News Objectivity and Political Conversation: An Experimental Study of Mad Cow Disease and Candlelight Protest

By Kim, Minha | Development and Society, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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News Objectivity and Political Conversation: An Experimental Study of Mad Cow Disease and Candlelight Protest


Kim, Minha, Development and Society


This study examines how journalistic objectivity in relation to interpersonal communication plays a role in democratic development driven by civic engagement. According to public journalists who candidly express their subjective opinions and contentious arguments in news reporting, the journalistic norm of objectivity has been blamed for causing public cynicism because it deteriorates civic participation. Focusing on the 2008 mad cow disease upheaval, an experiment was conducted to determine whether or not objective reporting actually inhibits political participation and whether or not a news article reinforcing a specific position promotes civic engagement in the candlelight protest. College students were recruited and given two types of news articles as experimental stimuli to measure their attitude towards political protest. The result indicates that the impact of news article types on the subjects' intention to participate depends on their level of conversation with fellow citizens. For subjects who conversed frequently with others on the issue, the objective article enhanced their intention to participate in the protest. The reinforcing article enhanced participation among those who had a low level of conversation with fellow citizens. Therefore, this paper draws implications on the relationship between journalism and participatory democracy.

Keywords: News Objectivity, Democratic Development, Public Journalism, Civic Engagement, Reinforcement, Interpersonal Communication

Introduction

While objective reporting has become a universal standard in the news writing of the press in liberal democratic regimes, its negative effects have been closely scrutinized. An emerging concern is public cynicism, i.e., members of a society withdraw themselves from the public sphere as a result of reading objective news reports (Merritt 1998; Rosen 1996, 2001). News articles that neither reinforce positive aspects nor deflate negative ones eventually form the ambivalent attitudes of the public toward current issues. In turn, such an ambivalent attitude toward civic agendas demobilizes members of society, resulting in political disinterest. Whereas journalistic objectivity is based on a balanced view of controversial social issues, and thus, fulfills the fairness principle, journalistic routines utilizing objective reporting end up disassociating readers from the public arena. Amid this observation of political withdrawal, pundits have blamed the news media for playing a role in the erosion of civic engagement. Despite its philosophical legitimacy with regard to public interest, objective reporting has often been cited as a weakness, giving rise to political apathy among public journalists. Although journalists attempt to manage balanced views on public issues, news articles that are written through the eyes of a mere observer, without a perspective or slant, can foster political disaffection among citizens (see Jackson 1997; Woodstock 2002).

Criticizing the mannerisms of traditional journalistic approach based on objectivity, public journalists engage citizens in public affairs and community agendas. This is what makes public journalism meaningful. Such journalists see themselves not as mere transmitters of information but as a vital part of a responsible medium for revitalizing civic society. Their news reports, consequently, more often than not show a particular view or slant on civic issues and place greater importance on civic participation in political processes (Eksterowicz and Roberts 2000; Eksterowicz et al. 1998; Friedland 2001; Friedland and Nichols 2002; Glasser 1999; Haas 2007; Hass and Steiner 2001; Mcgregor et al. 1998; Merritt 1998; Rosen 1996, 2001).

Furthermore, the importance of public journalism has been amplified due to interactive communications technology. In fact, today's journalistic approach in the online environment involves two important transformations in standardized journalistic writing.

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