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Journalism: Objectivity and impartiality
Posted by: McQ on Sunday, April 02, 2006

Michael Kinsley on "objectivity" in journalism:
Objectivity—the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics—is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but unachievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world's most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover. These critics are people who could shed their own skins more easily than they could shed their opinions. But they expect it of journalists. It can't be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them. In either case, they might be happier in another line of work.

Or perhaps objectivity is supposed to be a shimmering, unreachable destination, but the journey itself is purifying, as you mentally pick up your biases and put them aside, one-by-one. Is that the idea? It has a pleasing, Buddhist flavor. But that's no substitute for sense. Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal—to have!—no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing—or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page? Even those who think objectivity can be turned on and off like a light switch don't want it switched on all the time. But short of that, there is no objective answer to when the switch needs to be on and when it can safely be turned off.
Is objectivity really a "muddled concept"?

Objectivity: ob·jec·tiv·i·ty Pronunciation Key (bjk-tv-t) n: judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.

"The car, loaded with 500 pounds of explosives, blew up in the market killing 15 people."

That's objective reporting.

Note that "objectivity" is based on "observable phenomena". Facts. It relates precisely what was observed to happen.

Also note that objectivity requires a level of judgement. It requires the observer to form his judgement "uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices".

Car, bomb, explosion, death.

Despite Kinsley's lament, that shouldn't be that big of a problem for journalists, if properly trained. So while they're welcome to their opinions (and, as Kinsley notes, we all have them despite Journalists who will claim they don't), the basic job entails reporting the facts as completely and objectively as possible.

Why Kinsley finds that to be such a tough job escapes me.

Objectivity isn't the big problem today.

Impartiality is.

Impartiality: m·par·tial Pronunciation Key (m-pärshl) adj: Not partial or biased; unprejudiced. n: an inclination to weigh both views or opinions equally.

"Because of the failure of US policies, insurgents detonated a car bomb in the market in which 15 people were tragically killed."

Same objective facts (car, bomb, explosion, death), but hardly an impartial treatment.

Remarks about "the failure of US policies" is conjecture based in opinion. The use of the word "insurgents" assumes a particular type of rebellion. And the use of the word "tragically" is an emotional appeal.

The same case can be made for a sentence written thusly:

"Terrorists detonated a car bomb in a market today murdering 15 innocent people."

Again, objectively, the facts are there: car, bomb, explosion, death. But the sentence isn't at all impartial.

Objectivity is a foundational requirement for all ethical journalism. Reporting the facts as they're observed. All of them. And while that is of some concern (as it has become evident in certain recent stories that we haven't been given all of the facts all of the time), it is really impartiality with which Kinsley is concerned.

Partiality should have no place in objective journalism. Reporters report facts, not opinion.

Some level of partiality is expected in opinion journalism. But so is some level of objectivity if you wish to be taken seriously. As such, opinion journalism should be clearly labeled so there is no doubt.

Kinsley comes to the same conclusion, but I think it is he who has the concept a bit "muddled".
 
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I have a problem with the belief that all problems have two anwsers or there are always two points of view.

Last ime I voted for President in 2004 there were 5 names on the ballot. It’s pretty hard to have two points of view regarding 5 names.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
That’s an interesting point. Does the idea that "objective" or "impartial" journalists should present "both" sides of a story implicitly adopt the American political system (of two major parties) as its basis?
 
Written By: jinnmabe
URL: http://
Does the idea that "objective" or "impartial" journalists should present "both" sides of a story implicitly adopt the American political system (of two major parties) as its basis?
You guys have lost me on this one. I’m not sure anyone is claiming that there are only two points of view.

There are obviously as many points of view as there are people. This post only points to the fact that objectivity shouldn’t be that big a problem for a reporter (just the facts please) and that pariality (which is what Kinsley is really concerned with) should be confined to opinion journalism.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
There are obviously as many points of view as there are people.
You’re right. But I’ve seen the "both sides now" thing written and expressed many times. In a Republicans/Democrats context, I guess it makes sense, but even in a context where there are "two" sides, like Israeli-Palestinian, I think there’s more than two sides to the story, so the story is hampered by an adherence to the "both sides make a fair story" idea.

I’m a little unclear from the post how you want a reporter to write a story. Are you saying the word "terrorist", for example, should be left out because it is impartial? Every news story must be stripped until only value neutral terms remain? I’m not criticizing, just asking.
 
Written By: jinnmabe
URL: http://
I think the whole "both sides" is a cliche which means "the whole story".

The way I’d like to see more reporting done is found in the first sentence in bold up there. Instead we’re getting more and more of them like the last two sentences in bold.

One of the reasons news organizations have style books is to attempt to use words which don’t carry particular connotations which would seem to imply partisanship, that are more value neutral.

I can appreciate that. What I’m saying is report or opine, but don’t do both. Make them separate entities, that is if your news organization makes the claim that it is ’objective’.

Otherwise declare your colors and have at it. There are many newspapers in Europe, for instance, which are described as "conservative" or "liberal" or "socialist". Knowing that going in, I know how to read the story.

 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
No, you’re wrong. "The car, loaded with 500 pounds of explosives, blew up in the market killing 15 people" is not objective reporting either.

There is an infinite amount of information that could be reported on even a simple event like this. One must filter out a lot in order to just say something so simple; and how one decides what should and shouldn’t be left out is a process that can never be objective.

It’s possible to be even-handed, but that’s different. Even-handed is providing multiple points of view that you find reasonable but still think are wrong in the final analysis, so that people who disagree with you will have more than just your naked opinion to draw on.

Objectivity is a dream, and can never be a reality.
 
Written By: Adam
URL: http://sophistpundit.blogspot.com
No, you’re wrong. "The car, loaded with 500 pounds of explosives, blew up in the market killing 15 people" is not objective reporting either.
Of course it is.
There is an infinite amount of information that could be reported on even a simple event like this. One must filter out a lot in order to just say something so simple; and how one decides what should and shouldn’t be left out is a process that can never be objective.
That’s why the definition includes the term "judgement" as in the reporter uses his or her judgement as to how much is enough to convey the story.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Of course it is.
No its not. Its a value judgement.

Why would a reporter report on one car that explodes when 1000’s don’t.

The reporter makes a value judgement on whats news worthy.
 
Written By: symptomless
URL: http://
No its not. Its a value judgement.
Reread the definition of "objective." Are you saying that the example statement is influenced by emotions or personal prejudices? Which emotion or prejudice?
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
Firstly, "objectivity" and "objective reporting" are not the same thing.

The prejudice is that of a judgement of what is news worthy. As soon as the fact is reported its become ’contaminated’ by prejudice.

There’s a chain of prejudices; reporter, media (e.g. if the facts are not broadcast, as not all car bombs are reported, are those that are not still facts?), and even viewer, i.e. how its recieved.

Deciding ’what’ is news is itself a prejudice.
 
Written By: symptomless
URL: http://
No its not. Its a value judgement.
Of course it is ... read the definition for heaven sake.
Why would a reporter report on one car that explodes when 1000’s don’t.
Context.

What’s the reporter’s job?
Deciding ’what’ is news is itself a prejudice.
Nonsense. The culture determines that.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Well I thought we might end up here...is this going to devolve into a Wittengensteinian argument about a "neutral language of observation?" The phrase, The car, loaded with 500 pounds of explosives, blew up in the market killing 15 people" IS fairly objective. Did the car explode? Were there 500 pounbds of explosive in it? Were 15 people killed? Ys, Yes, and Yes. It becomes less objective when you add, "vicious terrorist planted a bomb in a car" or "15 running dog lackeys of the puppet government met their just deserts".

And anyone arguing different has taken too many Philosophy of Science Classes or has read way too much Derida or Foucault and/or is advancing a Straw Man argument, i.e., "perfect Objectivity." I don’t think anyone EXPECTS perfection, just an attempt to describe what happened, and keep the editorials on the Op-Ed page.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Deciding ’what’ is news is itself a prejudice.
Nonsense. The culture determines that.
You are right that, in the context of a given story to be reported, the passage you cite is an objective report, while the others are not.

I’m not sure, though, how "culture" determines what is news. "Culture" is not a decision-making entity. Individuals are, and they are the ones who do the filtration necessary to produce a newscast.

And once it’s taken to that level, I think the ideal of objectivity does become impossible. While it’s possible to describe a static incident objectively — just the facts, Ma’am — it’s not really possible to objectively determine what should be reported. Too many subjective decisions go into that. Is a car bomb more important than a council meeting? More important than a burglary? More important than the completion of police training for a Unit?

When we’re dealing with simple stories — an incident — it’s probably possible to be objective enough for rock n’ roll. But the world is far too complex to be broken down into "news" without some very subjective filtration. I’m not sure how we could ever get away from that.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
I’m not sure, though, how "culture" determines what is news. "Culture" is not a decision-making entity. Individuals are, and they are the ones who do the filtration necessary to produce a newscast.
I’m talking about the culture of news reporting, not the culture at large. The culture reports about the unusual, not the prosaic. Thus 1000 cars which don’t explode isn’t news. The one that does is.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
McQ, can you define this culture of news reporting that you speak of?

I’m not saying it doesn’t exist but is it an eternal, universal culture of never changing ideals that remains the same over time and location? Who decides what it is? When and if it changes? Is there a fixed definition of such a thing?

Or rather, could I suggest, that its a mashup of many fluent factors, involving reporting, mediation and reception? And these in turn affected by such things as locale and era.

I’m not trying to be obstinate, or maybe I am I guess, but consider if there were a 1000 car bombs on one day. Would we still read of the report of this particular 16 people that got killed in this one particular incident? If not, would the fact still be a fact, even if it weren’t reported specifically?

In the process of reporting, a decision must be made by someone somewhere, whether it be the reporter, using his/her perception of the over-riding ’culture of reporting’, of the time, as you correctly call it.

The medium. The reporting of facts isn’t reporting unless its transmitted in a particular way. The meaning of those ’facts’ are manipulated and distorted depending on how they are reported.

The audience. The meaning and comprehension of the reported ’facts’ are percieved in many ways, for example, why DO we actually regard certain reported facts as news-worthy as an audience.

-=-=-

A reading of EH Carr’s ’What is History’, Chapter 1 (I think), which I frusttratingly can’t put my hands on, is an excellent essay on being aware that ’facts’ are only facts because they are events worthy of recognition, at that time, by the person doing the reporting. Who or what decides what is worthy of recognition is dependent on many factors, more far reaching than the actual attributes of the event itself.

The essay for me was one of those perception changing passages read long ago that remain as relevent today as when first read. And as first written in the 60’s.

(If anyone has an online version pleaase share the knowledge)


 
Written By: symptomless
URL: http://
"Terrorists detonated a car bomb in a market today murdering 15 innocent people.
Women and minorities hit hardest."
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog

 
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