Objectivity and Persuasion

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”
  • Duffy, Thorson and Vultee: “The Pursuit of Objectivity”

In “The Pursuit of Objectivity,” Duffy and Vultee frame journalism as an enterprise whose inherently persuasive nature should be embraced and acknowledged, rather than vainly denied.

Citing numerous sources in a broad field of communications scholarship, primarily journalism and rhetoric, they argue that journalism employs specific rhetorical techniques in pursuit of persuasion based on cultural values. Although these values are articulated in many professional codes of journalism, those codes urge “objectivity” that the authors find mutually exclusive with the values the same codes espouse. With a brief content analysis, they discuss the use of frames and content selection as persuasive techniques that journalists — and journalism institutions — apply in an oftentimes unwitting act of persuasion. By pointing out the inherently value-laden aspects of journalism, the authors seek to undermine arguments opposing public journalism. Finally, they urge what they call “radical curriculum reform” of journalism education.

The urgency of Duffy and Vultee’s message is heard most strongly in their observation that the current imperative for rebuilding the business of journalism presents a perfect occasion for fixing its problems — not just regarding financial structures but also, they argue, in terms of mission and craft. They acknowledge the “silo” trend in readership: “(C)itizens are able to contruct their own interpretations of reality including those recommended by their in-person or virtual networks. When those versions of reality conflict with the so-called authoritative sources, dissonance occurs.”

Duffy, Page and Young’s article “Obama as Anti-American” exemplifies this apparent inevitability. Not trusting many major media news sources about the validity of President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, for example, the underground “birther” movement was forged in no small part from the viral exchange of humorous and critical emails that often contained altered visual images that undermined the president’s identity.

Using detailed content analysis of such emails that contained visual images based on cultural allusions, Duffy, Page and Young explore the patterns of characterization of Obama that emerge and how specific cultural references communicate the ideology of the sender. They also make the case for viewing emails as modern folklore, and from a bird’s eye view ask “What worldviews emerge when the totality of the images are examined” and how social identity can be defined by the exchange of such images.

Read in concert, the two articles seem to be answering their own question: What will happen if we do not radically transform the way journalism presents itself to its public? We need only do nothing to find out, because the public is already using the media available to it through new technology to construct its own version of reality.

I’m certainly not going to argue that point, overall. And since I found myself frustrated with many points Duffy and Vultee made in their article, I was surprised at the end to find myself in complete and energetic agreement with their conclusions. The fact that I disagreed with many of their rhetorical stops along the way, I think, comes down to the fundamental definition of what we all mean by the word “objectivity.” That term itself has become so loaded that I wonder if, in this radical restructuring of journalism that Duffy and Vultee call for (and that I echo), we shouldn’t come up with a whole new word.

It would describe a baseline of shared cultural values from which most (no hedge deletion here) journalists operate, on top of which many layers of objectivity can be applied.

I reject the definition of “objectivity” as an absence of values.

I believe there is a least common denominator of social values that even our extremely heterogeneous society shares to a great extent. There are always exceptions and outliers and deviants. And yes, it is a judgment call as to when a fringe of society gains enough critical mass or embodies a valid enough point to be seen as holding a “legitimate” concern. This baseline of social norms is shifting ground. And yes, journalism can play a role in advocating for that shift.

The U.S. civil rights movement of mid-20th century is an example I think of often. Journalists, as members of society, reflected and reinforced a growing movement that changed our baseline values. Our ground is shifting under us even now, regarding climate change science, as Duffy and Vurtee mention, for example. And I wonder at what point our cultural values baseline will encompass gay rights as standard civil rights.

I have no doubt that journalism, even “objectively” practiced, will play a role.

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