Re-Thinking Objectivity

Re-Thinking Objectivity
• Applying objectivity too broadly can lead to
passive receptivity of the news rather than the
press being aggressive analyzers and
explainers of it.
• The press has conflicting dictates:
– Be neutral yet investigative
– Be disengaged yet have impact
– Be fair-minded but have an edge
• An attempt of objectivity has persisted in
many journalistic organizations because
nothing better has replaced it.
• And the public is cynical of marketing slogans
such as “fair and balanced.”
• The concept of objectivity can lead to false
balance and lazy reporting.
– “He said, she said”
– “Both sides of the story”
– False equivalencies
• False balance leads to failure of pushing the story,
incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of
what is true and false.
• Too often rely on official sources, which leads to
false balance and “he said, she said” reporting.
• The concept of objectivity often makes
reporters hesitant to inject issues that aren’t
in the news already.
– “News is driven by the zeitgeist.”
– Who sets the agenda?
Objectivity Abandoned
• The Internet and cable news drive a non-stop
news cycle, which elevates the appeal of
“attitude” in the news, making the balanced,
measured news report seem anachronistic.
• Public relations has matured into a spin-monsters
so that virtually every word a reporter hears from
an official source has been shaped and polished
in order to manipulate public perceptions.
– “Manage the message.”
• Thus, “fairness” has often come to mean a
scrupulous passivity – to cover a developing
story as it is manufactured.
• Too often a story represents the view of
cooperative sources (Bob Woodward).
• If problems or issues are being ignored by
official sources, reporters too often don’t dig,
don’t force officials to confront the problem or
• Bias is driven by ideology.
– Politicians always see “unfairness.”
• Bias is driven by class.
– Biggest bias in the news is based on the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom.
• Fewer non-Ivy League, blue-collar reporters such as Breslin,
Royko, Hammil.
• Bias driven by conflict-oriented, event-driven,
horse-race coverage and by existing
• Bias driven by “altruistic democracy,”
“responsible capitalism” and reformism.
• Reporters are reformists, against corruption,
exploitation, cruelty, violence, discrimination
and abuse of power. For honesty, fairness,
courage and humility.
– They like to look out for people who cannot look
out for themselves.
New Direction
• Journalists must acknowledge, humbly and
publicly, that what they do is far less detached
than the aura of objectivity implies.
• Reporters must be encouraged to develop
expertise and use it to sort through competing
claims, identify and explain underlying
assumptions of those claims, and make
judgments about what the audience needs to
• Master their beats (specialization).
• Reporters must be precision journalists, which
is arguably activist, but approaches the
unobtainable goal of objectivity better than
traditional reporting strategies.
• Precision journalism requires expert usage of
big data.
• Finally, reporters (including bloggers) should
be human first, reporters second.
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