Sunday, July 5, 2009

Editorial: An Objection To Objectivity

During the 2008 primary campaign, Democratic candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson opted to boycott the debates that were sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and Fox News (Grim). The party asserted that the network was not "fair and balanced" as the organization’s slogan purports. Edwards’ deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince argued that the Democrats did not need "to give Fox a platform to advance the right-wing agenda while pretending they're objective" ("Obama To Nix Fox Debate"). Fox News CEO Roger Ailes responded to the boycott stating, "The candidates that can't face Fox, can't face Al Qaeda" ("Fox News CEO"). Left-wingers have long mocked Fox News’ ironic "Fair and Balanced" branding; the network is anything but objective. Even Bill O’Reilly, who claims to be a political independent and an objective journalist, admits that the network "tilts right" ("O’Reilly"). It is easy to pick on Fox News because their denial of bias borders on absurdity. However, their claim of objectivity reflects a problem within the entire journalism community. We find bias in newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal just as we find bias in all the 24-hour networks. CNN and MSNBC are no exception. Nostalgic journalists lament the loss of supposed "golden ages" of journalism and focus on the ideal of objective journalism. Can journalists ever maintain total objectivity? Or are journalists’ biases inevitable in their purportedly non-biased coverage? Should objectivity even be a goal for journalists or should journalists disclose their biases?

Should Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly have to shut up and just report the news? Am I displaying bias just by my choice of pictures?

Dan Gilmore argues in "The End of Objectivity" that no person can ever be objective. He notes, "We are human. We have biases and backgrounds and a variety of conflicts that we bring to our jobs every day" (Kovach 81). If journalists accept Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal’s argument that "journalism’s first obligation is to the truth," journalists should disclaim their partiality to their audiences. Transparency of belief should be a goal for journalists in order to provide readers the tools they need to consume information responsibly.

Rather than claiming to be impartial, journalists should disclaim their preferences and they should abandon attempts to maintain a "neutral voice." Kovach and Rosenthal explain in The Elements of Journalism that the original intent of "objectivity" in journalism referred to the methodology in which journalists gathered information rather than the voice used in their writing. This "discipline of verification" is not the problem facing journalism. The problem is that journalists who fail to uphold an objective method but "then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective" deceive the public (Kovach 83). Through the very nature of human subjectivity, a journalist’s writing is inherently biased. Journalists have to maintain relationships with their sources of information. Advertisers essentially fund journalism and therefore compromise the full objectivity of news coverage. These ads create conflicts of interest for journalists making it difficult to "maintain an independence from those they cover" or to function as an "independent monitor of power" but at least the advertisement works to disclaim this bias. Journalists should stop pretending that their personal views are any less compromising of their independence than the advertisements that pay for their work. It should not be a surprise that a Sacred Heart University poll found that only 19% of Americans implicitly trust the press. An increasingly skeptical audience is not necessarily a bad thing. The poll also showed that 48% of the respondents thought that Fox News has a right-wing bias while the 41% of respondents believed the New York Times has a left-leaning bias (Hutson). Even with journalists promoting their faux-objectivity, the American people are not buying it.

Despite perceptions of bias within the media, journalism treats news more fairly than it has previously. In campaigns of the past, the press has gone to further lengths to push their own candidate. During the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their campaigns for the US Senate in 1858, newspapers were "blatantly partisan" to the point of editors "improving" the speeches of their preferred candidate (Holzer 7). Today, sound bites and video prevent these revisions of history; nonetheless the media affects the outcome of these contests. While newsrooms do not fabricate facts nearly as much as before, they create narratives to make stories more interesting or sensational, not necessarily to mislead people but in order to make their product sell. Market demands affect editorial decisions rather than newsworthiness. Consequently, journalists’ biases affect stories in a much more subtle way today. In any supposed "golden age" of objectivity in news, people and events have been underrepresented or misrepresented due to journalists' limited perception of the world that surrounded the times. 
During the Watts riots in 1965, newsrooms filled with only white males failed to understand the circumstances that surrounded the riots. The reporters' limited perspective failed them in illuminating the dire conditions in Watts that caused the riots, instead leading the American public in to racial stereotype-driven hysteria. Newsrooms have become much more diverse and therefore are able to depict more nuances in their reporting than previously possible. These differences of perspective should not become silent in the face of objectivity. Attempts to balance reporting obscure the reality of reporting. Sometimes stories simply do not have two equally strong sides to a story and reporting should reflect that reality rather than arbitrarily creating a balance. At other times, stories have more than just the two perspectives presented on a split screen debate. Journalism is supposed to "provide a forum for public criticism and compromise" but it fails to do this when it forces stories into a particular mold or narrative (Kovach 166). News organizations ought to use their current diversity to their advantage and represent all viewpoints rather than stifling opinions in pursuit of objectivity.

Spooky music and scary pictures: The "Golden Age" of Journalism?
Journalists are supposed to work in the interests of the people they serve. Why should this false pursuit of objectivity silence some of the most informed voices? Journalists should be advocates for the ideals and causes they believe are worth fighting for. We cannot expect the people whose profession revolves around news to not have an opinion about the news. If journalists are supposed to utilize a personal conscience, shouldn’t they be able to advocate their personal ideals in their work?

Journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow are renowned for being some of the "most trusted" newsmen of their times. While they maintained an objective style of reporting for the majority of their newscasts, they also had the courage to speak up when they believed strongly about something. When Cronkite called the Vietnam War a "stalemate," President Johnson realized he had lost the American public, dropped out of race for his re-election, and devoted (unsuccessfully) the rest of his presidency to bringing about a peaceful end to the war. Murrow's editorial criticizing the anti-communist witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy served as a similar reality check to the American people. While they were not remaining traditionally objective, both men are renowned for their candor with the American public because they were willing to speak their minds when they found it necessary.

Journalists should not hold objectivity of voice as an objective. While an objective method in reporting should still remain, the desire for an objective voice in journalism has undermined its most important principles. If journalism is all the things journalists claim it is—a purveyor of truth, a discipline of verification, a monitor of power, a fair public forum for ideas and a mechanism of change—then journalists should acknowledge that they are not always independent from their subjects.

Works Cited
"Fox News CEO Ailes: ‘The Candidates That Can’t Face Fox, Can’t Face Al Qaeda.’" ThinkProgress. 21 July 2007. Web. 19 Apr 2009. <>.

Grim, Ryan. "Nevada Dems Nix Fox Debate." Politico. 12 March 2008. Web.19 Apr 2009.

Holzer, Harold. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Hudson, Todd Warner. "Poll: Only 19% of Americans Implicitly Trust Media." NewsBusters. 9 Jan 2008. Web. 19 Apr 2009.

Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenthal. The Elements of Journalism. 1 ed. New York: Random House, 2007.

"Obama To Nix Fox Debate." ABC News. 9 Apr 2008. Web. 19 Apr 2009.

"O’Reilly: ‘Fox Does Tilt Right’" Media Matters. 21 July 2004. Web. 19 Apr 2009.
Some of the ideas in this paper stem from some of the discussion in George Miller's J111 class at Temple U, so he deserves some credit too.