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Objectivity in Journalism: A Myth or a Method?

Objectivity has long been considered one of the most important factors of good journalism. But is objectivity ever really possible, or is it a method used by organisations to appeal to their audiences?

Journalism 365
Nov 29, 2019 · 4 min read

Objectivity is seen as the cornerstone of modern journalism. The term concerns the lack of influence or personal feelings in a story that may be seen to affect the credibility of a journalistic piece.

a photo of a question mark lit up in neon lights
a photo of a question mark lit up in neon lights
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

First coined by Walter Lippmann in the 1920s, objective journalism was seen to be “more scientific” and would make facts “fixed, objectified, measured and named.”

To any regular person, this seems like the ideal. Reporting the facts and only the facts, with a lack of personal or professional influence, simply repeating events as they are.

Nowadays objectivity has come to mean something entirely different. In modern terms, it is seen to mean reporting both sides of a story in order to appear as though you or your organisation are not biased.

“Objective journalism, defined as not taking a position or having an opinion, has become precisely the opposite of what it was originally intended to be.” Ryan McMaken

This is because not taking an opinion in itself is an active journalistic choice, and therefore the final piece is governed by some form of influence.

a photo of donald trump and an associate in front of the american flag
a photo of donald trump and an associate in front of the american flag
Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

The Power Elite?

Take Donald Trump, for example. It’s practically common knowledge that he and his associates constantly lie and mislead people (one example of this being the falsification of the number of attendees at his inauguration). These lies challenge objectivity — should the news industry paint Trump to be a liar?

In refusing to take sides, journalists allow those in power to set the news agenda and even get away with their crimes due to their inability to call elites out on their wrongdoings.

Many scholars and journalists don’t believe that objectivity even exists.

“A news report is a series of words describing the event. As in selecting which events are news, someone must decide which words best describe the event. These decisions are based on the reporter’s world as he or she examines the facts gathered and decides what words those receiving the report will best understand.” Richard Taflinger

The deliberate selection of words are accompanied by personal bias due to a person’s environmental background, and although these linguistic choices may be subconscious, they are still influenced by specific factors that negate the journalist’s supposed lack of bias.

Pictures and Political Bias

A picture is worth a thousand words though, right? A picture or video captures a moment and can’t lie? WRONG!

Only this year in 2019 the BBC, one of the most reputable and largest news corporations in the world, were accused of using outdated footage, clearly showing their political bias. 2019 footage showed Conservative party leader Boris Johnson fumbling and laying the wreath upside down, and was replaced on television with more ‘acceptable’ footage from 2016.

They even edited out laughter directed at Johnson during a recent debate. This is a clear attempt to avoid portraying Johnson in a negative light, and reinforces that even pictures and videos can be harbours of bias.

Many were quite rightly outraged at the BBC for such a blatant cover up.

Further questions regarding the true use of objectivity comes from Andrew Calcutt and Phillip Hammond. Their 2011 investigation into objectivity states that:

“Objectivity is nearly impossible to apply in practice — newspapers inevitably take a point of view in deciding what stories to cover, which to feature on the front page, and what sources they quote.”

Further to this is the argument that news values drive the selection of stories over various publications, and objectivity is neutralised here due to the fact that these values often cater to audience interest, making the selection process non-objective due to this exterior influence.

The Verdict?

So, is journalistic objectivity possible? Well, this depends on your definition of objectivity and how deep your understanding of the topic goes. If you’re the kind of person who believes newspapers should just report fairly on a story then, yes, objectivity might exist to you.

However, if you’re the type of person who believes news should be reported in the public’s interest then, I’m afraid not, objectivity cannot exist. Objectivity can even do a disservice to the public — if journalists are so occupied trying to find balance, they may be lacking in their ability to find the truth.

Objectivity can also affect the way in which we consume news.

“Objectivity makes us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and critics of it.” Brent Cunningham

If we don’t wish to become passive, and instead wish to be individuals who seek, report and uphold the truth, then objectivity must become obsolete.

Please follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more discussions regarding journalistic challenges!

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