On Journalistic Neutrality

The Intercept, or more specifically Glenn Greenwald, published an article about the failure of the American news media. Or rather, an enormous success of journalists at doing our jobs so well that we have failed at them. He cited the disgusting and impressive rise of Donald Trump, once thought of as a joke candidate, now frontrunner of the Republican primaries. You’d think that a neofascist, greedy, entitled piece of shit like him would be considered a fringe candidate in a sensical world. But alas, orange Mussolini has managed to obtain at least 35% of the popular vote in a majority of states. Perhaps, part of it is the fault of the American people, so desperate and angry that we, like Germany and Italy so many years ago, turn to a hateful candidate in the face of a perceived weakness. But the public opinion has to start somewhere. And it did, in the media. Likewise, a counter opinion should have risen to massive support in the media, and yet I look at the homepage of the Washington Post, and I see nothing inflammatory or accusatory about Trump. All because journalists are doing their jobs too well, to the point where we have failed.

We journalists are kept to a few specific rules. Similar to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, we have three values that we must keep to. Truthfulness, accuracy, and integrity. Truthfulness means that we must tell the public what is going on in the world, as a way of understanding it better and trying to make it a better place. Accuracy is that we must use facts to support our truths, lest the truth and lies become one. Integrity, however, is by far the most important. Not only does it mean to be respectful to the subject of a story, but also to be willing to call out the faults of society even if it costs our job. Without integrity, there is no reason to be truthful to the reader, or to be accurate in telling them the truth, or to tell them about terrible things that are happening in our world. We become nothing more than a tabloid.

Unfortunately, many newspapers have allowed the important parts of integrity to become perverted, all due to the convenient flaw of them being run as businesses. A business is only good so long as there are customers. For journalists, should we post something too controversial, we lose readers, thus money. This started to manifest itself around the aftermath of 9/11. Every newspaper was printing the same patriotic, pro-government rhetoric despite such legislation such as the Patriotic Act and the War in Iraq being established. Not because we believed in it, but because the readers wanted it. Posting facts about the government overstepping its boundaries? You get declared a conspiracy nutjob, and, should you be unlucky enough to be a journalist, potentially lose your job or your credibility. But when the public becomes unaware of the problems their government is causing, you lose your right to consider yourself a democracy or even a republic. You live in a dictatorship.

Fast forward to today. A huge part of GOP rhetoric is the denial of climate change, despite over 90% of climate scientists agreeing in its validity. No real surprise, since most news channels still debate its existence, as if the American public decided upon the validity of scientific fact. The primary cause for this is the confusion of journalistic neutrality and objectivity. And yes, there is a difference. Neutrality means that all sides of an argument must be heard, and presented in as neutral a manner as possible. For example, “The man said he did not break the cookie jar.” Objectivity, on the other hand, means something similar, but adds a moral duty. We must be detached, but also state the facts and the truth above all else. To continue the example, “The man lied about not breaking the cookie jar.” Same statement, but different message.

A neutral statement will not cause outcry; it will prompt discussion, but nothing else. But an objective statement prompts action. An objective statement respects the readers’ intelligence and power. If a newspaper were to say that Trump is a racist, not simply “considered by many to be racist,” it would prompt people to act, either in his defence or against him. And I believe that is the world that I would want to live in, and one that many comedians and social critics claim is dying. One where the media informs the public properly, and lets the public act accordingly.

Some may claim that this goes against the whole point of the journalist, but I will leave you with the words of one considered the greatest journalist of the 20th century, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

Luke VanDeWeert
20th March 2016