The concept of “objectivity” connotes a set of practices and ideas, such as a stance of neutrality or balance in relation to the people and events being reported. It is a central ethos in journalism, especially in the Anglo American liberal democracies. It is also acquiring global significance as journalists seek new roles and institutional supports within the “transition societies” of formerly communist and third world dictatorships. What objectivity means in practice, however, and whether it is a desirable and achievable goal for reporting in a democratic society are questions very much debated.
Objectivity sounds like a positive value, the pursuit of truth without fear or favor. Few reporters would want to be considered unobjective or too biased to produce the accurate, truthful accounts that citizens of democracies presumably need in order to make informed judgments about public affairs. But the matter is not so simple. Objectivity is not a single, fixed “thing.” One research team identified four possible meanings, each commanding some support among journalists in western liberal democracies: the negation of journalists’ subjectivity; the fair representation of each side in a controversy; balanced skepticism toward all sides in a dispute; and the provision of facts that can contextualize an issue (Donsbach & Klett 1993).
Hackett and Zhao (1998) suggest that in contemporary North American journalism, objectivity constitutes a kind of multifaceted discursive “regime,” an interrelated complex of ideas and practices that provides a general model for conceiving, defining, arranging, and evaluating news texts, practices, and institutions. They identify five general levels or dimensions in this regime.
First, objectivity is a normative ideal, a set of valued goals that journalists should strive for. These can be divided into values concerning the capacity of journalism to impart information about the world (separation of fact from opinion, accuracy, completeness), and values concerning the stance that reporters should take toward the value-laden meanings of news: detachment, neutrality, impartiality and independence, avoiding partisanship, personal biases, ulterior motives, or outside interests. Second, these values imply an epistemological stance, a set of assumptions about knowledge and reality, discussed below. Third, objectivity is embodied in a set of newsgathering and presentational practices, such as “documentary reporting practices” that allow reporters to transmit only facts that they can observe or that “credible” sources have confirmed (Bennett 2005, 184), and the separation of “fact” from “opinion” in newspaper pages. Fourth, the regime of objectivity is embedded in an institutional framework, including media independence from the state, legal guarantees of free speech, the separation of editorial and marketing functions within news organizations, and the conduct of reporting by professors with requisite skills and ethics. Finally, objectivity is an active ingredient in public discourse. It provides the language for everyday assessments of journalistic performance, including synonyms (“fairness,” “balance”) and opposites (“bias,” “partisanship”).
As an ideal, objectivity is neither universal nor timeless. It has emerged in specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, though there are debates over the causes of its emergence in American journalism. Geopolitically, proclaimed adherence to objectivity is more typical of journalism in the US, the UK, and Canada than in continental Europe, with its stronger tradition of partisanship in the press, or in theocratic or authoritarian regimes such as China, where journalism is mandated to serve the state and/or an official ideology. Even where it is most entrenched, the objectivity regime is more characteristic of some news media – the “quality” press, public service broadcasting, or news reports – than others, e.g., tabloid press, entertainmentoriented television, opinion columns.
Historically, objectivity as a paradigm in Anglo American journalism displaced the partisan press during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One interpretation sees its roots in the democratic, universalizing discourse of the nineteenth-century labor press (Schiller 1981). A more conventional view links objectivity’s origins to the emergence of technology – photography, the telegraph – and associated organizational forms (news wire services, the “inverted pyramid” form of reporting) that appeared to capture reality. The emergence of advertising for mass markets contributed greatly to the decline of the partisan press; nonpartisan “objective” journalism enabled newspapers to pursue the broadest possible readership, and thus advertising revenue.
Cultural currents also contributed. Faith in the scientific method contributed to a “reverence for facts” in the late nineteenth century (Stephens 1988, 253). But the carnage of World War I, the apparent impact of wartime propaganda and the new public relations industry, Freudian psychology, historically unprecedented totalitarian regimes in Europe, and the Great Depression all contributed by the 1930s to a culture’s loss of confidence in the reliability of facts, the rationality of citizens, and the viability of liberal-democratic capitalism (Hackett & Zhao 1998, 40). Objectivity in North American journalism became more narrowly and technically defined, as “a method designed for a world in which even facts could not be trusted,” (Schudson 1978, 122) rather than a universalizing discourse of truth in the public interest. Over the next few decades, the objectivity regime adapted and incorporated other related approaches, including interpretive reporting, adversary/ critical journalism, enterprise reporting, and others. Approaches that more directly challenged the objectivity ethos have been contained or marginalized.
Epistemological And Political Critiques
Underlying various critiques and defenses of journalism objectivity are contending epistemologies – different models for understanding the relationship between reports and the reality they are intended to describe. Positivism, once a dominant position in western thought, was firmly based in the European Enlightenment’s confidence in scientific method, rationality, and progress. It asserts the possibility of accurate descriptions of the world-asit-is, through the careful observation of events, perceivable through the senses. Positivism underlies the commonsense criticism of news that it should be objective and accurate, but often is not, due to various factors that introduce “bias” in reporting. Often, conservative critics cite the presumed “left-liberal” political views of journalists, an interpretation of news bias common in the US, but less so in other western liberal democracies; it is a view that has in turn been criticized for intellectual inconsistency and for its assumption that journalists rather than economic and political structures shape the news (McChesney 2004, ch. 3). A contrary view sees news as failing to obtain objectivity due to the “conservatizing” pressure of powerful elites, such as media owners, advertisers, governments, and/or official sources. The best known of these interpretations is Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” (1988). This view has also been criticized, mainly on grounds that it is unduly reductionist: it regards news as the instrument of some elite, disregarding both the institutional autonomy of journalism and the full range of external influences (such as those identified in Shoemaker and Reese’s five-level model (1996) operating upon news.
If the above critiques rest upon the epistemological assumptions of positivism, a contrary epistemological position is evident in recent social theory, in trends that emphasize the importance of language or “discourse” in shaping human understanding of reality. “Conventionalism” holds that human perception of the world is always mediated by our mental categories and our procedures of knowledge production. In this view, news reporting is as much a construction of the social world as a reflection of it; objective journalism cannot live up to its ideal, because knowledge of the world independent of the standpoint of the observer is impossible. Claims to achieving objectivity in the news, then, must be regarded as assertions of the power to define reality, rather than legitimate claims to have accurate knowledge of it. In the view of its critics, however, this epistemological position tends towards a self-contradictory relativism, which sees no independent way to assess the truth-value of competing news accounts or discourses. For some critics (e.g., Norris 1992), this position implicitly enjoins journalists to abandon any effort to distinguish between truth and propaganda.
A third epistemology, critical realism, avoids both positivism’s superficial faith in facts, and conventionalism’s dead-end relativism. Knowledge of the real is possible, it asserts, but only through engaging in the work of theorizing, and exploring the structures and processes that underlie individual events. From this standpoint, news reporting may be criticized not because objectivity is impossible in principle, or because individual journalists or news reports have departed from the (otherwise desirable and achievable) standards of objectivity – but because the structures and procedures of actually existing journalism constitute a deficient form of objectivity. This standpoint offers some sophisticated critiques of the objectivity regime as generating, paradoxically, ideological accounts of the world, accounts that are partial and one-sided, or that reinforce existing relations of power. One line of critique suggests that objectivity serves to disguise the value assumptions and commitments that unavoidably influence the selection and presentation, the framing, of news reports. Reports may quote “both sides” in a controversy, thus appearing to be balanced and impartial – while at the same time confining the definition of what is at issue, and marginalizing other perspectives. Thus, US television reportage of the Iraq war policy often features Democratic and Republican party leaders criticizing each other, while leaving unexamined their shared assumption that what is at stake is how to achieve victory or reduce American casualties, rather than (for example) reducing Iraqi suffering or strengthening international law.
An even stronger critique asserts that the objectivity ethos directly contributes to the production of ideological news accounts, for example, by legitimizing media practices that undermine democratic public life, such as a stance of cynical negativism divorced from coherent analytical perspectives, and the framing of politics as a game of insiders motivated only by electoral success. In this view, the partisan press historically characteristic of western Europe offers a more positive democratic alternative.
Interestingly, the epistemology of news objectivity has contradictory aspects. The aspect of accuracy entails a positivistic faith in “facts,” while the aspect of balance between contending viewpoints implies a concession to conventionalism.
Recent Challenges And Contexts
Arguably, objectivity has remained a dominant norm in North American journalism during much of the past century because it has served a variety of functions and interests: amassing broad audiences, providing political legitimacy for the monopoly press, and helping to define and manage the symbiotic relationship between news media and politicians (Hallin 1989, 68 –70). It also enhances journalists’ claim to professionalism, and constitutes a “strategic ritual” to protect them from such hazards as lawsuits and editors’ reprimands (Tuchman 1972).
Yet current developments in the political economy of news media are potentially undermining the objectivity regime. The Internet facilitates the diffusion of opinion and personal experience, blurs the distinction between producers and audiences, and bypasses journalists as professional gatekeepers. The deregulation of broadcasting and the relative decline of public service broadcasting have intensified commercial pressures since the 1980s. Channel proliferation has fragmented audiences. More and more conventional media are owned by conglomerates seeking high and immediate profits. Consequences arguably include the erosion of the universalizing stance of objectivity and of public affairs information in the conventional news media, and, conversely, the rise of opinionated pundits, politically partisan media (most dramatically Fox News), and infotainment.
Contrary to the objectivity norm, recent reform movements within journalism have called for the explicit pursuit of specified goals. In the US, civic journalism challenges reporters to abandon the stance of detachment in favor of reinvigorating public political life. Internationally, and particularly in strife-torn countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Rwanda, practitioners and educators critique conventional news reportage of conflicts as tantamount to “war journalism” that too often exacerbates violence. For Lynch and McGoldrick (2005), far from being neutral observers, journalists are caught in a “feedback loop” with political players; and the ethos of objectivity, with its emphasis on official sources, two-sided conflict, and events rather than processes, impedes a morally and professionally justifiable incentivization of peaceful outcomes. Critics, however, dismiss peace journalism as another form of advocacy, usurping what should be the role of public relations (Hanitzsch 2004).
In its Anglo American heartland, faith in objectivity in reporting may be eroding, but no single norm or regime has emerged to supplant it. Meanwhile, in many nonwestern “transition societies,” objectivity may be gaining a new lease of life under the impact of media globalization, and as an alternative to the state-oriented authoritarianism of the past.
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