News and the scientific approach

Objectivity

Journalism textbooks take writing seriously and promote an objective style of reporting information. The concept makes perfect sense when, as a reader, you want to make your own judgments about an event—an election, a soccer game, a police shooting—rather than have someone else interpret the event for you.

Objective writers learn to be human transcribers in that they try to capture the “reality” projected and recapture it in their news stories. When Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame spoke to my college campus in the 1970s he urged reporters to be transcribers.

Obviously this approach becomes a tough task because humans can’t help but infuse their own interpretations onto issues.

The objectivity tenet mirrors the Western approach to science. By reporting objectively journalists remove themselves—subjectively speaking—from the news story, infusing a sort of scientific approach to writing, which has the added effect of raising the legitimacy of reporting. This method contrasts dramatically with indigenous ways-of-knowing, which are unabashedly personal and subjective. As the Kennewick Man news coverage illustrates well, the scientists urged the courts to have the bones examined to “advance science” and add to the body of knowledge, while the Indian tribes argued on personal and moral grounds: you don’t hack into the grave of a relative and chip away at his bones.

Reporters examine two sides of an issue and then present them for the reader’s judgment. Problem is that most conflicts have multiple sides that are rarely reported, usually because of time and space constraints. In the case of Kennewick Man, the story was framed over and over again as a contest between scientists and Indians. The necessity for quick sound bites, short headlines, and writing in the inverted pyramid style suit are well-suited to the presentation of what becomes binary coverage.

So, in the Kennewick case, the stories were framed as scientists versus Indians, narrowing the scope of coverage to a simplistic dualism. The conflict was described as a battle over the bones, thus framing the issue in war-like metaphors and reducing the story to a few pithy sound bites about a skirmish. And by presenting the story as “their” battle (the scientists and Indians)—by removing all subjectivity—the story never becomes “our” battle, so, as readers, we are never invested into the question of whether the bones should be subjected to scientific scrutiny or returned to the earth.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in framing, human origin, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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