Journalistic objectivity is a considerable notion within the discussion of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity may refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities. First evolving as a practice in the 18th century, a number of critiques and alternatives to the notion have emerged since, fuelling ongoing and dynamic discourse surrounding the ideal of objectivity in journalism.
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. Journalist Jonathan Fenby has explained the notion:
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.
Objectivity in journalism aims to help the audience make up their own mind about a story, providing the facts alone and then letting audiences interpret those on their own. To maintain objectivity in journalism, journalists should present the facts whether or not they like or agree with those facts. Objective reporting is meant to portray issues and events in a neutral and unbiased manner, regardless of the writers opinion or personal beliefs.
Sociologist Michael Schudson suggests that "the belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' a distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation". Objectivity also outlines an institutional role for journalists as a fourth estate, a body that exists apart from government and large interest groups.
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. While objectivity is a complex and dynamic notion that may refer to a multitude of techniques and practices, it generally refers to the idea of "three distinct, yet interrelated, concepts": truthfulness, neutrality, and detachment.
Truthfulness is a commitment to reporting only accurate and truthful information, without skewing any facts or details to improve the story or better align an issue with any certain agenda. Neutrality suggests that stories be reported in an unbiased, even-handed, and impartial manner. Under this notion, journalists are to side with none of the parties involved, and simply provide the relevant facts and information of all. The third idea, detachment, refers to the emotional approach of the journalist. Essentially, reporters should not only approach issues in an unbiased manner, but also with a dispassionate and emotionless attitude. Through this strategy, stories can be presented in a rational and calm manner, letting the audience make up their minds without any influences from the media.
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 actual news, and not a "romanticized version of it".
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. Michael Schudson, among a number of other communication scholars and historians, agree that the idea of objectivity has prevailed in dominant discourse among journalists in the United States since the appearance of modern newspapers in the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s. These papers transformed the press amidst the democratization of politics, the expansion of a market economy, and the growing authority of an entrepreneurial, urban middle class. Before then, 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.
But into the first decade of the twentieth century, it was uncommon for to see a sharp divide between facts and values. However, during World War I, scholar Stuart Allan (1997) suggests that propaganda campaigns, as well the rise of "press agents and publicity experts", fostered the growing cynicism among public towards state institutions and "official channels of information". The elevation of objectivity thus constituted as an effort to re-legitimatize the news press, as well as the state in general.
Some historians, like Gerald Baldasty, have observed that objectivity went hand in hand with the need to make profits in the newspaper business by attracting advertisers. In this economic analysis, publishers did not want to offend any potential advertising clients, and therefore encouraged news editors and reporters to strive to present all sides of an issue. Advertisers would remind the press that partisanship hurts circulation, and, consequently, advertising revenues - thus, objectivity was sought.
Others have proposed a political explanation for the rise of objectivity; 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 1896 election and the subsequent reform of the Progressive Era.
Later, during the period following World War II, the newly formalized rules and practices of objectivity led to a brief national consensus and temporary suspension of negative public opinion; however, doubts and uncertainties in "the institutions of democracy and capitalism" resurfaced in the period of civil unrest during the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately leading to the emergence of the critique of objectivity.
Some scholars and 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, ultimately perhaps leading to an over-reliance on 'official' sources. Mainstream commentators accept that news value drives selection of stories, but there is some debate as to whether catering to an audience's level of interest in a story makes the selection process non-objective.
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 described the hanging, immolation and mutilation of people by mobs with detachment and, through the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to construct a "false balance" of these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. Mindich suggests that by enabling practices of objectivity and allowing them to "[go] basically unquestioned", it may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.
In a more recent example, scholars Andrew Calcutt and Phillip Hammond (2011) note that since the 1990s, war reporting (especially) has increasingly come to criticize and reject the practice of objectivity. In 1998, a BBC reporter, Martin Bell, noted that he favoured a "journalism of attachment", over the previously sought after dispassionate approach. Similarly, a CNN war correspondent from the US, Christiane Amanpour, stated that in some circumstances "neutrality can mean you are an accomplice to all sorts of evil". Each of these opinions stems from scholar's and journalist's critique of objectivity as too "heartless" or "forensic" to report the human natured and emotionally charged issues found in war and conflict reporting.
As discussed above, with the growth of mass media, especially from the 19th 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 "[j]ournalistic [o]bjectivity as an industry standard […] a set of conventions allowing the news to be presented as all things to all people". In modern journalism, especially with the emergence of 24-hour news cycles, speed is of the essence in responding to breaking stories. It is therefore not possible for reporters to decide "from first principles" how they will report each and every story that presents itself - thus, some scholars argue that mere convention (versus a true devotion to truth-seeking) has come to govern 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. He suggests that objectivity makes us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and critics of it. According to Cunningham, the nut of the tortured relationship with objectivity lies within a number of conflicting diktats that the press was subjected to operate under: be neutral yet investigative; be disengaged yet have an impact; and be fair-minded yet have an edge. Cunningham, however, argues that reporters by and large are not ideological warriors; rather, they are imperfect people performing a difficult job that is crucial to society and, "[d]espite all our important and necessary attempts to minimize [individual's] 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 challenged the expectation of objective truth that the general public associates to photojournalism with his project "Photojournalism Behind the Scenes". By including the traditionally invisible photographer into the frame, Salvadori sought to ignite a discussion about the ethics of the profession, and indicate a need for audiences to be active viewers who understand and recognize the potential subjectivity of the photographic medium.
Another notion circulating around the critique of objectivity is proposed by scholar Judith Lichtenberg. She points to the logical inconsistency that arises when scholars or journalists criticize journalism for failing to be objective, while simultaneously proposing that there is no such thing as objectivity. Underpinning critiques of objectivity that arose in the 1970s and 1980s, this dual theory - which Lichtenberg refers to as a "compound assault on objectivity" - invalidates itself, as each element of the argument repudiates the other. Lichtenberg agrees with other scholars that view objectivity as mere conventional practice: she states that "much of what goes under the name of objectivity reflects shallow understanding of it". Thus, she suggests that these practices, rather than the overall notion of objectivity (whose primary aim, according to Lichtenberg, is only to seek and pursue truth), should really be the target of critique.
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|
Brent Cunningham suggests that reporters should understand their inevitable biases, so they can explore what the accepted narratives may be, and then work against these as much as possible. He points out that “[w]e 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”.
Cunningham suggests the following to solve the apparent controversies of objectivity:
- Journalists should acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what they do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of 'objectivity' implies. He proposes that this will not end the charges of bias, but rather allow journalists to defend what they do from a more realistic and less hypocritical position.
- Journalists should be free and encouraged to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identifying and explaining the underlying assumptions of those claims, and making judgments about what readers and viewers need to know and understand about what is happening.
In the words of another scholar, Faina (2012) suggests that modern journalists may function as "sensemakers" within the shifting contemporary journalistic environment.
Notable departures from objective news work also include the muckraking of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, the underground press of the 1960s, and public journalism.
For news related to conflict, peace journalism may provide an alternative by introducing “insights” of social “science” into the journalism field, specifically through disciplines such as conflict analysis, conflict resolution, peace research and social psychology. The application of this “empirical” “research” to the reporting of conflict may thus replace the “unacknowledged” conventions (see above) which govern the “non-scientific” practices of 'objectivity' of journalism.
Recently, many scholars and journalists have increasingly become attuned to the shifts occurring within the newspaper industry, and general upheaval of the journalistic environment, as it adjusts to the new digital era of the 21st century. In the face of this, the practice of crowdfunding is increasingly being utilized by journalists to fund independent and/or alternative projects, establishing it as another relevant alternative practice to consider in the discussion of journalistic objectivity.
According to a study conducted by Hunter (2014), journalist's engaged in a crowdfunding campaign all held a similar opinion that their funders did not have control over the content, and that it was the journalist who maintained ultimate jurisdiction. However, this pronouncement was complicated by the sense of accountability or responsibility incited in journalists towards their funders. Hunter (2014) notes that this may have the effect of creating a power imbalance between funders and the journalist, as journalists want to maintain editorial control, but it is in fact the funders that decide whether the project will be a success or not.
To combat this, Hunter (2014) proposes the following strategies that journalists may employ to maintain a more objective approach, if desired:
- Constructing an imaginary 'firewall' between themselves and their audiences
- Limiting investment from any single source
- Clearly defining the relationship they desire with funders at the outset of the project
Some journalists from the study firmly held the opinion that impartial accounts and a detached, namely "objective", reporting style should continue to govern, even within a crowdfunding context. Others, however, advocated that point-of-view journalism and accurate reporting are not mutually exclusive ideals, and thus journalists still may ascribe to quality factual reporting, sans the traditional practices or understanding of objectivity.
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