Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities.
Most newspapers and TV stations depend upon news agencies for their material, and each of the four major global agencies (Agence France-Presse (formerly the Havas agency), Associated Press, Reuters and Agencia EFE) began with and continue to operate on a basic philosophy of providing a single objective news feed to all subscribers. That is, they do not provide separate feeds for conservative or liberal newspapers. Fenby explains the philosophy:
- to achieve such wide acceptability, the agencies avoid overt partiality. Demonstrably correct information is their stock in trade. Traditionally, they report at a reduced level of responsibility, attributing their information to a spokesman, the press, or other sources. They avoid making judgments and steer clear of doubt and ambiguity. Though their founders did not use the word, objectivity is the philosophical basis for their enterprises – or failing that, widely acceptable neutrality.
Journalism needs to be more objective, accurate and investigative in the way it presents information and relays facts to the public. This objectivity in journalism helps the audience to make up their own mind about a story and decide what they want to believe. There is a necessity for reporters to present the honesty regarding the facts instead of always reporting information in an honest format (Clark). In addition, to maintain objectivity in journalism, journalists need to present the facts whether or not they like or agree with those facts. Objective journalism needs to remain neutral and unbiased regardless of the writers opinion or personal beliefs.
The modern notion of objectivity in journalism is largely due to the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was the first to widely call for journalists to use the scientific method for gathering information.
Lippmann called for journalistic objectivity after the excesses of Yellow journalism. He noted that the yellows at the time had served their purpose, but that the people needed to receive the actually news, and not a "romanticized version of it".
Journalistic objectivity requires that a journalist not be on either side of an argument. The journalist must report only the facts and not a personal attitude toward the facts.
Sociologist Michael Schudson argues that "the belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' a distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation." It does not refer to the prevailing ideology of newsgathering and reporting that emphasizes eyewitness accounts of events, corroboration of facts with multiple sources and balance of viewpoints. It also implies an institutional role for journalists as a fourth estate, a body that exists apart from government and large interest groups.
Some advocacy journalists and civic journalists criticize the understanding of objectivity as neutrality or nonpartisanship, arguing that it does a disservice to the public because it fails to attempt to find truth. They also argue that such objectivity is nearly impossible to apply in practice—newspapers inevitably take a point of view in deciding what stories to cover, which to feature on the front page, and what sources they quote. Media critics such as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) have described a propaganda model that they use to show how in practice such a notion of objectivity ends up heavily favoring the viewpoint of government and powerful corporations.
Another example of an objection to objectivity, according to communication scholar David Mindich, was the coverage that the major papers (most notably the New York Times) gave to the lynching of thousands of African Americans during the 1890s. News stories of the period often described with detachment the hanging, immolation and mutilation of people by mobs. Under the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to balance these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. Mindich argues that this may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.
Historical (including social and cultural) factors have also shaped objectivity in journalism, as acknowledged and addressed in peace journalism. These are particularly relevant with regard to the large proportion of journalism about conflict. As noted below, with the growth of mass media, especially from the nineteenth century, news advertising became the most important source of media revenue. Whole audiences needed to be engaged across communities and regions to maximize advertising revenue. This led to "Journalistic Objectivity as an industry standard…a set of conventions allowing the news to be presented as all things to all people". And in modern journalism, especially with the emergence of 24-hour news cycles, speed is of the essence in responding to breaking stories. It is not possible for reporters to decide "from first principles" every time how they will report each and every story that presents itself. So convention governs much of journalism.
|“||Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy. Mostly, though, we are biased in favor of getting the story, regardless of whose ox is being gored.||”|
|— Brent Cunningham, 2003|
Brent Cunningham, the managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review, argues that objectivity excuses lazy reporting. Objectivity makes us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. If a journalist is on a deadline and all he or she has is "both sides of the story", that is often good enough, failing to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false. According to Cunningham, the nut of the tortured relationship with "objectivity" lies within a number of conflicting diktats that the press operated under; be neutral yet investigative; be disengaged but have an impact; be fair-minded but have an edge. Objectivity is not possible because we all have our biases, including journalists. No individual embodies all perspectives of a society. In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code.
Cunningham, however, argues that reporters by and large are not ideological warriors. They are imperfect people performing a difficult job that is crucial to society. "Despite all our important and necessary attempts to minimize our humanity, it can't be any other way," Cunningham concludes.
The debate about objectivity is lit also within the photojournalism field. In 2011, Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori has challenged the expectation of objective truth that the general public associates to photojournalism with his project "Photojournalism Behind the Scenes". By breaking the taboo of the invisible photographer and including him in the frame, Salvadori has ignited a discussion about the ethics of the profession and the need of the audience to be an active viewer by acknowledging the inevitable subjectivity of the photographic medium.
Online journalism enables highly accelerated news reporting and delivery, which sometimes is at tension with standards of objectivity. On the other hand, online journalism as an easy access for the journalistic practice can propound challenges to certain reports with claimed objectivity by the mainstream media.
Some argue that a more appropriate standard should be fairness and accuracy (as enshrined in the names of groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Under this standard, taking sides on an issue would be permitted as long as the side taken was accurate and the other side was given a fair chance to respond. Many professionals believe that true objectivity in journalism is not possible and reporters must seek balance in their stories (giving all sides their respective points of view), which fosters fairness.
|“||A good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn’t out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism.||”|
|— Timothy Noah, 1999|
One example is Brent Cunningham, who believes that reporters must understand their inevitable biases, so they can understand what the accepted narratives are, and to work against them as much as possible. “We need deep reporting and real understanding, but we also need reporters to acknowledge all that they don’t know, and not try to mask that shortcoming behind a gloss of attitude, or drown it in a roar of oversimplified assertions,” he points out.
Cunningham suggests the following to solve the inherent controversy of “objectivity”:
- Journalists must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what they do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of “objectivity” implies. This will not end the charges of bias, but will allow journalists to defend what they do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.
- Journalists need to be freed and encouraged to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening. In short, journalists need to be more willing to judge factual disputes.
Notable departures from objective news work also include the muckraking of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, the underground press of the 1960s, and public journalism.
For news related to conflict, peace journalism provides the alternative of "anchoring" in journalism through the insights of social science, specifically through disciplines such as conflict analysis, conflict resolution, peace research and social psychology. The application of empirical research to the reporting of conflict can then replace the unacknowledged conventions (see above) which govern the non-scientific "objectivity" of journalism, and offset political and commercial interests influencing gatekeeping decisions.
|“||... "balanced" coverage that plagues American journalism and which leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting...and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.||”|
|— Ken Silverstein, 2008|
The term objectivity was not applied to journalistic work until the 20th century, but it had fully emerged as a guiding principle by the 1890s.
A number of communication scholars and historians, Michael Schudson among others, agree that the idea of "objectivity," if not the term, has prevailed as a dominant discourse among journalists in the United States since the appearance of modern newspapers in the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s, which transformed the press in relation to the democratization of politics, the expansion of a market economy, and the growing authority of an entrepreneurial, urban middle class. Before then, objectivity was not an issue. American newspapers were expected to present a partisan viewpoint, not a neutral one.
The need for objectivity first occurred to Associated Press editors who realize that partisanship would narrow their potential market. Their goal was to reach all newspapers, and leave it to the individual papers to decide on what slanting and commentary was needed. Lawrence Gobright, the AP chief in Washington, explained the philosophy of objectivity to Congress in 1856:
- My business is to communicate facts. My instructions do not allow me to make any comments upon the facts which I communicate. My dispatches are sent to papers of all manner of politics, and the editors say they are able to make their own comments upon the facts which are sent to them. I therefore confine myself to what I consider legitimate news. I do not act as a politician belonging to any school, but try to be truthful and impartial. My dispatches are merely dry matter of fact and detail.
|“||The world is not responding to events … but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism, and specifically in a severe malfunction that is occurring in that profession—my profession …||”|
|— Matti Friedman, 2014|
But into the first decade of the twentieth century, even at The New York Times, it was uncommon for to see a sharp divide between facts and values. Before World War I, journalists did not think much about the subjectivity of perception. They believed that facts are not human statements about the world but aspects of the world itself. After the war, however, this changed. Journalists, like others, lost faith in verities a democratic market society had taken for granted. The experience of propaganda during the war convinced them that the world they reported was one that interested parties had constructed for them to report. In the twenties and thirties, many journalists observed that facts themselves, or what they had taken to be facts, could not be trusted. One response to this discomfiting view was "objectivity". Facts were no longer understood as aspects of the world, but consensually validated statements about it. Thus, from the 1920s on, the idea that human beings individually and collectively construct the reality they deal with has held a central position to social thought and encouraged a more sophisticated ideal of "objectivity" among journalists.
Some historians, like Gerald Baldasty, have observed that "objectivity" went hand in hand with the need to make profits in the newspaper business by selling advertising. In this economic analysis, publishers did not want to offend any potential advertising customers and therefore encouraged news editors and reporters to strive to present all sides of an issue and more of the bright side of life. Advertisers would remind the press that partisanship hurts circulation, and, consequently, advertising revenues.
Others have proposed a political explanation for the rise of objectivity, which occurred earlier in the United States than most other countries; scholars like Richard Kaplan have argued that political parties needed to lose their hold over the loyalties of voters and the institutions of government before the press could feel free to offer a nonpartisan, "impartial" account of news events. This change occurred following the critical election of 1896 and the subsequent Progressive reform era.
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