What is Biblical objectivity?
Books | An excerpt from Reforming Journalism
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 9/28/19, 12:05 pm
WORLD’s mission statement is “Biblically objective journalism that informs, educates, and inspires.” That may sound strange on first hearing, because we often equate “objectivity” with neutrality, but a book of mine just published by P&R, Reforming Journalism, explains a Christian understanding that cuts against secular views. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3. Look for an excerpt from Chapter 4 as part of our Saturday Series on Nov. 2.
Let’s start with some basic dictionary definitions of “objective”: “existing independent of mind; emphasizing or expressing the nature of reality as it is apart from personal reflections or feelings.” An objective report, therefore, is one “stressing objective reality as distinguished from subjective experience or appearance.” But what is reality? As human beings, we can perceive it in part, but always through our own perspectives. Karl Marx emphasized class, some emphasize race, and others stress an existential subjectivity.
How do we get accurate information? The person who understands not just the appearance of a building, but every cubic foot of its innards, is often the builder. How much more does God, the builder and sustainer of this world, know every atom of his creation? This means only God knows the true, objective nature of things. Happily, he hasn’t kept it to himself. He gave us the Bible, which, since it comes from him, is the only completely objective and accurate view of the world. Given our human limitations and sinfulness, we can never achieve God’s perspective, but by following the Bible’s teachings we try to come as close as we can. The only true objectivity is biblical objectivity.
Since we are fallen sinners, it’s hard to practice biblical objectivity. We can easily fall into amoral journalism, journalistic moralism, or existential subjectivity. Amoral journalism emphasizes all the sound and fury in the world and presents people’s lives as tales told by idiots, signifying nothing. It is not the same as sensationalism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a condition of excited feeling produced in a community by some occurrence.” The Bible is often sensational as it wakes up the sleeping and reminds us of the nature of God and man. But amoral journalism is sensationalism that does not point us to God.
We can also fall into journalistic moralism, which emphasizes the good and uplifting parts of life so people can feel better about themselves. The churchy form of journalistic moralism presents happy, smiling church people, removed from the sinful world and moving from one triumph to the next—and it thus seems unrealistic. Existential subjectivity, where every person becomes a god in his own eyes and decides for himself what is right and wrong, is also a danger. The Christian goal is to reflect biblical thinking as well as we can.
Biblical objectivity, in contrast to these other emphases, shows how humans are both terrible and yet wonderful, created in God’s image and worth dying for. It is Christ-oriented, covering both crucifixion and resurrection. That gives Christian reporters a license to cover sorrow, tragedy, and even evil. The Bible teaches that when man turns away from God, he acts like a beast. That beastliness will show itself sometimes in awful crimes. We do not want to dwell on them, but if we ignore them, we’re ignoring evidence for the understanding of man’s sinfulness that is essential to Christianity—for if man without God is not a beast, then Christ’s sacrifice for us was unnecessary.
One other element needs emphasis: Christians have the opportunity to get things right by looking to the Bible, but Christians are not immune to the temptations and pressures that affect other journalists. Since we are far from godly, we will get things wrong. Our goal is to take strong stands when the Bible is clear, and to avoid doing so when the Bible is not. Taking a strong position does not mean that we ignore unbiblical positions, misquote or ridicule opponents, or give up reporting to engage in propaganda.
TO DEEPEN THIS DISCUSSION OF OBJECTIVITY, we have to understand how it has gone through four definitions in American journalism. In phase one, many early American journalists assumed God is objectively real, with an existence independent of our minds. In 1690 the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, noted God’s “Merciful Providence” as fact, not opinion. Editor Benjamin Harris reported that Plymouth residents “have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extreme and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for his giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest.”
Although no one in early American journalism used the term “objective reporting,” some editors obviously understood that factuality demanded taking into account the spiritual. The Boston Recorder reported recoveries from illness after prayer as acts of God. Recorder editors knew many ill individuals die despite prayer. There is a problem when Christians want so much for God to “do justice” right away that they exaggerate reports of his intervention. God does not need public relations help. But when truly miraculous cures do occur, a Recorder editorial writer asked, “Can you rationally draw any other inference” than that of God’s sovereignty?
Many early American journalists would have been amazed to hear that anyone who ignores the spiritual would consider himself objective. Then, those who ignored the spiritual were considered subjective atheists, allowing their own feelings to overcome what really exists. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians notes that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17). How then could a reporter, in describing reality, not refer to God, the Creator of reality?
Starting midway through the nineteenth century, though, a new phase in the understanding of objectivity took hold among American journalists. They began to see “fact” only as that which was scientifically measurable. As photographs began to provide a record of the visible, many journalists equated the visible with the real and began seeing the world as largely non-mysterious. They did not use the term “objectivity,” but they made their own eyes the standard of authority: they were human cameras.
This represented a considerable departure from biblical notions of fallen man and a complicated world—and, as Paul wrote, one we could see only through a dark window. The metaphor also became limited as reporters saw how stories changed when they pointed cameras in a different direction and changed film or filters.
Early in the twentieth century, the concept of reporter as camera began to fall apart theoretically and practically. Some journalists also rebelled against the idea of camera objectivity, not because of questions brought forward by Christians, but because of the impact of Marxism and Freudianism. Previously, journalists had redefined it to mean an ignoring of the spiritual. Now they could ignore part of the material that journalists themselves observed, for that part might be gained through bias. They thought reporters should forgo some of their own reporting, so as to assemble as many reports from others as they could.
Objectivity could be reached, they thought, only through a balancing of multiple subjectivities. The outcome might be neither truthful nor accurate, but who knew what accuracy, let alone truth, really was? The triumph of theological liberalism in major Protestant denominations in the United States occurred at the same time as the development of phase three objectivity. This was no coincidence, since the balancing-of-subjectivities mode often suggests right or wrong does not exist—just opinion.
Soon, instead of reporting both material and spiritual considerations, or reporting the material only, journalists began to report what a variety of observers thought about things. Instead of holding up a mirror to society, they urged others to hold up their own mirrors, so reporters could then describe the funny shapes each mirror produced.
In practice, this kind of objectivity has limitations. Reporters have never felt the need to balance anti-cancer statements with pro-cancer statements. In recent practice, secular-liberal reporters have seen pro-life concerns or “homophobia” as cancerous, and many other Christian beliefs as similarly harmful. Objectivity was a reporting of multiple subjectivities, and truth was out there at a constantly receding horizon. If journalists in phase two happily saw themselves as cameras, journalists in phase three unhappily started to see themselves as stenographers or tape recorders.
MANY JOURNALISTS FOUND THE BALANCING of subjectivities to be a boring exercise—occasionally demeaning and generally purposeless. Boredom tended to set in because the reporters, to be evenhanded in reporting subjectivities, had to tell much less than they knew. Specific details might be damning to one side or the other, but the reporter’s task was to quote a variety of positions while keeping the more interesting but biased story buried in his notebook.
Some famous American journalists became acerbic about objectivity. Former New York Times reporter David Halberstam complained that “objectivity was prized and if objectivity in no way conformed to reality, then all the worse for reality.” Douglas Cater put it succinctly: the straight reporter is a “straight-jacket reporter.” Politicians often treated reporters as delivery boys, using them to carry their messages.
Late in the twentieth century, some well-known American television journalists attacked the entire concept of objectivity. Robert Bazell said, “Objectivity is a fallacy. … There are different opinions, but you don’t have to give them equal weight.” Linda Ellerbee wrote, “There is no such thing as objectivity. Any reporter who tells you he’s objective is lying to you.” In the United States, some writers argued for a “new journalism” in which reporters emphasized their own subjective impressions.
Discomfort in the U.S. led to a fourth phase: disguised subjectivity, sometimes called “strategic ritual” (pseudo-objectivity that provides defense against criticism). A key aspect of strategic ritual is choice of sources and selection of quotations. With half a dozen legitimate spokesmen on a particular issue, reporters can readily play journalistic ventriloquism by using the one who expresses their own position. As NBC reporter Norma Quarles acknowledged, “If I get the sense that things are boiling over, I can’t really say it. I have to get somebody else to say it.”
Similarly, of the many statements an opponent may make during an interview, reporters can play up one that will make that opponent look foolish. The upshot is that, once again, a reporter often makes a story conform to the “pictures in his head,” just as in the era of straightforward materialism.
ABC executive producer Av Westin acknowledged how strategic ritual helped him to sell abortion to the American public a half-century ago. He showed dramatic photos of bruised, “unwanted” babies, and shots of “a silhouetted woman telling how she nearly died after an illegal abortion.” Then, “with the case for legalized abortion powerfully presented, an opponent of abortion would be given a chance to make the pro-life side of the case, usually without dramatic pictures, inserted merely as a ‘talking head.’”
Furthermore, American newspapers until the 1960s referred to creatures in women’s wombs as “babies” or “unborn children.” Then they switched to “fetus,” which is technically correct but linguistically distancing—and inconsistent, since they didn’t also use Latin by calling the pregnant mom a gravida or having their crime reporters write about the corpus mortuum. Now, the term used—fetus or unborn child—quickly types a person as favoring or opposing abortion. New Orleans residents refer to their boulevard median strips as “neutral ground,” but we lack neutral nomenclature on abortion.
The Bible is not a neutral book. It teaches us not to have great confidence in man’s purported wisdom. Fallen man naturally distorts and lies. Fallen man’s wisdom slides us even deeper into sin and misery. Former Louisville Courier-Journal editor James Pope once declared, “Objectivity is a compass for fair reporting, a gyroscope, a little secret radar beam that stabs you when you start twisting news to your own fancy.” But, given man’s nature, can we truly rely on journalistic goodwill to check pernicious news twisting?
A Christian solution starts with confidence in God’s objectivity. God alone, the Christian knows, has given us a biblical measuring rod built of true, godly objectivity. As the prophet Amos saw, “The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line.” God then told Amos that he was “setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel” (Amos 7:7–8). We have that plumb line today, the Bible. Thus, we know what man should do.
A Christian solution is based on man’s limited ability, with God’s grace, to study God’s objectivity and apply it to everyday situations. We do not think we arrive at truth by wiping our minds clean, because then we are at the mercy of our fallen vision. Our hope relies on filling our fallen minds with God’s vision. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted U.S. broadcast journalist from the 1960s through the 1980s, once called himself a liberal, defined as one “not bound by doctrines or committed to a point of view in advance.” But, given our fallen natures, we are all captive to sin, unless we commit to Christ.
Christians are skeptical of self-generated conclusions, but sure of God’s. As we study the Bible and try to apply biblical principles, we go beyond subjectivity by responding to problems with God’s Word, which is objective. Since the Christian presuppositional structure is closer to reality than competing frameworks are, biblical Christians can explain more accurately how the world truly works.
That’s what biblical objectivity is. God created the world—that’s biblically objective fact. He created human beings male and female—that’s biblically objective fact. He created Adam and Eve and made their union “marriage”—that’s biblically objective fact.
Here’s one important distinction: Ignoring or misquoting opponents is not biblically right. Second Kings 18:32 (and Isaiah 36:17) quote the blandishments of a blaspheming Assyrian general who demanded surrender and promised exile to “a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey.” The general was saying that Assyria would give the Israelites what God had promised but failed to do—and God’s inspired writers quoted that lie.
Also, biblical objectivity is not a claim that we have answers to all policy questions. Biblical objectivity means we report accurately only when we realize this is the world the Lord has made, and only he understands it fully. Objectivity is the God’s-eye view. We acknowledge our inability to be fully objective since we are sinners with fallen wills and very limited understanding. Nevertheless, we do not give up. The Koran calls Allah “inscrutable,” but the Bible shows that God reveals his thoughts to man.
Much remains hidden, as Job learned, but we do have some sight, and when we study the Bible to see what God says about issues, we can come closer to that God’s-eye view. Therefore, a solidly Christian news publication should not be conventionally balanced. It should offer provocative and evocative, colorful and gripping, Bible-based news analysis.
Biblical objectivity emphasizes not a technique, but a plumb line. Stories that end in sadness often teach the wages of sin. Those that end well may emphasize the wages of piety. Those that are unclear teach us that much of life is unpredictable and often confusing. Immediate justice often is not forthcoming, except in poetry. Poetic justice tells us what heaven will be like, but an undue emphasis on good guys always winning might make us believe, falsely, that the present, shattered earth is our real home. Biblical objectivity means having both eyes focused on God.
Biblical objectivity is of course hateful to atheists, who say its practitioners are being subjective by reporting God as reality, since God is merely an object of the Christian’s consciousness—but atheists are assuming, without proof, that atheism is true. Christians see atheists as leaving out basic fact due to spiritual blindness. No easy compromise is possible when such fundamental presuppositions battle each other.
Atheists argue that God, as a product of imagination, has no real place in an objective news report. Christians argue that God’s existence and sovereignty are objective truth, regardless of an atheist’s personal belief in God’s nonexistence. Is an objective reporter supposed to treat God as a matter of fact (in which case he is joining the theistic side) or as a matter of opinion (in which case he has assumed the truth of atheism)? That’s the question for journalists of this age or any age.
God shows Christians he exists independently of our minds by acting on our minds from outside. Yet if a person who has not had that experience is unwilling to accept the testimony of others, and thus sees internally generated psychological change rather than God’s grace, he will see Christian fact as imagination and Christian objectivity as subjectivity.
The Bible shows the importance of making choices. First Kings 18:21 says, “Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’” In the long run, journalistic differences between followers of God and agnostics or atheists (including those who are nominally Christian, but practically indistinguishable from non-Christians) are inevitable. There is no neutrality. We are either God-centered or man-centered.
From Reforming Journalism by Marvin Olasky. © 2019 by Marvin Olasky. Published by P&R Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.