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Objectivity: an outdated myth

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“Journalists are objective. Columnists, by definition, are subjective.”

– G.D. Maxwell

 

I hate to disagree with Pique ’s flagship commentator, but I must — it’s just more complicated than that.

Objectivity is the single standard that the masses hold journalists up to. By many accounts, it’s the belief that journalists should be all-seeing, impartial cyborgs who spew out facts as though they came on an assembly line. The idea, of course, is that people can take these facts and organize them into arguments and theses as they so wish.

A lack of objectivity is the single biggest criticism that people level against reporters when they can’t think anything better to say. Usually it comes when a reporter has written a story that people don’t like, and the criticism that a reporter isn’t objective comes when the critic can’t attack the story on the grounds of inaccuracy.

By all accounts, it’s a paltry criticism, and an outdated one if you look at journalism’s history.

Stephen J.A. Ward is a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin. He’s the author of “The Invention of Journalism Ethics: the Path to Objectivity and Beyond,” widely seen as a definitive work on media ethics.

(Bias alert: he was also my teacher at the UBC School of Journalism.)

His book tracks the evolution of objectivity back to the early 1900s, when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst reigned over New York’s press scene. This was the time of “yellow journalism,” an overarching term used to describe the aggressive, sensational reporting seen in Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s pages.

The papers were full of scandal-mongering and jingoistic articles, though they also included some hard-pressed investigative work that yellow journalism has never gotten credit for. The term’s been used to describe just about any kind of aggressive journalism, according to Ward.

That era gave way to the “jazz” journalism of the 1920s, a period in which tabloids flourished. Papers were adorned with giant headlines, illustrations and lively stories. Newspapers like the Daily Mirror carried photographs of executions and reporters wrote “confessional” stories ascribed to participants in the events themselves, as Ward tells it.

Objectivity intervened in the 1940s, when a new crop of publishers arrived on the scene.

They saw the previous era as “crude” journalism and rejected it outright. New publishers such as John S. Knight prescribed a drier reporting method that stressed a “5W” approach and a reverence for the inverted pyramid, a formula that stresses putting the most significant facts at the top of a story and working your way down.

It was at this time that the value of objectivity gained popularity. Originally coming to the fore in the 1920s, it was an idea that opinion should not play a role in news reporting. Numerous definitions of the term stress truthfulness, impartiality and decency.

Today, popular belief holds that objectivity still applies. But that’s a tough thing to do in an age when the very definition of a journalist is changing. Today bloggers can be considered reporters. So can so-called “citizen journalists” who upload content to sites like NowPublic and Orato.com.  

Ward proposes a new doctrine, “pragmatic objectivity.” The idea behind it is not that reporters be drone-like producers of facts, but that every report place the cause of truth as their greatest priority. By doing this, you can look past your biases and political affiliations and devote yourself entirely to the cause of reporting facts.

There are other theses that think differently. Some say that you should do away with objectivity altogether and come down on a side of every story you write. Others say you should make your biases very clear and then report accordingly. I disagree with both.

Ward’s idea is more practical. Under his doctrine you can keep your biases and affiliations but you need to cast them aside in the course of doing your job. It’s a far better option than objectivity proper, which arose as a protest against tabloid and yellow journalism in the early 20 th century.

People are right to demand integrity and accuracy from reporters. We owe you nothing less. But drone-like, impartial, flat objectivity is far too lofty an expectation. I place truth at the core of my reporting and I do everything I can to remove appearances of bias. That’s the best you can expect from me — so don’t expect me to become a cyborg.

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