Objectivity and the Journalist

(The original version of this entry was written by Madeleine White)

This entry examines the increasingly contentious position that the concept of objectivity holds in journalistic ethics and reporting methods.

The goal of being completely detached, thoroughly neutral, passively recording “just the facts” is no longer widely considered attainable in journalism. Before exploring what could be an appropriate form of objectivity for current journalistic practices, the meaning of traditional objectivity and why some news outlets – mainly wires like the Canadian Press – still cling to it as a principle is explored. The final section of the entry argues that even if a new form of objectivity is adopted, it must be accompanied with new levels of self-awareness and transparency on the part of the media, if journalism hopes to maintain its reputation with the public as a credible conduit of important information.

Section 1: Exploring notions of objectivity

Objectivity is a tricky idea to pin down because its meaning has changed for some and remained constant for others over time. For the sake of clarity of this entry, objectivity will be defined as as traditional objectivity (Ward 19). Stephen Ward, a professor of journalism ethics at the University of British Columbia, lists seven factors that make up traditional objectivity (Ward 19):

  • Factuality – meaning details are accurate, verified and part of a comprehensive report
  • Fairness – referring to the act of balancing competing viewpoints and interpretations
  • Non-bias – showing no prejudices or emotional imbalance with regards to a story
  • Independence – being able to report without fear of its repercussions
  • Non-interpretation – avoiding the insertion of opinions or imbued meanings into reports
  • Neutrality – refraining from adopting a position on the subject matter
  • Detachment – keeping distance between the role of journalist and the subject matter

With the exception of the first characteristic, the definition of traditional objectivity is a negative one. Journalists are not to do this or that. The only thing they ought to do if they adopt traditional objectivity as an ethic is report accurate, verified and well-researched pieces of information. This positive prescription is obviously not something journalism wants to discard since it is both honourable and the part of the foundation of journalism – it has been with journalism since it first emerged as a craft.

However, the other elements of traditional objectivity have transformed over time – to both the benefit and detriment of journalism. For example, most news broadcasters in the United States no longer care for notions of fairness or non-bias in their reporting, but many still promote objectivity as a journalistic value. Fox News comes to mind, but this is the extreme.

Furthermore, most journalism is no longer totally independent. There are economic and institutional pressures (such as the Atkinson principles at the Toronto Star) that subtly distort a reporter’s independence.

Lastly notions of non-interpretation, neutrality and detachment have been questioned over the last 50 years. The introduction of postmodern theory has forced journalists to questions the extent to which a human can be abstracted from his or her unconscious biases. This point will be expanded on in Section 2, which debunks objectivity.

It is also important to note that this definition of traditional objectivity is not specific to journalism. It is entrenched in all professions that are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Lawyers, judges, scientists and priests are all expected to objective in their inquiries concerned with uncovering the truth.

The connection to the truth is an important aspect of objectivity. The assumption embedded in traditional objectivity is that it allows the inquirer the most direct route to the Truth. Note the capitalization. Capital-T Truth represents truth in an absolute form, akin to Platonic forms of thought.

Absolute Truth – a combination of insight and fact – is a lofty goal for the journalist, which begs the question of whether the pursuit of Truth is desirable for journalism. Is that our job?

Others might contend that this is not the correct truth associated with objectivity. Traditional objectivity is meant to help a journalist find the truth (lower-case t). Philosopher Richard Rorty suggests that the search for Truth is futile for journalists because it is not a “goal”:

A goal is something you can know you are getting closer to, or farther away from. But there is no way to know our distance from the truth . . . the only criterion we have for applying the word “true” is justification, and justification is always relative to an audience. (Rorty 3-4)

Based off of this postmodern rejection of Truth, Rorty believes journalists can only pursue a different type of knowledge, truth. The concept of lower-case “t” truth can be understood as details that help us move towards an understanding of reality (Ward 270). This seems to jive better with journalism. For example when a breaking news story hits, the first version of the story will have only uncovered the most basic parameters of understanding the reality of the situation. As reporting continues, we move closer to a complete understanding. Postmodern thinkers like Rorty would encourage journalists to accept the inevitable incompleteness of a story; they would contend that even the final version could not be the Truth, since it is not a goal we can capture as humans.

Nevertheless, the distinction of Truth and truth does not negate the value of the concept of objectivity. Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia’s school of journalism, argues that objectivity is an important ethic for journalism: “Objectivity is the chief occupational value of American journalism …” (Schudson 149).

His defence of objectivity is grounded in the notion that it provides coherence for the profession and a standard for the audience to assess journalistic ability.

It provides coherence because it outlines both an ethical and practical approach. The practical side provides journalism with a shield, Gaye Tuchman argues. Tuchman, a professor of sociology currently at the University of Connecticut, theorizes that objectivity has become a ritual for journalists: a strategy used to attain a level of detachment from a story. She says:

The term “strategy” denotes tactics used offensively to anticipate attack or defensively to deflect criticism. (Tuchman 661)

By this she means, journalists adopt objectivity as an ethic to fend off criticisms of illegitimacy.

The steps in Tuchman’s ritualistic objectivity consist of using quotes to include other voices that can drown out the voice of the reporter, verifying facts to ensure accuracy and the inclusion of doubt when facts cannot be confirmed (Tuchamn 665, 667, 668).

Schudson takes Tuchman’s ritual approach to objectivity and extends it. Having a standard ritual not only binds journalists together as a profession (like a the Hippocratic Oath for doctors), it also provides a consistent method for objectivity to be assessed by consumers of the news (Schudson 152). Ultimately what Schudson is suggesting is that objectivity is not just an ethic, nor just a ritual; it is an ideology for journalists and their audience (Schudson 162).

The relationship between objectivity-journalist-audience is an incredibly important reason for why objectivity has continued to be an ethical framework in the profession.

Former newspaperman turned professor, Gene Foreman notes that as journalists our primary loyalty is to our audience (Foreman 138). This assertion hints at the social contract between journalists and the public. Journalists have the power to investigate public matters only because they have the trust of the people not to abuse these powers and to get facts right. As such, contractual work conditions for journalists exist and objectivity is one of them. The audience expects journalists to be objective and to deliver the truth. The problem with this expectation is that while notions of objectivity have changed for journalists, the audience still holds on to traditional objectivity and a desire for the Truth.

Thus, the postmodern division of truth causes an upheaval in the concept of objectivity. Accepting that even when practising objectivity (as either an ethic, ritual or ideology) we will only attain the truth, then we also admit that there is not a hard and fast line between objectivity and its seemingly less desirable counterpart: subjectivity.

Section 2: Subjectivity and debunking the dominance of objectivity

Subjectivity is sometimes understood as the absence of objectivity: a lens in which information is processed not from a detached position but one based in emotion. The inference of emotion suggests that subjectivity is also based in irrationality and thus the opposite of traditional objectivity, which holds rationality as a virtue. Subjectivity in the context of journalism suggests that inquiry is driven by irrational passions as oppose to detached rationalism (Ward 302). According to the doctrine of traditional objectivity, subjective inquiry delegitimizes journalism and breaks the public trust journalism's social contract is based on.

But the problem with subjectivity is that it is everywhere. Subjectivity is the natural lens through which humans (journalist or not) perceive the world. Objectivity is not natural – as Tuchman’s ritual suggests. It is something we strive for and can only attain by applying certain methodologies.

As a journalist, every decision made requires the processing of information (stimuli to our senses) through conceptual frameworks that are laced with internalized biases and prejudices.

For example, when at the scene of a crime, a journalist will make decisions regarding which descriptive details to jot down. She or he will also decide which sources to approach and which portions of their accounts are worth including. This act – the act of reporting – is not passive (Ward 277). Nor is it comprehensive, thus only giving the reader a partial understanding of reality, not the whole Truth.

Once back in the office, the journalist will then organize the information he or she has recorded. This process involves verification (an element of objective inquiry) but it also involves ordering and selection – subjective tasks.

Subjectivity is so deeply embedded in human existence that even the simple act of choosing words is a subjective decision. It requires two levels of interpretation: the interpretation of the information observed and the interpretation of the meaning of words.

There is also the subjective decision that determines how the news will be presented – where will it go on the page, which page, how big will the headline be?

Lastly, there is an element of subjectivity in how the audience consumes the news. This prevents news from ever being truly objective. When a person consumes the news, she or he processes the information through his or her own conceptual framework, which will have its own set of prejudices that will influence the consumer’s assessment of the objectivity of the report. As Stephen Ward eloquently puts it: “[Objectivity] is a judgment about a judgment” (Ward 288).

Understanding the subjective foundation of objectivity makes the notion of traditional objectivity an inappropriate ethic for journalism. For even if a journalist were to perfect objective inquiry, for the news to remain objective once consumed, the reader/viewer/listener must also interpret the information from an objective standpoint. This concept can be called objective reciprocity.

The reality is that objective reciprocity is rarely, if ever, achieved. Reality is far messier and less perfect. It is, thus, impossible to be fully objective – completely detached from our subjective lens, which dictates every decision in the creation and consumption of news.

What is needed is a new understanding of objectivity that acknowledges the inherent subjective lens through which humans understand the world around them. Most importantly, this new objectivity must be clearly communicated with consumers of news so that the social contract between journalists and the public is upheld.

Section 3: Pragmatic objectivity and its necessary conditions

Stephen Ward suggests that a solution to the dilemma of an outdated understanding of objectivity is pragmatic objectivity. The difference between traditional and pragmatic objectivity hinges on the acceptance that subjectivity cannot be avoided in a journalist’s search for truth.

Ward contends that it is not necessary for a journalist to be detached and neutral for objective reporting to occur. He also concedes that interpretation is a necessary part of process. But, journalists must be willing to adopt an “objective stance”, which Ward describes as displaying “open rationality”, “partial transcendence”, disinterestedness toward truth and integrity (Ward 298).

Let’s unpack those terms.

Open rationality refers to the ability of the journalist to acknowledge that there may be multiple interpretations of the information he or she is reporting. Being open to different rationalities helps a journalist achieve partial transcendence, which means she or he attempts to adopt these different interpretations. In the pursuit of multiple viewpoints, the journalist must be disinterested. In other words, he or she must not allow his or her internal biases interfere with the pursuit of truth. It is by applying these steps to the journalist’s inquiry methods that she or he will attain an objective stance and be able to practice pragmatic objective as an ethical framework.

Ward’s solution differs from traditional objectivity in another way. It is a highly passionate quest for truth: “Pragmatic objectivity is a passionate commitment to dispassionate inquiry” (Ward 281). The act of attaining objectivity is an emotional one for Ward, which ethical theorist Martha Nussbaum would applaud. Nussbaum’s refutation of objectivity suggests that emotion is integral to the formation of any ethical standpoint: “… part of ethical thought itself will be omitted with the omission of emotions” (Nussbaum 3).

Ward echoes this thought in his theory:

Ultimately our ability to act ethically is due in large part to our ability to view our subjective preferences and partial perspectives from more rational, objective perspectives. (Ward 304)

But does Ward’s argument for the inclusion of emotions and subjectivity mean that biases ought to be excused in journalism?

Absolutely not. They must be kept in check through a journalist's commitment to being disinterested in the discovery of truth.

However, pragmatic objectivity cannot replace traditional objectivity in the journalist’s contract with the public unless certain conditions are met.

The first condition is hinted at in Ward’s theory but never explicitly stated. For pragmatic objectivity to be adopted, a journalist must be deeply aware of his or her conceptual frameworks. What this includes is a self-assessment of internal biases that influence the way he or she processes information.

This is no easy task and is likely a project a person will work on for her or his whole life. But if journalism is going to admit it is not able to be traditionally objective, then as journalists must be able to be transparent with the audience about their subjective standpoints (their conceptual frameworks, biases and prejudices).

What would this transparency look like?

It could be as simple as a page on a news organization website.

As journalism currently stands, the public doesn’t know much about the authors of the news it consumes. At best, they may Google the journalist’s name and find a hodgepodge of facts that may or may not reveal anything about the person's subjective standpoint.

News organizations ought to include a page on their websites with information about their reporters so that readers/viewers/listeners can understand their socio-political location and infer biases that may be attached.

This exercise of self-location is easy and quick. It is a practice taught in most first-year gender studies classes in universities.

Take for example, Star reporter Madeleine White. This is her socio-political location: middle-class white, able-bodied, heterosexual 25-year-old female, raised in North America, has university-educated parents, has her own post-secondary education and is well-versed in feminist theory.

This 24-word long description provides far more information for the reader about White's potential internalized biases than a Google search of her name. The self-assessment also took one minute to do.

By having these mini biographies accessible to the news organization’s audience, journalists are not only adding a new level of transparency to the process of producing news but they are also showing their commitment to pragmatic objectivity.

The other necessary condition of pragmatic objectivity is that it be uniformly adopted by working journalists and journalism schools. It must also be clearly communicated with the public. Some might shy away from this condition for fear of public backlash. But an open discussion about the merits and pitfalls of pragmatic objectivity will only strengthen the social contract between journalists and the public.

Ultimately what pragmatic objectivity and theses suggested conditions (self-assessment and a public conversation with news consumers) aim to do is to create a form of responsible journalism. In fact, many of the elements of responsible journalism as outlined by the Torstar v. Grant libel case are present in this new understanding of objectivity: assessment of the importance of facts, their urgency, where they came from and the verification of information. Also, like the responsible journalism description, pragmatic objectivity’s disinterested pursuit of truth requires the absence of malice. But neither set of ethics denies the existence of subjectivity in the process of news gathering by the journalist.

This discussion of objectivity has revealed that traditional objectivity is no longer needed for one to be a responsible journalist. It is also not a desirable ethical framework or methodological standard. Conversely, pragmatic objectivity - paired with transparency by news organizations on the role of subjectivity and a commitment to communicating the change in objectivity with the public - is desirable, attainable and ethical.

Works Cited

Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist: Making responsible decisions in the pursuit of news. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, 2010.

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2008.

Rorty, Richard. Truth and progress. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1998.

Schudson, Michael. "The objectivity norm in American journalism". Journalism. Vol. 2. No. 2. August 2001. pp. 149-170.

Tuchman, Gaye. "Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen's Notions of Objectivity". The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 77 No. 4. January 1972. pp. 660-679.

Ward, Stephen. The invention of journalism ethics: the path to objectivity and beyond. McGill-Queen's University Press: Montreal, 2004.

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