25 Feb

Should journalism strive for objectivity?

Posted By polity_admin_user

stemarasEarly in the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom, a series set around a prime-time cable newscast, ‘News Night’, a dramatic declaration initiates a major ‘arc’ of the program.

The executive producer, MacKenzie McHale, outlines a new editorial concept for the program: ‘News Night 2.0’:

‘This is a new show and there are new rules’, she explains.
‘One, “is this information we need in the voting booth?”
Two, “is this the best possible form of the argument?”
And three, “is the story in historical context?” …
Finally, “Are there really two sides to this story?”’

Objectivity isn’t mentioned in this episode. Scholars of the area will recognize, however, that the show is preoccupied with issues central to the problematic of objectivity: issues such as the status of facts, the provision of context through interpretation, the impact of commercialism and the influence of personal viewpoint.

Testament to the idea that all that is old is new again, many of these concepts can be found in Walter Lippmann’s 1920 essay, ‘Liberty and the News’ (a title that forms a nice description of the television series). Both the essay and the series respond to a strong sense (articulated by Lippmann)  ‘that the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis in journalism’.

Lippmann felt that ‘Everywhere to-day men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand.’ He promoted the view that ‘The cardinal fact always is the loss of contact with objective information. Public as well as private reason depends upon it.’   

In passages worthy of Aaron Sorkin, Lippmann spells out his view that ‘No one can manage anything on pap’:

‘Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair “to the best fountains for their information”, then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumor, each man’s hope and each man’s whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.’

There are good reasons why one should be cautious around a concept like objectivity in journalism, with its scientific and positivistic baggage, and a significant history of debunking and criticism. It rarely appears in journalism codes of ethics these days. But this should not mean we should stop actively debating the concept.

Jeremy Iggers’ memorable line ‘Objectivity may be dead, but it isn’t dead enough’ captures a prevailing view. Surprisingly however, prior to this book, no study had attempted an overview of the scholarship in the area. Reviewing the literature, one would expect a consensus view that objectivity is universally criticised. Indeed, for communications scholar James W. Carey, the conventions of objective reporting were developed to ‘report another culture and another society’. One can find more colourful turns of phrase in the blogosphere.

Surveying the field the critique is not universal in approach or content. One finds counter-arguments to the most common criticisms, and a renewed interest in issues of interpretation, procedure, judgement and standpoint, from both scholars and practitioners. In this context, we should resist the idea that it is naïve, out-dated, or unacceptable to speak of and about objectivity. What we need is a historically informed and critical dialogue about the concept and the issues it represents, which goes beyond the newsroom to include professionals, academics and readers. Objectivity in Journalism hopefully serves as a crucial resource for this discussion.
Steven Maras is senior lecturer in media and communications at the University of Sydney.