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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - June 2020

Defining journalistic objectivity: Being biased towards the facts

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Rikard Linde
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Over the past weeks, many people in the media have discussed how to cover #BlackLivesMatter, COVID-19 and things like climate change without showing bias. But we keep talking about it in the wrong way.

In the media industry we have developed a 'group-think' where we will insist on not being biased, or to only talk about bias in terms of political leanings.

I bet that most of you, when thinking about objectivity, think about it as 'we should not focus on a specific side of things, but just bring people the information'.

For instance, in a recent (and very good) interview between Mathew Ingram and Amanda Darrach, Mathew asked this:

That brings me to a sort of related question about covering protests, which is about how much journalists should allow themselves to sympathize with or identify with - or promote - the issues behind the protests. This seems to have reignited a lot of ongoing debates around objectivity and whether it can or should exist as a staple of journalism. What do you think?

I understand what he (and many others) are saying here, but this is not the way we should talk about this. The problem is that they are defining journalistic objectivity in comparison to a political spectrum.

Like this:

One very simple example of this is to look at climate change. In the US, we have one side of the political spectrum saying that climate change isn't real and that it's all just a hoax invented by China ... and on the other side of the political spectrum, we have people saying that climate change is real, and pointing to the work of scientists.

As a newspaper, to then place yourself in the middle of those two views, and report about each from a 'neutral ground' is not just wrong, but incredibly disrespectful to your readers.

So, we need to talk about objectivity in a completely different way. Journalism is not something we place in between two opposing political sides. In fact, journalism should not be defined politically at all. It should not be to either side, nor should it be in the middle. It should not be anywhere near this political scale.

So how do we talk about this? Well, we define our focus and objectivity from a journalistic perspective.

What we do is this:

First, we create one axis where we decide whether the story is defined by opinions or facts, and we put these at opposing ends.

Next we create another axis where we define whether something is a problem or not a problem. And we define this journalistically. Meaning, it's not whether people think it's a problem, but whether through our journalistic checks we know it's a problem.

We then combine these two lines, and we end up with a matrix that looks like this.

What we now have are four squares, and our role as journalists is to fit each story into each one, depending on what that story is about, and then report it from that objective.

So let's talk about each square.

Problems based on facts

First of all, we have the top right square, where we have all the topics that are defined as problems that we have identified, and which are also based on actual facts and data.

One thing we can place into this box is the topic of police brutality against black people in the US.

Why can we place this here? Well, because we as journalists have analyzed this story. And what we have found is that, in the US, the police are killing far more people than in other western countries.

We can also see, when we look at the data, that black people are disproportionately targeted by this.

As journalists, we now have all the information needed to define this as a real problem, and we have the data to define this as a fact.

So think about this in terms of journalistic objectivity.

Everything that we now do must be based on this. From how we cover the protests, how we report from the press conferences, how we hold people to account, which people we invite to write editorials, and how we focus and define the narrative on our front pages.

We cannot just say: "We don't know if this is a problem, so we will just cover both sides equally". We know that this is a problem, and so reporting about it from any other perspective would be massively dishonest.

And I use the phrase journalistic objectivity because this is what real objectivity is.

The dictionary definition of 'objectivity' is not to be neutral to all sides, but to instead be objective towards the facts:

Objectivity (adjective): Not be influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

So when you as a journalist know that racism is real, being objective doesn't mean that you report what every politician has to say. It means that you do not allow political opinions to influence your focus on the facts!

Problems based on opinions

Secondly, we have the top-left box. Here are all the stories where we still know something is a problem, but we don't have any specific fact to help us focus.

An example is happening in my local city. In my city, we have an issue with traffic congestion. As journalists, we can easily verify this. Every morning and every afternoon, traffic slows to a crawl as people are going to and from work.

What we don't know, however, is how to fix it. Each of our local political parties has their own suggestions. Some want to build a tunnel, others want to widen roads, while some think that diverting some of the traffic away from the city is the best solution.

So, in this case, place this story into the upper-left box, and we approach from this perspective. In other words, we present the story to the public as the problem that it is, but we focus our coverage on presenting and reporting about the many solutions and try to foster a debate about them.

As journalists we should present each solution equally, but we must also try to uncover the details and hold each party to account for the accuracy and the usefulness of the information being provided.

That's not a problem

Thirdly, we look at the lower-right box, where, again, we see a very different type of story. Here, we have stories that as journalists, we know are not a problem but which others claim are.

An example of this is how politicians often talk about crime. For instance, you might hear a politician saying that there is a huge problem with increasing rates of burglaries, and then try to use that to impose new legislation to be 'tough on crime'.

When we hear this as journalists, we must look up the data, and for my country it looks like this (it literally only took 5 seconds to look this up). And here we can see that what the politicians are saying is not true.

So, again, we must define our journalistic objectivity around this. We know that the thing the politician is talking about is not the problem they describe, and we have the data to prove it.

And so, we cannot just report what the politician is saying, and thereby provide them a platform to say this nonsense. Our responsibility is to keep the public factfully informed, and our objectivity is to not allow the politicians' opinions to influence our focus on these facts.

We also cannot turn this story into a both-side type of story, where we interview one politician saying this, and then another politician saying the opposite.

This would be misleading, because, again, we know what the facts are. So as journalists, we should not provide the person lying about this with an equal opportunity to get heard.

Our objectivity must always be defined by the facts of the story, not by whatever random opinion different politicians might have about something.

The trolls

Finally, we have the box in the lower-left. Here we have all the stories that don't really seem to affect anyone, but the politicians (or other groups) really want you to think it's a huge problem.

At the same time, the people talking about this never want to provide any data or evidence, and are expressing it as an opinion.

In other words, these are stories that, journalistically, don't seem to be relevant for the public (they are not a problem), and are entirely opinion based.

The problem is that publishers are spending a lot of time in this box, because this is where the populistic political stories are. And we see so many examples of this every day.

If I was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, I would approach these stories in one of two ways (depending on the story).

For most of these stories, I would simply refuse to publish them. They are not actual problems, despite how much shouting we hear from the politicians about it. And the reason they are shouting about it is because they want us to write about them so that they can use our exposure to energize their base.

As publishers, we should refuse to take part in that. The role of an editor is to edit. To look at the world, define what is relevant or not ... and if something isn't relevant, it doesn't get published. It's not news just because a politician said it is.

In the cases where we do feel we have to cover something, I would focus on demanding proof as a condition for publishing that story.

So if a politician makes a statement about something, but doesn't provide us with any information that proves what they are talking about is actually what it is ... then we as publishers should say:

No! We are not going to publish this without proof. We are not going to let you use our newspapers as a platform for random and unsubstantiated accusations. You can do that on Facebook.

Right? This should be the role of the press, and how we as journalists define our objective focus.

And notice what I did here. None of these boxes are defined 'politically'. There are no Republican or Democrat leanings here (or equivalents in Europe). Each one of these boxes is defined by the facts that we have about each story, and how that story is categorized journalistically.

This is what being journalistically objective means. It doesn't mean that we are neutral to every story. It means that we approach each story based on the facts rather than on whatever political sides or opinions people might have.

However, this also explains why we have so many problems today.

How neutral news creates political polarizing news

When we look at issues around trust in news and people's feelings about bias in the news, we generally see three things:

First, we see that (in many countries) the public is getting more and more polarized.

Secondly, when we look at trust in comparison to political affiliations, we see that the public's trust in news differs massively depending which political side they lean to.

And finally, we see that whenever there is a drop in trust in politics overall, this also results in a drop in trust in news.

What this tells us is that we are part of this problem. It tells us that our focus as journalists, even when we try to be neutral, actually has the complete opposite effect.

The reason it tells us this is because if this wasn't the case, then we wouldn't see such a correlation.

So, why is this happening?

I can illustrate this in a very simple way. Let's use climate change as an example.

What we have done over the past 10 years is to focus on this story from a political perspective, and then in order not to be 'biased', we have refrained from coming to any conclusions, defining any specific focus, and instead we have just interviewed each side of the political spectrum in the form of 'both-side journalism'.

Like this:

What you see here is the worst type of journalism that we could possibly do.

The first problem is that, because we, as the media, never wanted to 'pick sides', we kept focusing on just the opinion of whether it was a thing or not. This, of course, is massively misleading, because we know that climate change is real. In other words, in order to stay neutral, we gave up on the facts and just approached this story from the point of diverging political opinions.

But climate change doesn't care about politics. Climate change is not going to go away just because some politicians don't think it's real, just as COVID-19 isn't going to go away just because some leaders don't think they need to test for it.

And so, as journalists, we do the public a massive disservice by approaching the story this way.

Secondly, look at these two people.

These are our readers. And because we as journalists don't want to get involved and just report both political sides equally, we tell our readers that it is now up to them to decide which side they trust the most.

This is what is causing political polarization.

Some readers will, because of their political leanings, trust one side more than the other. And so, instead of helping them get better informed, this style of journalism is actually causing people to be misinformed and polarized.

We are causing this to happen!

Remember what I said before about what objectivity really means. It doesn't mean just giving people both sides and then leaving it up to the public to guess which one is right. It means that, as journalists, we do not allow opinions to influence our journalistic focus.

Objectivity (adjective): Not be influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

But this is what publishers are doing here. When you ask political parties whether they think climate change is real or not, you are discarding the facts and just going with opinions.

And we see this mistake again and again.

Take the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests. The way we (initially) reported about those was like this:

Again, you see the same problem. As the press, in our effort to stay neutral, we are completely ignoring what the story is actually about. A few windows and cars getting smashed has no relevance compared to 400 years of racism and police brutality. These are not 'equal opinions'. They are not even opinions!

And look what this is doing to our readers. The readers see our news reports with violent protesters in one picture, and the police tear-gassing people in another, and what do the readers do?

They look at this, and since you as a newspaper are providing no facts or guidance to understand the perspective of this, they just react to this story. And as a result, some people think the police are the good guys, while others think it's the protesters who are the good guys.

As newspapers, we just polarized the public even more. We just made the problem of racism even bigger!

This is inexcusable, but pretty much every single newspaper has done this over the past month, although many have started to change (which I wrote about here)

How do we fix this?

To fix this is very easy. All you do is to use the matrix I presented to you earlier.

Let's take climate change as an example again. Where would you put climate change in the matrix? Well, it's something that we know is a problem. We have tons of data, we can see it with our own eyes, cities have started investing millions in climate change protection, home owners in areas at risk have started building their own protections ... and on top of that, we have overwhelming scientific consensus going all the way back to 2007.

So, climate change is a problem based on facts. This places it firmly in the top right corner.

This also means that we have to focus and approach this story from this perspective. This means that we should focus on what we need to do about it. We need to look at the companies impacted by this, talk about the local communities and how they might see changes, look into budgets and plans by local municipalities to prepare and prevent damage.

There are so many stories to cover here.

What's also important is that we approach this with the correct focus. Climate change, for instance, doesn't care who the Prime Minister is. And so we should not cover this from a political-first perspective. We should do it from a climate-first and public-first perspective.

We see the same thing with a lot of other stories. Like COVID-19. It's also not a political-first story. It's a health story, and we should focus on that instead of allowing the politicians to turn it into a political issue.

Look at racism and police brutality. Again, it's not a political story, it doesn't matter what opinion the politicians have. The racism is very real, and we have tons of data about it.

But back to climate change.

Of course, not everything is based on facts. For instance, while we do know that climate change is a problem, people might have different opinions about how to fix it. So how do we cover that?

Well, remember, we still know that climate change is real. Just because people have an opinion doesn't change that. But, as journalists, we don't have enough information or facts to determine which solution would work best.

As a result, we need to debate the solutions ... which puts that into the upper-left corner of the matrix.

Here we do need to do our traditional 'both sides' journalism, but we need to listen to and debate all the possible solutions.

Two things though.

First, as journalists, it's our role to uncover and explore these proposed solutions in order to find out the facts about them. In other words, it's our job as journalists to help the public turn the opinions about how to fix climate change, into facts about what each would mean.

So when we report it, we demand that they put in the effort to explain it, to bring forward budget estimates, to run simulations of how these models might turn out, and we get the data and the insights to be able to look at this.

It's not our job to just report the news, our job is to 'inform the public'.

Secondly, again, get rid of the political-first focus.

The biggest mistake we make, as the press, is that we approach these types of debates from the perspective of which party is saying what. So in the UK, for instance, we start our news stories by saying that the "Conservative party" said this, and then "Labour" said that. In the US, we say that the "Republicans said this", and that the "Democrats" said that.

This is exactly the style of journalism that is causing all the problems with polarization of society. We are forcing our readers into thinking about this from a party-politics perspective, and distracting them from focusing on this from a solution-based perspective.

We should not do this. Our stories should be centered around what the proposed solution actually contains, and we should try to remove party-politics as part of the narrative. In other words, the merits of each solution should not be covered based on party-politics, but on the solution itself.

Of course, during all of this, some politician will insist on saying: "Oh, climate change isn't real. It's just a hoax invented by China".

Okay... so, how do we cover that? Again, it's simple. We put it into the matrix.

So here we have a politician claiming that climate change isn't a problem based on a statement that he is unwilling (and incapable) of supporting any form of facts, data or evidence.

This places this statement in the lower left corner. The box that we delegated to all the idiots of the world who are just making shit up.

As a journalist, you know this isn't true. We know that climate change is actually in the upper-right box.

And so, remember what I said before about this lower-left box. Anything that goes into this box should not be covered by default.

No, seriously. You should refuse to cover it, because just giving attention to it will act as a form of political polarization and it will mislead the public.

Again, remember that this is what being objective actually means:

Objectivity (adjective): Not be influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

It's this simple - Don't cover it!

Of course, some of you will now say: "But wait a minute. This wasn't just some random politician who said that it was a hoax invented by China. It was actually the President of the United States who said it. Don't we as journalists have a duty to report that and to hold him to account for it?"

Well, yes ... (and no).

The problem is that, in the world we live in today, holding people to account and providing exposure are often opposites.

This is very different from how we used to do things. In the old days, if a politician said something silly, we would call it out (create public exposure), and this would then have the effect that the politician would apologize.

In today's world, this doesn't work anymore. Today, if Trump does something bad, and we create public exposure for it, Trump thinks he is being rewarded.

This completely changes the way we think about exposure.

It means that, today, exposure should not be the default tool that we journalists have. If someone does something bad, giving them exposure and reporting about it should not be the default.

Instead, we need to think about what we give attention to.

So think about the matrix, and think about it in terms of how much time we want our readers to spend in each box.

In other words, when your readers come to you, which box would create the best level of value for the reader (and for society)?

The answer is simple. We need to keep our editorial focus on the stories where we have the ability to provide the best information, and that is the stories in the top boxes, and especially in the box where we know something is a problem and where we can report about it from a factual perspective.

The place where there is the least amount of value is to spend all day just reporting about what some idiotic politician said as a form of opinion.

In other words, when deciding which stories to give attention to, we should focus them like this:

Keep the focus on the real problems. The problems that we know are problems because they're based on facts. And focus most of your time (in this case 75% of your coverage - 30%+45%) on informing the people about that.

And then, in the 5% of cases where you feel that you absolutely do need to cover what some crazy politician said, do so from the perspective of the 'truth sandwich'.

Jay Rosen recently wrote about what this is. It's a concept originally attributed to George Lakoff, and it's based on the principle that if you have to report something that we know isn't true, always start and end the article with what is true.

As Jay Rosen describes it:

Here are the steps:

1.) State what is true.
2.) Report that a false or dubious claim has been made. (But only if it's newsworthy, meaning important for the public to know it happened. Otherwise use silence.)
3.) Repeat what the truth actually is.
Now for an example...
A "truth sandwich" lede:

"There's no clear evidence that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, protects against Coronavirus. Donald Trump said today he's taking it, but his doctor would not confirm that, and medical experts have said it could have dangerous side effects.

As you can see from the example, the idea is to bracket the troublesome claim between accurate statements so that it is neither the first nor the last impression in a news bulletin. This is not a solution to the problem of how to report on false charges and likely BS, just a better practice that is not hard to learn, and could become newsroom policy tomorrow.

So, if you have to cover something in that lower-left box (the box where people are just making up things), this is the approach we need to take. But don't force your readers to waste their lives in the lower-left box.

A long way ahead, but this could fix things

Obviously, we can't change the problem around political polarization and lack of trust overnight. This is a process that will take much longer (many years).

But as a media analyst, I believe that if we as newspapers used the model I have outlined here, and if we did it consistently across everything we do (the articles, the headlines, the editorial, the social media posts ...everywhere), we could make real progress.

If we changed the way we cover the news, so that instead of covering it on a political spectrum, we cover it from a facts vs problems perspective, people's perception of news would dramatically change, leading to more trust, and more value.

Being objective does not mean "let's interview everyone with an opinion equally". It actually means the opposite. It means, let's focus on the facts, and not allow all the crazy people with opinions to distract us from this.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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