Objectivity in Journalism: Problematic or Useful?

The concept of objectivity has been entrenched in two juxtaposing arguments in the sphere of media. On one side, the argument prevails how objectivity is a cornerstone value and scholars such as Michael Schudson have even coined it as the “emblem of American Journalism” (Torres, 2012). On its inverse, scholars have argued its naivety in so far as well-known reporters such as Martin Bell having claimed objective reporting to be “bystander journalism” (McLaughlin, 2016, p. 43). Given such wide-reaching sentiments, tracing the origins of objectivity can posit the term within the contours of journalistic discourse and thus substantiate the definition of the concept. As such, it can also shed light into provoking the argument that although objectivity is an ethical order of news functionality, it can breed restrictive news that is unattainable (Harrison, 2000). Additionally, in some cases, it can foster a dangerous illusion of truth because a journalist’s quest to report on neutral ground is contingent on the sources and the method of information gathering which, unbeknownst to the reporter, isn’t always objective (Harrison, 2000). 

Thus, in prefacing the discussion of objectivity as restrictive, it is a sine qua non to unearth the origins of journalism in an effort to position the rise of such a concept. In borrowing the efforts of Maras (2013), he argues that journalistic objectivity sprung from various drivers of media including professionalisation, technology, commercialisation and politics (Maras, 2013). Prior to teasing out the drivers of objectivity, it is imperative to cement a definition of the concept. Michael Shudson (2001), scores the objectivity norm as reporting the news without any commentary on it or reshaping its structure (Schudson, 2001). Given this definition, the characterisation of the aforementioned drivers is fruitful in understanding its problematic nature. 

Keeping in mind Schudson’s (2001) definition, Harrison (2000), argues that routinisation within the realm of professionalisation of journalism fronted objectivity as a key mandate. Thus, as journalism became increasingly recognised as a professional category of work, the field sought to stitch boundaries that standardised news (Maras, 2013). Although professionalisation has held a benchmark and created organisation efficiencies through objectivity, it is naive to believe that it has provided public discourse with the most even-handed news (Harrison, 2000). To exemplify this argument, Harrison contends that applying objectivity to the selection criteria of news has in fact worked in contradiction to the goal of unbiased reporting (2000). He substantiates his claim by asserting that a news channel may leave a story out if it contains a certain bias so that the reader is offered the best mixture of neutral territory news (Harrison, 2000). Therefore, in judging what information is accepted and rejected, the news agency diminishes the intent of objectivity.

 To further assert the subjectivity that arises from the efforts to be objective, Harrison’s work (2000) looked into justifications made by journalists that determined if a story made it to the news or not. His paper concluded that journalists would print a story if it was newsworthy, a quiet news day, quality of images and novelty to name a few (Harrison, 2000). By the same token, stories were rejected if they were too expensive to run, lacked novelty, did not align with the news agency’s branding, or even if a journalist’s schedule was too busy to accommodate a story (Harrison, 2000). The common denominator spanning across all such remarks is diminishing the sense of objectivity (Harrison, 2000).  As such, the understanding of professionalisation of news as a driver for objectivity plays into Schudson’s idea of the conept in journalism. If his definition were to be used as a benchmark for objectivity, the professionalisation of journalism does little to amplify objectivity in news. Harrison claims that news organisations stray away from referencing their work as objective as it is an unattainable bias (2000). Instead, for example, news corporations such as the BBC categorise their news reporting as impartial, balanced, fair and accurate (Harrison, 2000). Additionally, Maras (2013) acknowledges that the professionalisation factor standardised labour across journalism and as such overlooks the varying degrees of objectivity exercised by those in the field. For example, editors, writers, publishers, etc. have different conducts of objectivity that play into their role. A journalist, for instance, would use a certain frame to cover a story and whoever edits the article may choose to cut and rework some of the words which reflects another form of reshaping of the news. Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp in their work on social norms (2001), fleshes Maras’ (2013) argument by asserting that professionalisation of the field gave reporters a certain sense of power to make judgement calls on news telling. They state that the trust administered through the professionalisation of journalism allowed reporters the freedom to make calls on what would be reported and what would be left out (2001). Additionally, they argue that the further a reporter is away from home, the more explorative that freedom becomes (Hechter & Opp, 2001). The scholars foreground this with the example of foreign correspondents who are “treated as independent experts” and assume to have the capacity to provide accurate information with very little supervision (Hechter & Opp, 2001, p. 178). As such, although journalism claims objectivity as a true north star, recognisable limits also exist. 

In the same manner, technology has been another determinant within the history of journalism that gave rise to objectivity. The advancements in technology allowed for an increase in wire news that favoured a style of news stripped from partiality of the region, language and other biases (Maras, 2013). As such, wire news became leaner, prompting a more pyramid-style news format. These allowed editors of agencies to rework them and also increase circulation of these articles as readers didn’t need prior knowledge of the subject of news (Maras, 2013). For Carey (1995), this type of enhancement only de-intellectualised the reporter and converted journalists into subservient vehicles for facts rather than intellectual discourse (Carey, 1995).  White (2000) argues that technology stripped journalists from making sense and analysing information. As such, Glasser (1984) argues that objectivity, as a result, forms a sort of bias in and of itself and demotes media from occupying a watchdog status within the public sphere. Kaplan (2002) instantiates Glasser’s perspective by arguing that reporting with an overarching goal of remaining objective has disabled journalism (Kaplan, 2002). Intrinsically, then, defining news reporting within the contours of objectivity has limited reporters in inspiring public debate with political authority and dismisses them from performing their democratic mission (Kaplan, 2002). In attempting to promote neutral information that arose from the technological advancements, it has detracted journalists from probing hard questions and issues of controversy insofar as Kaplan categorising this type of journalism as weak (2002). 

Maras (2013) progresses his discussion and articulates commercialism as another path in history that allowed for the formation of objectivity within journalism. With a close link to the technology argument, Maras asserts that commercialisation of news rendered journalists to be objective in that advertisers can service their interests in a politically neutral newspaper (Maras, 2013). As aptly described by Phillips (1977), in simply stating the facts, a news article is stripped from political biases to avoid controversy and skirts around truth and propaganda. Scholars have argued it cannot go amiss that commercial interest necessitated the need for news organisations to detach themselves from political parties and promote partisan news (Donsbach & Klett, 1993). In fact, by the end of the 20th century, partisan news organisations loosened ties with affiliated political parties (Sloan, 1989). Scholars rooted for this idea of objectivity as it allowed journalists to conduct unbiased reporting by being neutral towards facts rather than opinion and structure (Donsbach & Klett, 1993). However, it would be naive to believe that promoting fact over opinion stabilised news as objective. 

By nature, commodification of news did not lead to an inherent production of neutral news but rather, emphasised information that would favour profitability (McManus, 1995). In doing so, being neutral implied sacrificing quality and debate for profitability that is masked as standing in favour of public interest (McManus, 1995). Richard Picard (1989) as cited by McManus (1995) applies the understanding of economic principles within the sphere of media to exemplify McManus’ argument. Picard argues that in an effort to publish information that interests a broader audience for commercial purposes, reporters eschew stories that may offend readers albeit truthful and important to the public sphere and instead, favour stories that are more entertaining and acceptable (McManus, 1995). To exemplify this argument, Socolow (2010) discusses how wide-reaching and popular news sources in America were rooted with the help of commercial interests. For example, CBS news was originally funded by General Mills and such an ownership structure affected its news production (Socolow, 2010). Socolow (2010) points to the profitability of broadcast news as a motive in promoting news of an ethical order and blurring what it means to objectively report.

The technological and commercial discussion provides the ideal premise to argue the final driver of objectivity Maras discusses, the political arena (Maras, 2013). As stated before, in making news more agreeable to audiences of varied political affiliations, news rendered itself objective to be sellable (Maras, 2013). Therefore, as with commercialism, the lack of partisan ties between institutions of power and news organisations saw the birth of a type of neutral news reporting as well as the rise of news as watchdogs (Maras, 2013). However, it is important to discuss if this type of journalism encourages news as the fourth estate or simply a lapdog to power institutions.

Donogue, Tichenor and Olien (1995) raise a palpable argument that journalism cannot, in all angles of the term, act as a watchdog. The scholars argue that a cardinal requirement for media to act as the fourth estate requires significant agency from hidden interests (Donogue et al, 1995). The scholars cement this opinion by asserting that public interest seldom holds singular opinion (Donogue et al, 1995). Rather, public discourse is made up of a plethora of interests that vary in influence and power. As such, media, inevitably, focuses on the maintenance of these power structures within the folds of public discourse (Donogue et al, 1995). The argument is enhanced by the scholars concluding that the media cannot, wholly, invent political decisions but can put forward social policies fronted by authoritarian powers (Donogue et al, 1995). Gans (1979) further emphasises this point by adding that even if the media were to subscribe to a watchdog role, covering news would depend on the sources available to the journalist. Inherently, by being limited to the sources available for a journalist to dig into, it promotes a type of subjectivity towards the source (Gans, 1979).

Bennett’s (2009) work on the accountability of the press uses the US press as an ideal example to cement the former argument. In their coverage of the Iraqi wars, popular newspapers in the US failed to cover varying sides of the story. However, this was not the fault of a reporter who did not look for other sources, but rather, in a quest to only gather information from qualified and official sources, these news agencies only covered exclusive coverage as given by the US government (Bennett, 2009). As such, public discourse within this topic was severely limited as the information provided was not much “beyond administration spin” (Bennett, 2009, p. 112). This substantiates Gans’ (1979) argument that watchdog journalism also promotes a type of bias.

As dissected by Maras (2013), objectivity within journalism arose from various drivers within a historical context. Although in doing so it posits objectivity as valuable, it does not diminish the problematic nature of the concept. In fact, all four vehicles of objectivity within journalism assert a common denominator: objectivity is an ideal. However, this opens up discussion on what form of agency journalism can subscribe towards. In dealing with this theme, Ward (1998) claims that good journalism is not the separation of fact from opinion, whereby objectivity is a cornerstone. Rather, he argues for a richer and more complex definition. Ward (1998) argues that objectivity is not the absence of feeling or subjectivity, nor does it require a journalist to be detached from a story as all such manners are unattainable. Instead, effective objectivity requires journalists to subject themselves to “objective controls” (Ward, 1998, p. 122). Therefore, objective journalism does not mean the lack of interpretation but to report with a commitment to deciphering public scrutiny and validity of facts (Ward, 1998). As such, objectivity and attachment are not on two ends of the spectrum and instead, should work together. Ward concludes that objectivity, in this aspect, allows for the control of biases insofar that attachment provides the drive to cover stories with vigour beyond a shallow coverage of events (1998). Objectivity, if defined as reporting without structure, then certainly, it posits problems. However, if objectivity is defined within the edges of Ward’s argument, can promote a type of journalism that is, in fact, powerful with a critical perspective that can unearth the truth. 

*This essay was originally written for academic purposes prior to being repurposed on to my site.

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