Fair and Balanced. A History of Journalistic Objectivity

By Beatty, John | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Fair and Balanced. A History of Journalistic Objectivity


Beatty, John, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Fair and Balanced. A History of Journalistic Objectivity. Steven R. Knowlton and Karen L. Freeman, eds. Northport, AL: Vision Press, 2005. 246 pp. $24.95 hbk.

Fair and Balanced. A History of Journalistic Objectivity sets itself an unenviable task and comes to a brave conclusion. In analyzing the history of a concept one of the editors says is absent from almost all journalism textbooks, it tries, and generally succeeds, to extend the issues and background normally associated with the concept and to trace multiple interpretations of the term. Finally, it holds that while objectivity is for some, if not most, "pitiably passé," it has proven to be a "remarkably resilient concept," to quote co-editor Steven Knowlton's concluding chapter.

Knowlton's conclusion, somewhat misleadingly titled "Into the 1960s-and into the Crucible," holds that a particular form of objectivity is still a worthwhile ideal. He strongly dismisses the claims by some that objectivity means the absence of reporters' values and that it means a lack of context for the reporting. That also is a theme of the book-that objectivity has existed alongside context or interpretation, even in eras when it was most often thought not to, such as during the Puritan era (Julie Hedgepeth Williams), the Patriot press (Williams), and periods of yellow journalism (Elliot King) and muckraking (Bruce J. Evensen).

This anthology arose out of a panel discussion at an American Journalism Historians Association conference and includes a number of leading lights in the field. The writing styles vary, as is to be expected in an anthology, and the chapters contain different degrees of historical detail versus interpretation and analysis. At times, there is rather a lot of recounting of battles, both military and political, but this is, after all, a book for journalism historians first, and then perhaps for other theoreticians and researchers second. It assumes too much background knowledge for most undergraduate readers but would form a useful supplement to a graduate seminar.

Knowlton, a journalism professor at Hofstra University, and Freeman, a staff editor at the New York Times, note in the preface that the book is also a response to, or extension of, Dan Schiller's Objectivity and the News and Michael Schudson's Discovering the News in its examination of the historical roots of the concept. Essentially Schiller pointed to the Penny Press and the 1830s and Schudson to the Progressive era and the 1920s as periods when objectivity came into being. Here it is argued that objectivity's roots run deeper, well before daily journalism was an established institution in the United States. It is worth inserting here that this is a book about the history of U.S. journalistic objectivity, with hardly a mention of practices and perceptions in other countries. That of course is not a shortcoming, as there is more than enough provocative material here, but it is to suggest that reference to that fact could have been made in the title or, failing that, in the book's introduction.

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