Objectivity Standard in Media
Any democratic community’s health relies significantly on the quality of information available to its people. People govern democracy, and when they have quality information, they make good decisions concerning the structure of their government, laws, and various cultural and economic institutions that make their society unjust or just. Journalism plays a vital role in informing citizens in a manner that aids them in making political decisions. American Journalism is going through a phase of transformation from boundaries realignment between the audience and journalists, diffusion of technologies that restricted journalists before, the increasing blurring boundaries between opinions and news, and amplification of new media actors to the current economic uncertainties.
People have always thought of journalists as simple reporters who relay ongoing events to the public straightforwardly. Stephen J. A. Ward, a media ethicist and the founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, refers to the above traditional journalism concept as the professional objective model. In this model, people expect journalists to offer undistorted details in a neutral way (Alter, 2019 cited by William & Stroud, 2020). However, since there has been a significant increase in talk shows and partisan news outlets, journalism’s traditional opinion is under great scrutiny.
According to Sonnemaker (2015), the traditional concept of objectivity entails six associated standards. These standards include detachment and neutrality, whereby reporters do not advocate for causes and groups, and reports do not side with any party in conflicts. The second standard is a non-interpretation where journalists do not put their viewpoints and interpretations in their reports. Independence argues that reports are a journalist’s work free to report without favor and fear. Non-bias is another standard where subjective factors such as personal interests, emotions, and prejudices should not distort the report’s contents. Factuality entails reports based on verified, comprehensive, and accurate details. The last standard is fairness which claims that reports on controversial issues should fairly represent each perspective and balance them.
People view a journalist in the traditional objectivity approach as just a recording device that allows an event to be imprinted upon themselves and later replays the details to the audience. Sonnemaker (2015) explains that the commitment to a detached noninterpretive news presentation goes beyond mere practicality. It made sense as a response to the disillusionment and increasing doubt of journalism as an agent of democracy and source of truthful truth information. However, in an increasingly complex modern world, the political spin increase that the press promulgates. The rise of the commercial media with the resultant financial pressure has led to people questioning reporters’ ability to report straight news accounts.
Due to the shifting societal attitudes, especially the arrival of online journalism, the interpretive and personal coverage it favored, and technological advances, traditional objectivity has received negative criticism. Sonnemaker (2015) reports that the modern media has placed premiums on things such as expression of opinion or bias in an edgy way, limited editorial checks, networking and sharing, interactivity, and immediacy. He further identifies several significant critiques of traditional objectivity, including the argument that democracy benefits from interactive, opinionated, and diverse media. The other critique is that the audience requires interpretation and analysis; therefore, objectivity is very restrictive as it renders reporters to provide either. Additionally, it is too demanding as a norm; hence many news organizations are departing from it.
There is a period of radical shift in all aspects of journalism. According to Tandor & Thomas (2017), this period questions the precepts that individuals once regarded as key to the integrity of journalism as a comprehensible field. Objectivity is one of the most debated and discussed concepts related to journalism, and new media actors who prefer transparency as an optional protoform question it. It remains the gold standard of journalism and is vital to its growth into a career (Benson and Neveu, 2005; Schudson, 1976 cited by Chong, 2019). However, many experts have pointed out that objectivity is unattainable as an ideal, especially with the increasing subjectivity acceptance in various journalism methods.
Over the years, there may have been no greater struggle in the journalism field than that of objectivity. Experts link questions concerning professional journalism with the meaning of objective journalism, which is associated with a more central question of what seeking journalist truth means. In the last decade, Anderson & Schudson (2019) report that fact-checking scholars have questioned the meaning of claiming to judge political actors’ truth claims. Other theorists have observed how journalists have established professional boundaries between nonjournalists and journalists of material and rhetoric objects. Another section of scholars employs public debates about the state of fake news to observe the meaning of being an objective reporter and how objectivity corresponds to external reality (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017 cited by Anderson & Schudson, 2019).
Defining Objectivity Standards
Journalists describe objectivity as a deity and the emblem of American journalism whose origin lies in the convergence of several technological and economic shifts that have led journalism away from moralizing, persuasion, and partisanship that had been the standard since the early days (Tandoc & Thomas, 2017). Through objectivity, journalists identify themselves as reliable and reliable presenters of life events and avert any accusation of bias. Consequently, it has become a yardstick that measures a person’s standing as an individual and the quality of journalism.
According to Chala (2018), objectivity is about impartiality and factuality. One can categorize impartiality as neutrality and news presentation of balance. It associates to lack of bias and objectivity to identifying evidence and facts. In this context, balance entails covering of inclusion of all relevant parties. On the other hand, factuality has two aspects, relevance and form of reporting. Relevance implies that the news is complete, entails the most relevant details, and tackles the essential issues. It involves the selection process instead of presenting information (McQuail, 2010 cited by Chala, 2018). Reporting forms involve statements and events that individuals can check against sources and are free from anyone’s comment. It entails an event’s truthfulness, like the intention not to suppress or mislead what is essential and the accuracy and completeness of accounts or events.
Sonnemaker (2015) identifies three philosophical senses of objectivity essential to journalism; procedural, epistemological, and ontological. Objectivity in the procedural sense concentrates on how people make decisions in practice, particularly in social institutions like government and law and public life. Therefore, a decision procedure is objective only if it satisfies several essential criteria that decrease the effect of bias or unimportant considerations. Epistemological sense (epistemic objectivity) focuses on how individuals become aware of reality’s details, thereby drawing the divide between the unsupported and well-supported beliefs of reality. A journalist can perceive a fact as epistemologically objective if they discover it through unbiased inquiry techniques; they lack human error and are based on relevant verified evidence. Finally, the ontological sense emphasizes an object’s correspondence with reality. It links objectivity to reality and subjectivity to the subject’s specific objective; therefore, a fact or something is objective if it exists independent of a person’s mind.
Steve Maras, the author of Objectivity in Journalism, observes that it is challenging to define objectivity because it is a multifaceted and progressing concept (Sonnemaker, 2015). Attempting to put rigid boundaries on defining objectivity will likely lead to the loss of a supportive audience. Sonnemaker (2015) reports that Maras lists three main aspects that tackle the crucial idea of journalistic objectivity. These aspects include language, process, and values. Language in objective journalism has a significant role in convincing the audience that the source is trustworthy because it is unembellished. This language entails employing a rhetorical style that accurately, concisely, and retells details, facts, and events (Sonnemaker, 2015). Additionally, as journalists attempt to observe the invisible frame, they must use neutral language so that the audience does not regard the journalist as the one shaping the story; instead, they should feel the story unfolding naturally and independently.
The second aspect is the process which refers to collective activities of editors and journalists that offer procedural and epistemic objectivity and are essential to the commitment of truth and verification sustaining objective methods (Sonnemaker, 2015). While the particular process may not be similar in different media and other forms of journalism, all represent objectivity application to operations of editing and reporting. Lastly, many values accompany objectivity. However, Maras lists three major ones as Everette Dennis identifies and includes striving for balance and fairness, presenting an emotionally detached view of the news, and distinguishing facts from opinions (Sonnemaker, 2015).
Problems with Objectivity Standard in Media
The purpose of designing objectivity was to reduce the possibility of offending citizens with political bias and opinion, and therefore, it appeared to be the perfect remedy for audience fragmentation. However, the issue is that citizens find the notion of objectivity preposterous. Individuals in the political field perceive the media as bias. The Pew Research Center for The People and the Press discovered that sixty percent of people consider news companies to have a political bias in September 2009 (Pearson, 2010). It is easy to comprehend why citizens suspect assertions of press neutrality because the thought or the impression that one can be genuinely unbiased is unreal.
Pearson (2010) argues that each person has life experiences that influence their view of the world and interpretation of events. Journalists covering specific issues and people frequently are prone to bias since the more an individual thinks or learns about a topic, the more they are likely to have their perspectives. Additionally, unlike other careers such as judges and doctors, journalism is not a true profession. There is no oath for journalists to take and no special knowledge and training required. Therefore, news reporting is essentially learning about ongoing events and then communicating what one has learned to the public. In this context, attaining objectivity is unconvincing and fruitless to the public.
Additionally, Vu (2012) perceives news as the outcome of numerous daily routine institutional and administrative constraints, judgments, and decisions. He reports that news relies on the journalist’s viewpoint while the journalist’s stance comes from the character of their form of media, nature of the assignment, and the job. An invisible frame encloses news reports as specific public knowledge and a significant group in common epistemology. Moreover, an individual’s balance is another’s bias, especially if they have different opinions (Starkey, 2007 cited by Vu, 2012). In other words, an objective fact to one individual may be highly subjective to another. Therefore, regardless of the relevance of objectivity in press standards and ethics, neither impartiality nor objectivity occurs in practice or reality.
Objectivity has also become an issue of perception to protect the Fourth Estate’s brand as conveyers of all truth. Preserving the impartiality image requires frequent objectivity rituals such as constant suppression of personal viewpoints, balance, inverted pyramid format, and quotations (Pearson, 2010). The ideal of objectivity requires continued effort from journalists to mask individual biases, opinions, and personalities. Pearson (2010) argues that there are severe consequences to the actions of detachment. Preserving the neutral appearance through repressing standard human conduct has a dehumanizing impact on journalists. The reporter frequently gets a mechanical regurgitation of quotations and details instead of being a voice of current events. As a result, this detachment creates distrust and cynicism from the public. It creates a distance between the audience and the journalist entirely foreign to digital natives by separating media from modern culture. Many people live online where the line between professional and personal is blurry where they express an opinion, critique, engage and interact with strangers and colleagues. Therefore, the distinctness between the dehumanized and formal media and the informal and interactive web makes the disconnect more prominent.
Figdor (2010) opposes Pearson’s and Vu’s argument and argues that while referencing human cognitive limitations in attaining objectivity is essential, it is also subject to misunderstanding. The misunderstanding entails the professional practices’ goals that lead to objective news. He argues that the goal is to clear the news reports of statements lacking objective evidence and not clean the journalists’ minds of their values. Techniques of attaining balance entail ensuring reporters do not omit verified important details and miss loaded descriptions since they mean values.
Figdor (2010) further argues that adopting a specific psychological attitude makes it easier for the reporter to follow professional practices remains an interesting psychological fact. However, it says nothing about the report’s objectivity which lies in the backing of adequate objective evidence collected by a robotic human, robot, or human. Therefore, the issue with objective broadcast is if the reporter can generate reports clear of unverified details by complying with professional conduct and not getting rid of their opinions and values by following professional procedures. In other words, the fact that human beings are naturally subjective, which is true, does not imply that news reports are also personal.
The American Press Institute (2017) seconds Figdor’s argument with the claim that “the method is objective not the journalist.” In other words, the concern is in the craft’s discipline. The American Press Institute (2017) explains two significant implications of the point above. First, the impartial voice that many media outlets employ, supposedly a neutral reporting and news writing style, is not a vital principle of journalism. Instead, it is an aiding tool that media outlets use to show they attempt to produce something they have acquired through objective methods. Secondly, without the discipline of verification, a neutral voice creates a decoration that covers something empty. Reporters who select sources to express their viewpoints and use a neutral voice to appear objective is engaging in deception. As a result, the news becomes incredible because it seems biased, dishonest, and corrupt.
Commitment to objectivity usually means fairness, and neutrality implies reporting two sides of a story even if one side has a weaker argument. According to Meyer (2020), objectivity suggested turning away from describing issues and figures in their correct unflattering terms and avoiding words such as racism because people would see them as evidence of left-wing prejudice. It also implied that the public could not see journalists have any political perspectives since it will render them vulnerable to impropriety accusations despite the accuracy of their work. For instance, relevant stakeholders usually question racialized reporters’ professionalism when they cover stories from communities where they are from, and the resultant menace of advocacy does occur to their white colleagues (Shapiro, 2021). In the book The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, Lewis Raven Wallace shows that the right-wing uses the ideal of neutrality to discredit and quiet its decriers and the center to sideline radical voices (Meyer, 2020). Wallace argues that although the emergence of objectivity was for the proper purposes, relevant parties weaponized it quickly to police journalism boundaries. Additionally, many journalists are victims of journalism’s purity procedural that uses objectivity to fire individuals for their politics.
Meyer (2020) argues that the ideal of objectivity has increased both sidesism, which involves efforts to evade displaying favor to any individual in a story. For instance, in 2014, the New York Times covered a white police officer who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In this coverage, the Times attempted to portray balance by portraying Michael as no angel and went ahead and mentioned that he once stole an iPod when young, information unrelated to his death. In this case, the news company attempted morally compare police violence that led to his death with his past activities.
Some analyses do not concentrate on acquiring information backed up by objective evidence sufficiently; instead, they focus on the news industry’s structural factors. According to Cooper (n.d), these analyses look at why individuals expect media outlets to be biased (deductive approach) instead of considering journalists’ values and media content. In this line of argument, scholars and experts conclude that news organizations are partisan because they run businesses before anything else. As an industry, the news media is to a high degree financially reliable on their advertising clients. Therefore, a newspaper firm will stop publishing and cancel television programs without the provided financial resources through advertising. Cooper (n.d) proposes that fear of revenue losses may prevent editors and journalists from covering sensitive stories to a key advertising client. This situation refers to as censorship, that is, an advertiser’s sway over the news.
Also, commercial interests influence news media via interconnecting directorates. People are on the board of directors of news outlets and large corporations simultaneously or via direct ownership of news organizations by conglomerates (Cooper, n.d). Another aspect of resource reliability that affects objectivity works at the level of an individual journalist. Usually, political journalists rely on their sources; therefore, if they offend a government official, the source shuts them out. As a result, the story goes to the competing news outlet. Cooper (n.d) explains that journalists tend to sway in the direction of their sources’ cognitive world due to the required close relationships. Journalists perceive government and commercial institutions as controlling the content in their interest and possessing power over media. Consequently, the news media become structurally prejudiced in favor of the current political and economic order.
By employing the Marxist framework, journalists are victims of socioeconomic oppression by expressing what the top management tells them. Although many journalists perceive themselves as autonomous in their work, they have internalized a self-censorship routine (Cooper, n.d). Advance awareness of what the editors will disfavor or favor causes journalists to avoid challenging the ruling class’ ideas. Cooper (n.d) reports that newsroom socializing is ideological conditioning; thereby, journalists propagate and submit to the ruling elite’s values. News organizations serve the elite’s need for legitimization by framing stories within non-threatening and acceptable limits to the current power structure.
Moreover, journalism schools are currently teaching opinion journalism, where students learn to write objective reports and explore opinion-based journalism, write investigative pieces, use social media, and learn how to write blogs. The amount of perspective and opinions in present journalism programs is higher than in the past, and the media forms for accommodating these changes have multiplied significantly. In this case, the primary issue is whether educators should stress objectivity standards in the shifting curricula. Ward (2011) explains that new journalism is personal and favors transparency over neutrality or objectivity. There is a trend across journalism programs on teaching perspective journalism that argues for interpretations and makes conclusions. Teaching perspective journalism challenges the formerly dominant ideal objectivity, and the question remains whether educators should abandon or maintain impartiality in their teaching.
Ward (2011) proposes two solutions to address maintaining objectivity despite the shift in journalism. First, not abandonment but the redefinition of objectivity, and secondly, development of ethical guidelines for particular news media forms. The traditional concept of objectivity involves reporting facts of a story and eliminating all opinions and interpretations from the journalist. Ward (2011) argues that people should abandon this concept since it is an outdated idea that views everything in white and black. Giving journalists the option between unrigorous subjectivity and objectivity is a false predicament. As mentioned earlier, objectivity does not involve eliminating opinions and ideal neutrality but a reporter’s inclination to employ objective techniques to examine clarifications for any inaccuracies and prejudice. Furthermore, journalism is all about interpretations, and traditional objectivity is a false model of how reporters carry out their work.
In conclusion, it is perfectly alright for journalists to admit their stand on various issues and still cling to the essential aspects of traditional journalism. Additionally, transparency and clarity about political and financial conflicts of interests, editorial independence from corporations and political parties, deep and thorough sourcing, and fact-checking and verification are the remedies for disinformation and misinformation. Additionally, there should be a promotion of collaborative journalism where journalists work with community members to change the kind of stories that need coverage.
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