Are Journalists really objective?

The discussion objectivity should not focus on objectivity of result but on objectivity of method. It is important to recognize that deciding what is covered and how it is covered is not a value-neutral, scientific process. Deciding what's news involves choices. News organizations are constantly deciding that one story is more worthy of coverage than another. Even in those stories which compel coverage, such as wars, there are many decisions in the writing and editing which cannot be considered purely "objective."

When we discuss objectivity of method we mean that a journalist's reporting should be an open-minded search for truth. What's published should be fair, accurate and reasonably complete. All those who are stakeholders in the story should be given a reasonable opportunity to state their case. In addition to making sure what's published or broadcast meets these requirements, reporters should also ask themselves if anything important is missing from their story. They also might ask themselves if they've demonstrated sufficient skepticism about what is told to them especially when using unnamed sources. It has been suggested that a good to question for reporters to ask themselves is: will anyone who is being reported on like this story too much? (See the Enron stories below).

Generally it is best if reporters let the evidence speak for itself. The use of loaded words such as “reckless” and “indiscriminate” should be avoided. However, there are times such as in the police use of force article below, when a journalist is able to demonstrate that someone in a position of power is lying, or that methods used by a police department or officer were unwarranted, or that an organization is using intimidation to get its way, to mention just a few possibilities, then it is acceptable to abandon the neutral tone most mainstream journalists try to maintain. When they do so, it is especially important that objectivity of method is followed.

Example 1

The following stories were both published when Enron was still considered a great success story in the world of business. The articles although written at roughly the same time take a rather different perspective on Enron. One is almost worshipful while the other maintains a significant amount of skepticism. We now know that skepticism of "The Economist" article was more than justified. Try to read the articles as if you did not know that Enron would end up in bankruptcy with many of their business practices deemed unethical or even criminal.

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example of Objectivity:

  • Is there evidence that author of the "Economist" article had information available to him that was unavailable to the "Fortune" article author? If not, what explanations might there by for the different tones taken?
  • Do the authors provide adequate support for the portrayals they provide of the company?
  • If you had read these articles when Enron was still one of the most admired companies in America do you think you would have shared the skepticism of the one or the enthusiasm of the other?

Example 2

The following is excerpted from a series of articles that appeared in The Washington Post on police use of force. Pay special attention to the second paragraph. The use of words like "reckless" and "indiscriminate" could lead one to label this article as lacking in objectivity and biased. If, however, objectivity of method is the standard for judging bias then perhaps the use of those words is fair and a charge of bias is not warranted. (The excerpts below cannot do full justice to the evidence published by the Washington Post. Reading or at least skimming the complete article is especially useful in this example.)

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example of Objectivity:

  • Is evidence presented substantiating all the assertions made in the article?
  • Is it clear that the reporters gave all stakeholders in this story a reasonable chance to state their case?
  • Are alternative explanations, for the high rate of police shootings, fairly considered?
  • Was the situation in Washington D.C. considered in isolation or was it compared to other big cities?
  • Is adequate consideration given to who is responsible for the problem described?

Complete Article: http://www.umich.edu/~newsbias/washpost_obj.html

Objectivity Analysis:

The effect of this story was profound. The D.C. police department recognized it had a problem and immediately began taking the necessary steps to improve police officer training especially in regards to the use of lethal force. According to Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser, in their book "The New About the News," "In 1998 Washington police shot thirty-two citizens, twelve fatally. In 1999, with new training and procedures in effect, there were eleven shootings, for of them fatal." The following year just one person was killed by a D.C. police officer.

The reporters on this story had more time and resources available to them than the vast majority of reporters. But the routine of asking tough questions and verifying what one is told is not substantially different in relatively simple reporting than it is in the more complex example we've used.

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