How important is objectivity in journalism? To what extent is it an achievable goal?
Objectivity is a dominant ideology of modern journalism that should be instigated in all journalistic practice. It underscores notions of unbiased, fairness and factual content within the media. Objectivity is expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations. “News can be defined as factual accounts and explanations of current or recent events of wider relevance to the given public.” (D. Mcquail 2013) This essay will examine the definition of objectivity within the publishing industry and as a journalist, how objectivity became such a crucial necessity within the media industry by the way it is challenged and the potential use of it in the future with regards to the explosion of social media and its inherent subjectivity. This essay will also touch base with coverage of sensitive subjects in the media and examining the possible reasons behind journalists expressing their own opinion on important subjects such as politics and how it effects their audience by including their opinion instead of factual content.
The dictionary defines the word objective as being, “impartial, absent from bias and fair”. Denis Mcquail said; “A theoretically contested term applied to news, although in ‘common-sense’ terms it sums up a number of the qualities that make for trust and reliability on the part of the news audience. These include factual accuracy, lack of bias, separation of fact from comment, transparency about sources, and not taking sides.” (D. Mcquail 2010) Which is a good way of defining the actual need of objectivity within journalism. To be objective is an important and fundamental goal in the journalistic process as it is important to be able to inform the public of all the facts in an unbiased manner for the audience to be able to make a general decision for themselves without being lenient towards the journalist’s personal opinion of the matter that is being discussed within the article.
To discuss this subject properly, one must go back to the beginning of journalism and examine the origins of the journalistic morality that we know of today. The printing press that was invented by Johannes Gutenberg was originally made with the intention of expanding knowledge across the country. Later, to be used to make pamphlets which was then developed into newspapers that we know of today. Through the Victorian times, there is evidence of the first issue that developed within journalism and its lack of objectivity. Potentially being recorded evidence of the news industry omitting information and publishing falsehoods as facts through a journal in the Victorian Times; “…Mr Jones asked me to write a report for the Peoples Paper. I had taken no notes, and suggested this as an insuperable difficulty.” This objection was brushed aside at once by Mr jones saying: “Finlen, and I will write our own reports; you write the speeches and the rest. Don’t trouble to recollect what they said; send me three or four columns of what they ought to have said.” (E. Royle 1990) Indeed, as early as the 1880’s the practices of journalists were being almost encouraged to create false facts and omit information, insinuates the idea of objectivity within the journalist’s practice was not yet introduced. It has been said that journalists did not introduce the word “objective” in their work until the 1920’s. (R. Streckfuss 1990)
By then, the evolution of journalism was moved with the development and expansion of technology. Potentially, objectivity in Journalism may have been introduced due to the evolution of technology and the increased freedom for the public to access their own evidence and their own facts. It may have encouraged the news industry to attempt to create a façade of sincerity in a way to gain the readers trust. Once telegrams, radio, television and then the internet was introduced, the news industry and the way that people retrieve and receive news had changed. Especially within social media and its ability to share articles and news stories at a fast pace. Moreover, the audience count has increased and the potential risk of scrutiny through what is being published has increased as well. Michael William explained that, “even the content that is now being released has changed; stories have become shorter, requiring a different style of writing to accommodate the need for adding further content as the story develops. Even headlines have had to change… to fit in with ‘search engines optimisation’ rendering them more prosaic in many instances.” (M. Williams 2014). Objectivity seems to become a more crucial aim for journalists due to the fact that, as technology develops, the intelligence of their readers increases as well.
As the way we receive news evolves, so does the style of which news corporations dispatch it. Objectivity may be a journalist’s strategy to meet deadlines and avoid defamation in its own way, objectivity becomes a routine and the news becomes a factor of entertainment selectively reporting on opinions and events. Schudson argues that, “objectivity is reduced to a set of conventions that reduce journalists’ responsibilities of their own words.” (M Schudson 1978) Something that has become apparent in the 21st century within the news industry, is the broadcasting of entertainment disguised in a news format. For example, Fox News’ way of reporting is more leaning towards a form of entertainment where the main priority is to release entertaining and outrageous ‘news stories’ without any thought towards unbiased opinions or if the information that they are claiming as truth, has any evidence to back up their reports. “At any other network, accusation of bias might even lead to some soul-searching and behavioural adjustment. At Fox, by contrast, complaints of unfairness prompt only hoots of derision and demands for “evidence” and “proof,” which when presented is brushed off and ignored.” (J. Weisberg 2009) With such a large audience base, it is concerning that journalists are willing to abandon the moral justice of reporting the news in a fair and objective manner for the sake of their audiences’ opinion. “Television news has is in the business of entertainment, like any other television product, attempting to pull audiences for commercial not journalistic reasons.” (J. Langer 1998)
One of the most poignant topics for news outlets to ignore their priority as a journalist of objectivity is regarding political affairs. It could be suggested that most news outlets are more likely to express their channel’s preference of whether they’re a right-winged or a left-winged based news company. This could be due to the owner of the company’s political preference that in a way, influences the news company’s control over how they report on political affairs either that, or it could potentially be because of the commercial gain through reporting on subjects that will encourage the audience to read or watch that specific news company.
Surely it would be easier for everyone if journalists were completely un-biased. If they were to just report the facts and report the news as it is given to them. However, one of the issues that may occur is the inevitability that the journalist will side with one opinion more than another when covering a story. It is the natural urge of human nature to want to be liked by their peers, colleagues or audiences. People read certain newspapers more than others because it reports in the way that they are leaning to. One does not read a newspaper that they know will not report in the side that the reader disagrees or wants further information on, as it is not human nature for us to do so. We strongly feel the need to be liked and accepted by those who we surround ourselves with (S.M Gentry 2017). Because of this, it may explain the reason behind journalists omitting certain parts of information when reporting on a news story, when they are aware of the majority audience that will read their articles. They will want to side with what their audience will agree with, to garner acceptance as well as potential commercialised financial gain. Due to this, there is a problematic flaw in the goal of journalists aiming to be completely objective when there are so many obstacles that they are expected to face when attempting to report a completely unbiased article for fear of not being accepted by the public and their peers.
Furthermore, it raises the question; can a journalist be truthful and opinionated at the same time? An example to prove the lack of objectivity within journalism, is the coverage on President Donald Trump’s election over the world of media in 2016, as well as his first one hundred days as President of the United States. A lot of coverage about Donald Trump seemed to report it in a way that would be humorous and sometimes openly poking fun at the presidential candidate- now President, making it appear, that the news organisations were judging Trump, which in its own way, bring to bear, their opinion on their audience. Some would argue that there is always a way to report on a story by objectively releasing the facts in a reported manner without subjecting the piece to your own opinion.
However, others like Hadley Freeman would say that; “Some news organisations still struggle to understand that words that sound judgmental can also be the objective truth. So we get phrases like “President Trump entertained dignitaries at Mar-a-Lago” instead of “President Trump forced some high-ranking politicians to come to his shoddy golf club and rambled at them incoherently”; or “President Trump made a strong and surprising announcement yesterday”, for which read, “President Trump tweeted something so deranged yesterday even your racist uncle thought he might have gone a bit far.” (H. Freeman 2017)” She is explaining that sometimes the objective truth can be one of a judgemental opinion as well. It is yet again an example of how objectivity has in a way, been excused to be partnered in with a journalist’s opinion. Freeman is saying that it is possible to be opinionated but at the same time truthful. However, you could argue that this, in its own way, is not being 100% objective as the journalist is expressing their opinion. Thus, influencing the reader’s opinion and output of their own views of what they have just read.
This introduces to my next point, the scientific studies of ‘The Hawthorne Effect’, also known as the ‘Observer Effect’ the definition of which, is when people modify their behaviour due to the conscious awareness that they are being observed. (R. Gillespie 1991) This experiment may prove the theory that to be able to report an objective story is nearly impossible as no matter what the journalist does, they will be effecting the act of others just by being present. From this, are you not reporting the actual truth but instead, reporting the truth that others want you to see. Can we ever be objective when there is no way to prove that the sources you use and the interviews you take are the genuine truth from that specific person when they are aware they are being observed? To be completely objective is a near paradox. A journalist cannot expect to be objective, because to be objective, is to observe, but to observe, is to be involved. “Sources have limited perspectives… how do we decide which sources to trust?” (E.H Carr 1961) A journalist is always going to be reporting from their own perception of what happened or they are going to be retrieving their information through sources which is still, an observation from an individual that is limited to just that individually witnessed perspective. However hard, a journalist may try to be objective, every stand point has its limits. To be a journalist, one needs, “the imaginative understanding of the people they are talking about” (E.H Carr 1961), Journalists have duties to provide information to the public that educates and enlightens their readers without influencing or advocating a movement in their leaning towards a certain topic but this may prove impossible.
To the extent of whether ‘objectivity’ is an achievable goal for journalist of the 21st century, is a matter of opinion. It should be a journalist’s goal to be as objective as humanly possible whenever reporting on factual content whether the journalist agrees with the matter or not, it should be their priority to report the facts and nothing more. Leaving their personal opinions to general discussion on their own time. The effect of the news industry is as influential as ever to the public. With over 3,636,941,100 people, with access to the internet (internet Live Stats), it makes the reliance on journalists following the practice of objectivity more imperative than ever. Despite this, evidence that has been shown within this essay, proves that this is not practiced within the larger news corporations around the world. Which leaves with the conclusion that objectivity is an unachievable goal, but should be practised throughout a journalist’s career to the utmost extent of their ability to ensure that the facts that they are reporting, are true and can be proven, should the need arise, with evidence.
- Richard Streckfuss. (1990) Objectivity in Journalism: A search and Reassessment. Available from: http://www.mmc.twitbookclub.org/MMC910/Readings/Week%2009/Objectivity%20in%20Journalistm.pdf [Accessed 17th May 2017]
- Denis Mcquail (2010) Mcquail’s Mass communications theory. (6th edition) Los Angeles SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Edward Royal. Laurel Brake (ed.), Aled Jones (ed.) & Lionel Madden (ed.). 1990. Investigating Victorian Journalism. Chpt 4, Newspapers and Periodicals in Historical Research. [The Agnostic journal 1893 1st July] Hampshire, The Macmillan Press.
- Michael Williams. Peter J. Anderson (ed.) & George Ogola (ed.) 2014. The future of Quality News Journalism. (Chpt 6, Pg. 109) New York, Routledge Publishing.
- Jason Weisberg. (17.10.2009) Ignore Fox. Available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2009/10/ignore_fox.html [Accessed 18th May 2017]
- John Langer. James Curran (ed.) 1998. Tabloid Television. Popular Journalism and the ‘other news’. (Chapter 1) London, Routledge publishing.
- Steven M. Gentry PhD. (2017) The need to relate and feel accepted. Available from: http://www.utahcountycounselors.com/patient-resources/learning-library/the-need-to-relate-and-feel-accepted/ [Accessed 17th May 2017] Utah. Psychological assessment & treatment Specialists.
- Hadley freeman. (29.04.2017) 100 days of Trump and he’s not the only one who has learned a lot. The guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/29/hadley-freeman-donald-trump-100-days [Accessed: 17th May 2017]
- Richard Gillespie. (1991) Manufacturing Knowledge. A history of Hawthorne Experiments. United States of America, Cambridge University Press.
- Edward Hallett Carr. (1961) What Is history? New York, Random House.
- Denis Mcquail. (2013) Journalism and Society. Los Angeles, SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Michael Schudson (1978) Discovering the News. A Social History of American Newspapers. United States of America, Basic books Ltd.
- Internet Live Stats. (2017) Available on: http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/ [Accessed on: 18th May 2017.]