Beyond Objectivity

By Rosen, Jay | Nieman Reports, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Beyond Objectivity


Rosen, Jay, Nieman Reports


It Is a Myth, an Important One, but Often Crippling and It Needs to Be Replaced With a More Inspiring Concept

Objectivity is one of the identifying features of journalism in the United States and perhaps the major contribution American journalism has made to the rest of the world. Anybody who tries to think about our way of doing journalism must grapple with this concept, which is essential to understanding the way the American press sees itself and the way America sees the press.

Now is also a good time to examine the subject because in a lot of different ways objectivity is breaking down. It's a mechanism that's not operating the way it used to. There's a good deal of anxiety and confusion about the term among journalists themselves. Almost every time somebody in journalism uses the word objectivity they usually follow with something like: "whatever that means," indicating that there is a conceptual problem percolating upward.

I'd like to present five ways of understanding what objectivity is. This is important because objectivity has a lot of different dimensions. I'll talk about the five and then discuss some of the problems that have arisen around objectivity and some of the challenges to it. At the end, I'll propose a stronger public philosophy for journalists - one that would engage the press in the task of making democracy work.

One of the simplest ways of understanding objectivity is simply to say that it is a contract between journalists on the one hand and their employers on the other. The contract says this: publishers, you give us the right to report the news independently and leave us alone and in exchange we won't make too much trouble for you by introducing our politics into the news pages. So objectivity is a kind of contract between this group of professionals we call journalists and the people who provide the plant and equipment for them to do their jobs. This contract arose in the 1920's and 1930's as the ownership base of journalism was transformed. Editor/proprietors were out and corporations were in. So there arose a negotiated peace between journalists and their corporate employers. The name of that negotiated peace is objectivity. But today increasingly the bosses, the employers, are not keeping their side of the bargain. They're not allowing journalists to go out and report the news independently because they're much more interested in cutting the cost of newsgathering and in transforming news into a marketing vehicle of one kind or another. You see this in both print and broadcast.

An expression of the breakdown of this contract, a very poignant, direct expression, occurred around St. Patrick's Day this year at WNBC in New York. A group of editors and technicians and camera people WNBC, the local NBC television affiliate in New York, went on a one-day strike to protest the sensationalizing of the local news. They said that all they were allowed to do was the Amy Fisher story and the like. It was a very interesting event. There was no practical effect, but then, did go on strike. David Diaz, a fairly well known New York reporter, had quit earlier over this issue. The situation was a little bit ambiguous because there was also a contract dispute between these people and the company at the time they went on strike.

I've said that objectivity is a contract, but to phrase this contract slightly differently, it's also an exchange. Journalists gain their independence and in exchange they give up their voice. That leads to the conclusion that if the independence gets taken away, then the voice ought to return. That is basically what happened at WNBC. So the journalists there began to speak out for the right to cover serious public affairs, rather than simply reproducing stories about Amy Fisher. This very interesting event went almost unnoticed in journalism.

A second way of understanding objectivity is as a theory of how to get at the truth. …

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