Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Journalistic Objectivity

Most journalists consider neutrality to be a valuable and crucial component of their profession. “The high priests of journalism worship ‘objectivity’; one leading editor called it the ‘highest original moral concept ever developed in America and given to the world.” (Mindich, 1998, page 1)

It is in a journalist’s best interest to remain impartial in their broadcasting. Their reputations depend on them being perceived as unbiased and unaffiliated with any parties relating to the story, as this would diminish the perceived reliability of their work.

“The media must inform us about significant political matters, criminal proceedings, social affairs, corruption and vicious hypocrisy. Thus, in covering such matters appropriately, it seems to follow that the media must be impartial in their approach in order to arrive at and report upon what is, in fact the case. This explains precisely why, above all else, journalists prize their reputation for impartiality.” (Kieran, 2002, page 23)

It is my opinion that regardless of circumstance or associated social responsibility of potentially dangerous information, a reporter or journalist should always tell the truth, without exclusion of any relevant information and from a neutral perspective. However there is an argument against freedom of the press. Many believe that just because something is true, doesn’t mean that it should be broadcast from an unbiased point of view. The argument is essentially between responsibilities of the press to use the power it has wisely versus complete freedom of the press.

“There are some people and organizations who insist that their information and their interests be protected from disclosure in the news media. The challenge that journalists face, therefore, is whether to cover any subject and how to cover it. They are concerned about facts and sources as much as they are concerned about how they gather those facts and how to link them together. They are concerned about the ethics – the ‘oughtness’ – of their decisions and their work.” (Gordon, 1999, page 33)

I support an individual’s right to privacy and to press charges against a media institution for broadcasting information that they feel is unfair or libellous. However, when authorities attempt to impose legislation to prevent media institutions from broadcasting information in an irresponsible way, there is a great danger of impinging on the rights of free speech.

“In a democratic society, the people are given the ultimate power to decide and they retain that power even when a large majority of the people think the decisions are wrong…the antidote for wrong, dangerous or offensive speech should be more speech by those who disagree with the original statements, rather than restrictions on the original speech.” (Gordon, 1999, page 29)

The Guardian Newspaper allowed the independent news critique company Media Lens to include an article on the guardian website criticising the liberal press (including the guardian) for failing to challenge the government sufficiently regarding its reasons given to invade Iraq. Media Lens is sceptical about the authenticity of supposed media neutrality. “We believe that media 'neutrality' is a deception that often serves to hide systematic pro-corporate bias. 'Neutrality' most often involves 'impartially' reporting dominant establishment views, while ignoring all non-establishment views.” (www.MediaLens.org) In their article, Media Lens explain how they feel real neutral perspectives are excluded from media broadcasts as they are considered radical and that the modern media owned by wealthy industrialists restrict certain opinions from being heard by the public.

“We would argue that the media's failure on Iraq was not really a failure at all, but rather a classic product of "balanced" professional journalism. The modern conception of objective reporting is little more than a century old. There was little concern that newspapers were partisan so long as the public was free to choose from a wide range of opinions. Newspapers dependent on advertisers for 75% of their revenues, such as the Guardian and Independent, would have been regarded as independent by few radicals and progressives in, say, the 1940s. Balance was instead provided by a thriving working class-based press. Early last century, however, the industrialisation of the press, and the associated high cost of newspaper production, meant that wealthy private industrialists backed by advertisers achieved dominance in the mass media. Unable to compete on price and outreach, the previously flourishing radical press was brushed to the margins." (Edwards/Cromwell, 2004, The Guardian.)

The concept of objectivity is difficult to define, as to adopt a neutral perspective, a journalist must consider every possible viewpoint imaginable and somehow report without favouring any of them. This is clearly not achieved by the mainstream press, as they consistently broadcast from a pro-industry and pro-capitalist stance. Outside views are treated as such and are speculated on from a biased perspective. With the definition of objectivity being so elusive, the integrity of communication professionals depends on their ability to report as many facts as they can in a way that does not distort the reality of an event. If a journalist focuses primarily with getting to the truth, then it is less likely that the report will be biased.

“Good journalism aims at discovering and promoting the audience’s understanding of an event via truth-promoting methods….A failure of impartiality in journalism is a failure to respect one of the methods required in order to fulfil the goal of journalism: getting at the truth of the matter.” (Kieran, page 35)

The problem with communication professionals achieving a neutral perspective is that they are subject to the same pressures and prejudices that everyone else is. Where there is no solid truth, they fill in the gaps with perceived truths, which are influenced by the fact they have to please “the boss” and also by their own individual beliefs and experiences that shape the way they perceive a person or event.

“But, reporters, like everyone else have their own axes to grind. A reporter, after all, lives a life outside of the newsroom. He or she may be a liberal, a conservative, a feminist, an environmentalist, or a racist…On any day a reporter may get up on the wrong side of the bed, may allow personal impressions of events or subjects to colour what and who is reported.” (Gordon, page 83)

  • GORDON, AD.,KITTROSS, J.M, and REUSS, C., eds. 1996, Controversies in media ethics. White Plains, N.Y.:Longman
  • KIERAN, M. ed., 1998, Media Ethics. London: Routledge
  • MINDICH, D.T.Z. ed., 1998, Just the facts, how “objectivity” came to define American journalism. N.Y. New York university press
  • The Guardian Newspaper Website
  • Balance in the service of falsehood article, 2004, David Edwards and David Cromwell
  • (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1373913,00.html)
  • Media Lens website: What is media lens?
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