The Search for Objectivity in Journalism. (Mass Media)

Article excerpt

THE DEFINITION of the word "objectivity"--expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations--is so clear and uncomplicated that to begin this article with it would seem at first glance to be gratuitous or, worse, superfluous. On closer examination, objectivity is easier to define than it is to attain in practice. Were that not the case, there would not be the unending allegations of biased reporting leveled at the news media. As any newspaper editor or broadcast news director will attest--and a reading of letters to the editor will confirm--the news media, industry and its individual practitioners (i.e., journalists and television news anchors) are assailed constantly with complaints regarding distortion, bias, and lack of objectivity.

Complaints about the lack of objectivity in the electronic media are as frequent, if not more so, than in the print media. Comparisons between print and electronic media aside, the net result is a loss of confidence on the part of the news-consuming public in what is reported to them. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., such concerns about objective reporting have taken on a new level of importance, both with regard to the assuaging of personal fears and about the implications the availability of reliable information can have on the participation of the nation's citizens in the formulation of important decisions facing the government. Public participation in the affairs of state at this juncture in the country's response to these cataclysmic events is becoming increasingly important as various people and organizations (including "political watch" groups, individual politicians, and Congress) question the effectiveness, appropriateness, and legality of some of the government's actions in the war against terrorism.

To avoid the easy temptation to engage in media bashing myself, and for the sake of objectivity, this article is begun without accepting at face value damning accusations against the news media. Moreover, the subject of objectivity in the news media deserves, itself, to be analyzed with as much objectivity as is humanly possible. Emphasis on the word "humanly" is deliberate and essential, for (returning to the definition of "objectivity") it is clear that it is the interposition of the human element in the business of perceiving, processing, and interpreting information through the prism of personal feelings and, yes, prejudices that determines objectivity.

A viable starting point is the posing of a pair of questions: Is the achievement of objectivity in news reporting even possible, and is the expectation of objectivity on the part of the news-consuming public a reasonable one? These are questions that must be asked if we accept that journalists' intervening prism of perception and, ultimately, reporting is the product of the sum total of all of their prior experiences, socialization, beliefs, and indoctrination--in brief, their culture, augmented by race, ethnicity, sex, and myriad other intervening variables.

In the words of communications scholar Ben Bagdikian (in his seminal book, The Media Monopoly), "News, like all human observations, is not truly objective.... Human scenes described by different individuals are seen with differences." The differences to which Bagdikian and other similarly disposed scholars refer are not only the variables cited above, but numerous others falling under the heading of psychosocial and behavioral factors conditioned by mankind's proclivity to receive, process, and respond to stimuli (and information) selectively and not in a one-to-one, immutable way from one person to another.

Walter Lippmann, the dean emeritus of every school of journalism, provided exceedingly incisive insight into the "asymmetrical relationship of fact and the presentation of fact" (to use the terminology of D. Steven Blum in his book, Walter Lippmann, Cosmopolitanism in the Century of Total War). …