Neutrality is a concept deployed for safeguarding one’s position in the complex and sometimes hazardous world. Since the fourteenth century, the word neutrality has predominantly denoted nonalignment in the realms of politics, diplomacy, and war, in which no firm ground for neutrality can be assured. Thus, neutrality as nonalignment is dependent on the political judgment of others: whether they acknowledge one’s neutrality to be sincere or expedient to their interests. The history of politics shows that in some cases the neutral political status was accepted (for instance, Switzerland since the Congress of Vienna in 1815) and in others it was not (Laos during the Vietnam war).
Another understanding of neutrality is derived from natural sciences. Here, neutrality is anchored in the facts of nature, which are independent of the individual investigating them. Thus, in natural sciences neutrality can be warranted, insofar as one sticks to the methodological rules set by science and does not allow any value-laden interests to interfere with one’s relationship with the object. Neutrality as allegiance to the set of rules, too, can be charged methodologically and/or politically. It is particularly vulnerable to questions about the ethics of supposedly neutral actions. Currently, the neutrality of natural sciences is a hotly debated issue in connection with biotechnology.
In communications, neutrality is rarely connected to fiction, but it is treated as more or less indispensable to fact-based news. For news(papers) the concept was first introduced by the commercialization of the press, which took different forms at different times in different parts of the world. The most widely documented case is the emergence of the penny press in the US from the 1830s (Schudson 1978; Altschull 1984; Barnhurst & Nerone 2001). Neutrality as nonalignment was aspired to by publishers, who sought to reach larger audiences and greater advertisement revenues by conveying information, not opinion. Gradually, this distinction enabled the emergence of “professional communicators,” who began to understand themselves as brokers in symbols, and in this role the messages they produced had no necessary relation to their own thoughts and perceptions (Carey 1969, 27–28). Consistent with the frailty of neutrality, the nonalignment of news and journalists had to be acknowledged by “the modernizing societies,” and this was not a straightforward process.
A natural scientific version of neutrality was introduced to journalism by the acceptance of positivistic epistemology and photographic realism in the late nineteenth century. This resulted in the development of objectivity as professional doctrine. It presumed “a world prior to all imposed values and rendered the periodic construction of accurate and universally recognizable copies of events as the newspaper’s fundamental business” (Schiller 1981, 87). This naïve empiricism was soon to be superseded by the emergence of the public relations industry, which asserted that absolute neutrality was unattainable. Facts were there to be manipulated: the only issues were who did the manipulating and to what ends (McNair 1994, 27).
In a more modest understanding of objectivity, it was admitted that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished (Lippmann 1922/1963, 226). In this framework, neutrality and words with parallel meanings – “unbiased,” “nonpartisan,” and “disinterested” – did not refer to epistemology, but to a style of journalistic expression in which the journalist distances himself or herself from a subject, and leaves the resolution of the disagreement to the parties whose voices figure in the story. In the sociology of news, neutral styles of journalism became known as strategic rituals, which were said to aim at enhancing the credibility of news, diminishing allegations of bias and avoiding dangers of libel suits (Tuchman 1978, 83).
This perspective marked a strong critique towards news journalism and its insistence on neutrality. In Europe, this criticism was to a great extent organized around critical cultural studies, which argued that neutrality is an effective tool in sustaining dominant ideologies and the status quo in society. In the same vein, the neutrality of news has been questioned by gender studies and multiculturalism. Their general argument is that allegedly neutral practices of news more or less systematically regard the male or the cultural majority as the standard and the female or minorities as deviants from it. These lines of argument aim at (re-)politicizing the neutrality of news. It is claimed that the legitimacy of neutrality of news should be submitted to open scrutiny by the social institutions and groups that are talked about in the news.
The mounting criticism notwithstanding, neutrality still enjoys a special status in the news. Journalists regard neutrality as indispensable to their task of truthful and fair reporting, and some researchers contend that neutrality in the news is an important element for the common language that makes collective life possible (Adam & Clark 2006, 155). One should still note that the interconnection of neutrality and news holds appropriate to one particular news genre: hard news. Outside this genre the neutrality of news is less of an issue.
- Adam, S., & Clark, R. (2006). Facts and evidence. In S. Adam & R. Clark (eds.), Journalism: The democratic craft. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 112 –115.
- Altschull, H. (1984). The agents of power: The role of the news media in human affairs. White Plains, NY: Longman.
- Barnhurst, K., & Nerone, J. (2001). The form of news. New York: Guilford.
- Carey, J. (1969). The communications revolution and the professional communicator, Sociological Review Monographs no. 13. Keele: University of Keele.
- Lippmann, W. (1963). Public opinion. New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1922).
- McNair, B. (1994). News and journalism in the UK: A textbook. London: Routledge.
- Schiller, D. (1981). Objectivity and the news. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Schudson, M. (1978). Making the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.