Inventing Objectivity: New
Stephen J. A. Ward
The history of journalism ethics is, in large part, the evolution of models of journalism with varying ethical aims and norms. For example, there is the nineteenth-century model of the liberal press, with its emphasis on a free press for self-governing citizens; there is the twentieth-century theory of “social responsibility,” discussed by Sandra Borden, in chapter 4 of this volume, which ascribes a range of duties to news media. Models of good journalism are normative responses to significant changes in society and journalism. Important engines of change include new technology, altered social habits, and fewer legal restrictions. These factors can, individually or in combination, spark experiments in journalism. If the experiments challenge existing norms of practice, proponents of journalism ethics may respond in several ways. They may invent new ethical principles to guide practice. Or they may reinterpret existing norms. They may place greater emphasis on certain values, while other values decline in importance. Why these responses are needed is no mystery. Since journalism has a far-reaching social impact, journalists are called upon to explain and justify their practices.
Today, journalists face the prospect of another ethical invention. They need a new model that responds to a revolution in media communication of global proportions. The rise of an interactive online journalism that emphasizes immediacy, interpretation, and transparency challenges an older professional model of journalism that stresses careful editorial controls and verification.1
The doctrine of news objectivity was one such historical invention. The time was the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. The context was the development of a commercial press for mass society in the United States. At that time, journalists came to believe that a professional