the Baghdad morgue took in some 1,800 bodies in July, this month it's on pace to receive "less than a quarter" of that number -- since the violence is being spread more evenly across the country. So, maybe there is some measure of progress, at least in the city of Baghdad.

But hold the champagne. A New York Times account today puts Maj. Gen. Caldwell's statement into further context. Damien Cave writes that the cleric Moktada al Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, which has been clashing with Iraqi security forces with increasingly regularity, "have largely remained in an operational blind spot." Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, "a Shiite who depends on support from Mr. Sadr's allies in Parliament, has not confronted Mr. Sadr publicly. American generals almost never mention his militia by name." And "though the Mahdi stronghold of Sadr City is one of Baghdad's most violent areas, it has not been searched."

This is important, particularly when quoting a military official about progress. If one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad remains off limits to American and Iraqi forces, Caldwell's claims should surely be qualified. Yet in the interest of what they see as "objectivity," the AP, and sometimes other news organizations, continue to cut the legs out from under their own reporting about the sad carnage in Iraq. We don't call that objectivity. We call it false balance.

article originally published at http://www.cjrdaily.org/politics/whats_the_object_of_objectivit.php.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey