Objectivity is one of the key pillars of journalistic identity: it is one of the ways in which we identify ourselves as a profession. But for the past decade it has been subject to increasing criticism from those (and I include myself here) who suggest that sustaining the appearance of objectivity is unfeasible and unsustainable, and that transparency is a much more realistic aim.
Recently I’ve been revisiting some of the research on journalistic objectivity for my inaugural lecture at City University. But as I only mention objectivity once in that lecture, I thought it was worth fleshing out the issue further.
One of the reasons why I think studying journalism is so important at the moment is that the profession is rooted in a series of practices and beliefs that have specific historical roots – and things change.
David Mindich’s book on the history of objectivity, for example, is essential reading as an exploration of those roots: the rise of the scientific method in universities, and the increasing numbers of journalists to have passed through such education (as well as the rise of journalism schools); the establishment of the Associated Press and newswires in creating a neutral style that could be adapted by regional clients; and of course the increasing role of advertisers in funding publishing.
When broadcast news came along, the principle of objective journalism was so well established that it was enshrined in broadcasting regulations, not least because of the small numbers of channels and the fear that one opinion might be allowed to dominate those.
This doesn’t mean that objectivity is bad, or good – just that there were reasons for journalism’s adoption of objectivity, and we should bear those in mind when it is challenged. Indeed, we should continually challenge it ourselves. Comparing objectivity in the UK versus the US is a good illustration: journalism schools were not established here until half a century after the US; fewer journalists came from higher education; and a smaller country relied less on newswires.
Stil, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic rely on claims of objectivity for their professional status, especially when they feel threatened by those practising journalism outside of institutions.
However, these claims often rely on a concept of objectivity that is now over a century old.
The scientific method that helped give birth to objective journalism has developed considerably since then. Scientists now recognise that the subject of observations can be altered by the mere presence of the observer; researchers are asked to reflect on their own biases as part of their investigations; and any degree-level piece of work is expected to identify why a particular research method was used, and the weaknesses inherent in it.
As journalists, however, we still argue that we are being objective by merely providing ‘both sides of the story’.
When stories were limited to 300 words or 30 seconds, there was justification for that version of objectivity: we did not have the luxury of thousands of words to expound upon why this source was selected for interview, the limitations of this dataset, or our own conception of the field under investigation.
Now those limits on space and time are removed by the web – but there are still limits on our own time, and the need to engage with our users: we cannot waste their time and ours on explaining methodology.
But I do believe – if we are to cling to the principle of objectivity – that we need to reflect more on why we do what we do – and how that affects the results.
The role of journalism in a democracy
Lokman Tsui, in his ethnography of Global Voices, provides a useful framework to begin with. He makes a distinction between different types of journalism, based on their professional ideology:
‘Professional journalism’ sees its role as providing citizens with information – as part of a liberal democracy.
‘Public journalism’ sees itself as part of a deliberative democracy, in which the media provides a public forum for debate and consensus.
And alernative media aims to encourage participation and engagement as part of a participatory democracy.
In addition he identifies a ‘journalism of hospitality’ – the model represented by Global Voices – which sees itself as part of a communicative democracy, what traditional journalists would describe as “Giving a voice to the voiceless”.
Starting with this framework allows us to ask ourselves what role we see our journalism as playing. That role may be shaped by the institution we work for, or by what makes us passionate about journalism – and most likely it is a negotiation between both.
The point is that we ask the question.
Part of the drive towards transparency in journalism is because users do not believe we are being honest in the way that we go about journalism. The increasing availability of alternative voices and user generated content calls into question our selection of sources – and the over-reliance on information from officials, unnamed sources, and friends.
That is not a criticism of objectivity, but an aspiration towards its modern form rather than its 19th century roots.
Those differing views of journalism – public, professional, alternative, hospitable – have been kept largely separate in institutional silos until now – but the online space has brought them all together – and others besides – creating a culture clash that leaves many people defending their position without really analysing why they hold it in the first place.
As educators we should be teaching our students to be aware of their positions and how that affects what they report on, how they report it, and who gets a voice in its coverage. They may choose different positions depending on the nature of the subject, the medium, and the audience – playing to strengths rather than operating through habit.
But if we see objectivity as just a badge to wear to make us different from our readers then we mistake the ends for the means. Objectivity is not setting down a convenient fence and selecting the people on either side that are easiest to reach – it is aspiring to create something that is representative of reality, while acknowledging and addressing the weaknesses in how we do that. And that includes being transparent.
Paul Bradshaw is a visiting professor in online journalism at City University London and Course Leader of the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, which he established in 2009. He has a background in magazine and website management, has contributed to a number of books about journalism and the internet and speaks about the subjects in the media regularly both in the UK and internationally. He has published the Online Journalism Blog since 2004 and is the founder of the crowdsourcing investigative journalism platform Help Me Investigate.
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