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Objectivity in Journalism

November 27, 2006

One clear sign of [a] lively debate about [journalistic] ethics is the ongoing questioning of the principle of objectivity. Many believe that this tenet of American journalism has morphed into a false balance, a tyranny of evenhandedness. Little more than “He said-she said” journalism. Others charge that the degree of detachment that objectivity has seemed to require of journalists is an element in its failure—which made that rare moment of unqualified journalistic success accompanying Hurricane Katrina all the more remarkable. Reporters (most notably Anderson Cooper of CNN) showed their hearts. Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff: “How is it possible that you could not have known on late Thursday, for instance, that there were thousands of people in the convention center, who didn’t have food, who didn’t have water, who didn’t have security, when that was being reported on national television?” Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times wrote a piece headlined “Reporters Turn from Deference to Outrage.” Readers and viewers loved it. Even months later, the New York Times on April 10, 2006, quoted a reader in New Orleans, saying: “These writers are energized and passionate.” She wasn’t a big fan of the paper before Katrina, she said, but now if she misses a day, “I feel so out of touch.” A headline accompanying the story summed it up: “Coverage driven by the shared grief over losses and hope for rebuilding.” Coverage driven by grief and hope is exactly not what objectivity has been. The commitment to being dispassionate often felt to consumers like a lack of concern. Disinterest came across as uninterested—and uninteresting. More and more, Americans are trusting the information they get from sources with a “voice,” including comedy programs like The Daily Show, documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth or theater like Stuff Happens; and Fox News’s remarkable growth stems in significant part from its clear point of view. Craig Newmark of craigslist voiced what many believe when he said in an AP article: “The reason why newspapers are losing circulation is that too many traditional journalists are willing to quote politicians and business executives even if they’re blatantly lying—merely for the sake of perceived objectivity.” Bloggers debate the question “Is objectivity over?” and journalists ponder replacing it with comprehensiveness, proportionality, balance, fairness. The blurring of the line between the public and the private, breakdown in trust in government stories, commercial pressures and the speeding up of news cycles with new technology: All challenge the old construct of objectivity. Critiquing not the ideal of objectivity but its application, former New York Times reporter Doug McGill wrote: “For more than a century, objectivity has been the dominant professional norm of the news media. It has at its heart the noble aim of presenting indisputable facts upon which everyone in society can agree, and build upon towards the goal of a better society. Unfortunately, the ideal of objectivity has in practice in today’s newsrooms become a subtle but powerful means of self-censorship. It’s a conglomeration of contradictory practices that serve the purpose of rationalization as often as investigation. It has become a crutch for journalistic practices that work against civic aims.” McGill believes that journalism’s failure to serve the public interest, which has been so pronounced in recent years, is in large part traceable to the breakdown of the norm of objectivity as a practical and ethical guide. (His October 2004 essay can be found at Michael Kinsley, in his Slate column, writes of “the twilight of objectivity” and how other fields have disavowed “the notion of an objective reality that words are capable of describing.” “Would it be the end of the world if American newspapers abandoned the cult of objectivity?” Kinsley asks, offering some “reassuring models of what a post-objective press might look like.” These include newspapers like the Guardian or Financial Times of London, and newsmagazines. “Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. I am perhaps not the only journalist who has written for both news and editorial and felt perhaps more compelled to gain the whole picture before opining.” You can more readily pass off a news story as complete, he notes, if you simply have enough quotes. Many believe that the heart of the problem is mistaking balance for objectivity; the latter, they say, should be defined by process. Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists treat this matter in the Elements of Journalism, calling for a process of verification. [A project of] the Center for Social Media at American University on the Future of Public Media, funded by the Ford Foundation, [is] aimed at countering “blind adherence to ‘balance’” in public broadcasting and seeking to identify creative approaches to solutions. The University of North Carolina’s Phil Meyer, as far back as 1973, argued that the scientific method could enable the journalist “to reduce the size of the leap from fact to interpretation and to find a more solid base of fact from which to leap.” A change in the nature of journalism’s commitment to objectivity is probably coming whether journalists embrace it or not. For one thing, the tone of journalism is very different online, with inevitable impact on traditional media. For another, the public here again feels differently from journalists. [An] Annenberg 2005 survey showed that the American public disapproves only narrowly of partisan journalism while journalists disapprove heartily: 16 percent of the 673 journalists polled and 43 percent of the 1,500 members of the public said it was “a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.” Eighty percent of journalists and 53 percent of the public said it was “a bad thing.”