The question of whether there can be truly objective reporting is a contested one. The notion of objectivity is ingrained in journalism training and ethos, even though it didn’t emerge until the 19th century. But the digital age sheds new light on whether objectivity is a reasonable – or even achievable – goal.
By its nature, social media is more casual, conversational, personable. This brings to the tensions inherent in the concept of objectivity to the surface: The idea that there is a set of facts about each story that can be considered the objective representation of that event.
The Associated Press recently reminded its reporters not to post personal comments on Twitter. Wolfgang Blau, editor-in-chief of German Zeit Online, tweeted “#goodluck” in response.
If we let go of the holy grail of "objectivity," will we let in some fresh air? Photo by Melina. via Flickr.
Ironically, objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, as this anecdote from journalism professor and social media whiz Sarah Fidelibus shows.
Every semester, my students undertake a project in which I require them to choose a given issue or group or major story and then research how various news media report on that issue or group or story. A popular topic for students to choose is immigration (perhaps because many of my students are immigrants themselves), and every time when I am helping them sort through the news articles they’ve chose, I’m alarmed at how often they find information with a disturbingly “immigrant as ‘other’ ” slant. I have been similarly disturbed by the raw data students have collected when researching such topics as the Oscar Grant murder trial and articles related to murders of gay teens. I have no doubt that to the authors –and their editors–these articles read as “objective,” simply reporting “the facts.” But my students, trained to critically analyze the language and the information selected in each story, overwhelmingly find a decided lack of objectivity.
What reporters and their editors perceive as “objective” reporting is seen as very much not so by students. That alone shows that “objectivity” means something else to each person looking at a story. You think of the story as objective that mirrors your own perceptions, and of it as biased if it doesn’t.
But what’s the solution? Sarah opts for diversity over objectivity and argues that bringing a range of different perspectives into newsrooms helps balance news coverage. While I agree more diversity is desperately needed, that alone won’t solve the underlying issue.
Facts fall victim to ‘objectivity’
Worshipping objectivity makes journalists shy away from calling out what’s true and what’s false for fear of being perceived as partisan.
“Journalists signal their impartiality by quoting people on opposing sides of an argument and avoid drawing conclusions, even when the facts are clear,” the Economist pointedly writes.
My own experience working on a project about climate change proves this point: To avoid being perceived as impartial, our editors tried to completely sidestep the debate about whether man-made climate change is occuring. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows it is. The only reason this would even be a question is because one political group is vehemetly opposed to the notion.
Are we doing our readers a service by not calling them out on their position, which runs counter to the vast majority of scientific knowledge? Is it fair to readers to present “both sides” and letting them judge, when one side is supported by 90 percent of scientists and the other a fringe opinion?
Jay Rosen, NYU journalism prof and blogger, argues it is time to release journalists from what the Economist calls “the straitjacket of pretending that they do not have opinions.” Rosen calls it the “view from nowhere”.
One way forward, suggests Mr Rosen, is to abandon the ideology of viewlessness and accept that journalists have a range of views; to be open about them while holding the reporters to a basic standard of accuracy, fairness and intellectual honesty; and to use transparency, rather than objectivity, as the new foundation on which to build trust with the audience, writes the Economist.