An Argument Why Journalists Should Not Abandon Objectivity: '... Objectivity Does Not Require That Journalists Be Blank Slates Free of Bias. in Fact, Objectivity Is Necessary Precisely Because They Are Biased.'

Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

An Argument Why Journalists Should Not Abandon Objectivity: '... Objectivity Does Not Require That Journalists Be Blank Slates Free of Bias. in Fact, Objectivity Is Necessary Precisely Because They Are Biased.'


In "Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy," published by Oxford University Press, Alex S. Jones, a 1982 Nieman Fellow and director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, describes in its prologue his purpose and intent in writing about the "genuine crisis" in news. "It is not one of press bias, though that is how most people seem to view it," he contends. "Rather, it is a crisis of diminishing quantity and quality, of morale and sense of mission, of values and leadership." In this excerpt from the chapter "Objectivity's Last Stand," Jones reminds readers how objectivity assumed its role in the tradition of American journalism, what "authentic journalistic objectivity" looks like when practiced well, and why it matters so much to the future of news reporting.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To my mind, a great deal of what makes journalism good is entwined with what I would term authentic journalistic objectivity, as opposed to the various flavors of phony or faux objectivity. I believe it is essential that genuine objectivity should remain the American journalistic standard, but we may be living through what could be considered objectivity's last stand.

I define journalistic objectivity as a genuine effort to be an honest broker when it comes to news. That means playing it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute, regardless of your own views and preferences. It means doing stories that will make your friends mad when appropriate and not doing stories that are actually hit jobs or propaganda masquerading as journalism. It sometimes means doing something that probably is not done nearly enough--betraying your sources! A journalist uses charm and guile to help extract information that can benefit the public, and then spills the beans to the public. And sometimes the source of the information feels betrayed. Objectivity also means not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear. He-said/she-said reporting, which just pits one voice against another, has become the discredited face of objectivity. But that is not authentic objectivity.

After describing what critics of objective journalism find as its faults and detailing the historical roots of objective journalism, Jones returns to a discussion of how journalis--with objectivity at its core--has been thought of by those who set forth its principles.

But what, exactly, was objective journalism? Were all-too-human journalists supposed to stop being humans and somehow expunge all the prejudices that they carried inside them? Were they to be objective, meaning that they would approach each new subject like a blank slate without opinions? Enemies of objectivity argue that because journalists must be free of bias to be objective, and because this is impossible, it follows that objectivity is a false ideal. As a group, journalists probably have more opinions than most, and it is very rare that a reporter starts working on a story without having some notion as to what happened--in other words, a point of view. …

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