In what ways is the practise of journalism influenced and affected by objectivity?

Objectivity is an important aspect which needs to be considered in the practise of journalism. It is seen as a professional ideal which has become a troubling debate in modern journalism, leading to many questions. Does objectivity undermine the press as being the eyes and ears of the public? Or is it better serving the public to offer a variety of views? These questions only lead to a more complex one. Is objectivity even possible? The influence of objectivity needs to be explored closely to identify whether its effects on journalism are positive or negative and to conclude whether journalism can truly be objective.

Firstly, we need to understand the meaning of objectivity in the context of journalism to be able to identify its influence and effects. In journalism, we must recognise that objectivity does not have the same meaning as it does in philosophy. Here, objectivity is unbiased and means without taking a preference. It refers to factuality, disinterestedness, non-partisanship and neutrality. Journalism therefore needs to be impartial and to weigh up the views of each side of an argument equally and fairly, without favouring any side. All of this needs to be taken into account to produce a fair and accurate report which emphasises the need of eye-witness accounts, facts with multiple sources and a balance of view points.

Journalism is often described as the eyes and ears of the public. Lindsay Beyerstein discusses this concept in her article “Journalism and Objectivity” on Majikthise. She says, “If we can’t witness an event first hand, we want someone to document it with as little distortion as possible.” This highlights the importance of a journalist appearing disinterested in their work. A report needs to be informative without the addition of the reporter’s own feelings. I agree that the reader should be able to make up their own mind about the subject. This would then allow the reader to experience the situation as if they had been able to witness it for themselves.

Article 10 of The Human Rights Act is The Right to Freedom of Expression. The Act states that: “Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” It also says that the exercise of these freedoms should be carried out with a responsibility and should only be in the public interest or safety. There are many laws in place to protect the rights of others and to maintain impartiality, especially in judicial proceedings. Already we can see that the use of opinion in the practise journalism should be very limited with the many laws and regulations that a journalist must abide. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

The Press Complaints Commission is another authoritative code that journalists should adhere to. The PCC is charged with enforcing a Code of Practice, setting a benchmark for ethical standards and using it to judge complaints. The Code refers to clauses such as accuracy, privacy, discrimination and harassment. The PCC says, “Individuals have the right to express honestly held opinions, and newspapers have the right to publish them, provided the terms of the Code are not otherwise breached.” The Code of Practice allows opinion as long as it is made clear what is comment and what is news. News reports should mainly deal with facts and be almost completely objective. Opinion pages are also called ‘Op-ed’ pages which means they are on the opposite page of the editorial section. This gives a distinction between the two but there is sometimes a blur between comment and fact in newspapers which can often create a problem.

Some journalists are intentionally non-objective. These journalists are called advocacy journalists. They are often related to muckrakers who expose and corrupt businesses and governments. Sue Careless, a writer for The Interim, presents a strong point in her article about advocacy journalists. She says, “Only those holding a minority point of view are seen as biased.” Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio’s ombudsman, agrees and says, “They [the public] want to hear their own opinions reflected back to them, and they get really offended and upset when they hear an opinion that isn’t their own.” Both points are understandable and are often true. When a majority of people agree with an opinion, there isn’t as much of an issue made about it. But there are still a minority who disagree. The issue may not be as intense as it would be if it was the opposite way around, but one view is still being favoured. An opinion still expresses a bias whether there’s a majority arguing for it or not.

Moreover, a recent example of a biased news article is “A strange, lonely and troubling death” by Jan Moir which was published in The Daily Express in November 2009. It is one of the most memorable and controversial articles of 2009, written shortly after Boyzone’s superstar Stephen Gately’s death in October. Rather then being sympathetic, Moir took the opportunity to attack homosexuals and insult Stephen and his family. Her heavily opinionated piece mocks how wrong it is to accept his death was “nothing more than a tragic accident” and uses innuendos to blame his death on the fact that he was a homosexual.

In relation to this, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel ask in their book, The Elements of Journalism, “What Is Journalism for?” and first state that “journalism was for building community. Journalism was for citizenship. Journalism was for democracy.” They believe that “journalists take it as a given that they work in the public interest” and that its principles are defined by the function it plays in people’s lives. Moir’s article goes against all of the points that Kovach and Rosenstiel discuss. She has not informed the public of anything factual, and is far from creating citizenship with her prejudiced attack. Her article employs a homophobic angle and is ethically incorrect, but she does not appear sorry for insulting a whole community of people. We should believe everything a journalist writes which emphasises the problem. The only facts that Moir discusses in her article are the ones that she denies as truth. The article received more than 22,000 complaints on the PCC after being highlighted on Twitter, proving that it was not in the public interest either. Here, Moir shows the serious effects of ignoring objectivity in the practise of journalism.

Kovach and Rosenstiel also establish that there are nine elements of journalism. A journalist should follow these guidelines in order to fulfil their duty of providing people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. Neither fairness nor balance are included in any of these requirements. Kovach and Rosenstiel instead believe that bias is a part of nature and that journalists should maintain an independence; to require a journalist to be unbiased is unnatural. They argue that balance should not be an important characteristic of journalism and instead suggest keeping the news “comprehensive and proportional.” Ben Bagdikian, an American journalist, takes a similar view. He says, “News, like all human observations, is not truly objective…Human scenes described by different individuals are seen with differences.”[8] I agree with both points made here, objectivity is a natural part of everyday life. But if this were the case, we would have to ask how far we are willing to let a journalist go in expressing their opinion.

Furthermore, Noam Chomsky produced an award-winning documentary in 1992 called ‘Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media’ in which he stated that, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like…that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” The majority of people I have quoted so far readily accept objectivity as a part of journalism, effectively linking this to the points I have previously made. In relation to Jeffrey Dvorkin’s point, would the public be so accepting of a biased publication if a majority didn’t agree with the views being expressed? Chomsky has found a huge disadvantage with advocacy writing here which I strongly agree with. We will and do not accept all opinions that are made, and I think it’s fairer to exclude opinions altogether then to only accept the few that we favour.

In addition, a guest speaker at University College Falmouth held an equivalent view. Tim Dowling, a columnist for The Guardian, spoke to students about the requirements of journalism. His list of requirements consisted of ambition, audience, honesty, humour, style and subject. He said, “I’d like to insist that I stand by everything I write, but that’s not something I can do,” but he still stressed the importance of objectivity. On the other hand, he also discussed the problems between objectivity and news writing. He said that journalists are often limited by facts which can cause conflicts in ones writing. A journalist can then find themselves removing pieces of information that they find irrelevant or parts that are difficult to understand.

It is also extremely hard for journalism to remain objective at all with the increase of online and citizen journalism. It not only enables anybody to essentially self-publish their work, but it also allows everybody to comment on news articles and express their opinions about one. A recent example is a Catholic priest who has caused concern for defending Jon Venables on his online blog. James Bulger’s mother has also been commenting on social networking sites. This recent issue efficiently shows the impact of online journalism and how it can affect the impartiality of a case.

The influence of objectivity has also been threatened by a non-objective approach to journalism. This is through the New Journalism style. The New Journalism style of writing first became recognisable in New York in the 1960s. Tom Wolfe discusses this in his book The New Journalism and indicates that it is neither pure objective nor pure fiction. The power of the New Journalism is derived from four devices: scene-by-scene construction, full dialogue, third person narrative, and the gestures and behaviour of the character, giving a more narrative form. This style of journalism relates closely to feature writing, allowing feelings and opinions to be built-in. The journalist becomes integral to the story, therefore creating a biased disadvantage.

After studying New Journalism, I feel that it also reveals how subjective ‘old journalists’ are. Although an old journalist may withhold their opinion and stick to reporting only the facts of a story, they can still be biased in their structuring. When writing a news story, a journalist is required to pick out the most important quotes and remove anything unnecessary. They then structure the report in a hierarchy of importance. With using the four devices of New Journalism, the story is written chronologically and the use of full dialogue means that nothing is removed by the journalist. The reader is able to make an absolute involvement with the story as the devices give an in-depth understanding of the character, experiencing the same emotional reality and finds themselves inside the character’s mind. This style has the advantage of being able to reveal its own character rather than the journalist deciding what the public would be most interested in, leading me to disagree that any journalist can be truly objective in their work.

In conclusion, objectivity may be a part of human nature, but it’s hard not to view the matter differently when one person is publishing their view to the whole country. Through Moir’s article, we see the negative effects of a journalist expressing their extreme opinions. And through the James Bulger case we see how opinionated journalism can affect judicial proceedings. Objectivity no longer influences the practise of journalism as much as it ought to and, with the help of online journalism, people are getting away more with expressing their own beliefs than what should be allowable. The media have been deemed informers of the public. It is argued that objectivity undermines the press as being the eyes and ears of the public. But should we expect more from journalism? Is being the eyes and ears of the public not enough? Or do we also want them to be the mind of the public through a biased approach? I believe that as the ‘fourth estate,’ journalism’s role should only be to inform the public, not to create the news.

Unlinked References:

Bagdikian, Ben. 1997. The Media Monopoly. Beacon Press.
Wolfe, Tom. 2003. “Seizing The Power” The New Journalism. London: Guardian Books.
Kovach, Bill and Rosenstiel, Tom. 1990. “What is Journalism?” The Elements of Journalism. Picador.
Bagdikian, Ben. 1997. The Media Monopoly. Beacon Press.

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