The Death of Objectivity by Andrei Ghoukassian

Objectivity has since the late nineteenth century been viewed as an essential element of best practice in the construction of a news story by a journalist. Its history stretches back as far as 1690 and to America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which promised its readers a “faithful relation” of “considerable things that have arrived unto our notice”. But the objective paradigm – the notion of objectivity as a necessity – wasn’t adopted fully by the media until the 1890s, and sprung from a reassessment of its role in public life during a particularly turbulent period in U.S. politics. In essence, the objective journalist seeks to deliver the audience ‘just the facts’ while giving each actor in a story fair representation. There has long been debate as to the possibility of true objectivity when the human experience is an entirely subjective one, yet the notion of objectivity in the work of the journalist has survived the last century almost unopposed. While no one disputes the need for fairness in the media, differing views on the role of objectivity have emerged since the 1980s. Rather than positioning him or herself as a detached and neutral observer of events with no stake in the outcome, new journalism attempts to give the journalist a voice and a view while still relaying the most important thing: the facts.

American journalism academic and blogger Professor Jay Rosen of New York University believes the strong attachment journalists have to objectivity has resulted in a culture of compromise. He is worried journalists are now so concerned with objectivity that analysis of facts can fall by the wayside. He calls the style adopted and held closely by the modern media the ‘View From Nowhere’ – an attempt at impartiality which validates the reporter’s work. “In professional journalism, the View From Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news gatherer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarised extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’ Journalists have almost a lust for the View From Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance,” he writes on his blog, PressThink.

Dr Rosen believes the reductionist version of objective journalism practiced by many journalists, resulting in ‘he said, she said’ type reporting, gives each competing actor airtime but scrutinises the claims of neither. “When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don’t know who’s right, but you have to report it, ‘he said, she said’ makes the story instantly writable,” he writes. For Dr Rosen, the availability of large amounts of information and the relative ease with which factual claims can be verified means ‘he said, she said’ journalism is no longer good enough. “Today, any well informed blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can easily find the materials to point out an instance of false balance or the lame acceptance of fact. Professional opinion has therefore shifted and among the better journalists it is no longer acceptable to defend ‘he said, she said’ treatments when the materials are available to call out distortions and untruths.” For Dr Rosen, a journalists’ authority does not come from being simply unbiased or objective, but from being right most often. “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard … (it’s about) illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone.”

However, when a journalist is seen to make a call, they are open to claims of bias. ABC technology and games reporter Nick Ross recently learned the hard way that backing one proposed policy over another – even when you’re an expert on the subject – can be extremely controversial. Ross published an 11,000 word piece detailing the differences between the Government and opposition proposals for national high-speed broadband and came down on the Government’s side. The News Limited papers quickly labelled him a Labor spruiker, while Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes also suggested Ross had gone too far. The abundance of information available on the internet also means a journalist can be scrutinised in much the same fashion as subjects can. The use of Twitter and other social media websites and apps means a journalist’s private life is on show like never before. In these conditions, some argue, trying to hide behind the veil of objectivity is not just useless, but impossible. For some journalism academics and practitioners, transparency is the new objectivity. This view argues that since it is widely

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accepted that objectivity is an impossible ideal, the best way to gain the trust of readers is to be open about one’s political views, concerns, background and even finances. The Guardian’s George Monbiot is one journalist who has a registry of interests on his blog, detailing his finances and points of income right down to the £2.54 he received as a dividend on a club membership.

The future of journalism and the transparency experiment will soon reveal whether news audiences are ready for journalists to open up and reveal themselves not as neutral autobots but as real, caring, invested people. What is very clear is that the public will not accept inaccuracy from journalists who publish news as fact without verification. A 2005 study in the United States analysed over 4800 news articles and found about 60 per cent contained error or inaccuracy, so it’s hardly surprising trust in the media is at historically low levels. As Australia enters an election cycle, local journalists have a great responsibility to convey fairly the most accurate information available to their readers. It is not enough to merely relay what is said by various actors competing for our attention, and our vote. Citizens require – and deserve – more than that. The truest rule of journalism practice is still true today: if someone tells you the sun rises in the east and someone else tells you it rises in the west, then you best be up pretty damn early in the morning.

Andrei Ghoukassian


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