“Objective” Journalism Doesn’t Exist: An NSA Case Study

“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
—Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Whether by design or dimwittedness, yesterday’s article in the Washington Post (WP) by Ellen Nakashima reporting that the National Security Agency (NSA) “is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records” misleads far more than it informs. Critical information about the phone records collection program rests deep in the article and the overall tone is NSA-friendly. Put bluntly, the article sounds as if it were published by a PR department—not a cantankerous press. We know this because none of these facts from the article were chosen to be emphasized in the headline:

  • “One former senior official acknowledged that 100 percent [collection] was the goal”
  • “In 2006 … the NSA was collecting ‘closer to 100’ percent of Americans’ phone records”
  • “[T]he agency in 2009 struggled with compliance issues, including what a surveillance court found were ‘daily violations of the minimization procedures set forth in [court] orders’” (emphasis ours)

That’s just selecting three. Considering those quotes and others are buried deep in the article, the WP opted for an overall story arc that makes the NSA appear comparatively benign and well-intentioned—and its editorial decisions regarding style and presentation reinforce those themes throughout.

The second paragraph, for example, informs readers the headline is “likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible” (emphasis ours). First, notice how Nakashima writes that the 30% figure will raise questions as the program’s efficacy, as opposed to its constitutionality, and second how she implicitly suggests the NSA’s collection of 30% of Americans’ call records is not enough. And did you catch how an article that began by suggesting the NSA is collecting comparatively little phone data segues directly into describing how the NSA is in fact intent on collecting virtually all of it? We’re unclear as to why the WP emphasized the former part of that question over the latter, but their decision highlights a narrative that portrays the NSA positively.

Like many establishment media outlets, the WP would likely respond to our criticisms by invoking what they always do: “objectivity.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), however, we want to make clear that claim cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Think about it. The examples above should suffice to demonstrate that, regardless of the facts in any given situation, one can always emphasize certain things over others to provide the story a frame or narrative. And fundamentally there’s no problem with that, since gathering facts and assembling them into a coherent story is part and parcel of journalism. The problem arises when these decision-making processes are described as “objective” when they are so obviously not.

Journalism, like everything else, involves decision-making. The WP’s headline was the result not of “objectivity” but of their subjective determination that the story about an NSA presently collecting 30% of all Americans’ call records made for a better lead than the story about an NSA intent on collecting it all. (Those remain, of course, only two possible narratives out of many). We’re unclear on why they made that choice, but there can be no doubt they made a choice. Indeed, they engaged in subjective, decision-making processes for the article’s entire life cycle. If and until establishment journalists acknowledge that their trade is fundamentally about subjective decision-making—in other words, accept reality rather than deny it—they do themselves, and the public, no favors.