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).
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.
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
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
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.