There is no such thing as objective journalism

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω

As long as there has been journalism, there have been journalists. As long as there have been journalists, there has been the question of objectivity and bias — or at least the perception of objectivity or bias — in what they do. This is a ridiculous question.

There is no such thing as objectivity in journalism.

Whoa, now! “Slow down, young whippersnapper,” say the old-school journalists who pride themselves on this false proclamation they made their careers based on “fair and balanced” journalism, or at least “from all facets” reportage.

This is simply not true.

It is true that many of the things reported in the news media throughout the years have examined things from many angles and strived to not pre-determine a conclusion and force it on the reader.

This is not the same as objectivity.

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, “objective,” in the context of this discussion is defined as, “1. (of a person, an opinion, etc.) not influenced by personal bias.”

The key word is influenced. There are too many influences on a piece of journalism to propose that none of those influences were based on personal bias. Or, at least, it is an unrealistic expectation to commit to this idea as the foundation of the industry.

I ask this of those aforementioned journalists with their claims of objectivity: how did you decide to write those articles that were “fair and balanced” and were examined “from all facets?” Did you decide they were worthy of coverage because the public needed to be informed on a topic? If so, you decided those stories were more important than some other pieces you could have done instead. That’s a bias right there.

Maybe an editor assigned you those stories and you yourself had no bias, intentions or conceptions of how they would turn out when you started your research or writing — they were simply assignments. If this is the case, you have a closer claim to objectivity than others might, but by the time they got to your audience (and in fact before they were even assigned to you), biased choices had been made to it that influenced its reach and message.

Before anyone gets all up in arms about how journalism is supposed to be the last bastion of honesty and integrity in a society drowning in its own debauchery and lies, and asking how I dare accuse the institution of such malfeasance, I should declare that this is not an attack on the industry, but a celebration.

I don’t believe in objectivity — but only because I don’t think it’s actually possible — and believe we should celebrate and revel in our journalistic subjectivity and biases.

The great debate: objectivity

As I do on occasion, I was clicking links to interesting-sounding articles and blog posts from some social networking platform one day in May 2012. I came across an interesting post about the Canadian government’s cutbacks in regards to environmental regulations. This article itself was extremely one-sided but the debate regarding blogs being a part of journalism is not the one I am examining. One of the comments below the piece caught my attention.

It was a damning condemnation of the government regulations by someone who claimed to be editor and publisher of a community newspaper, signed by the author and included his business email address.

“Why would he, as the publisher of a newspaper, put his name as a journalist to an issue like that?” I thought. How would one’s publication retain any pretence or perception from its readership of having an objective viewpoint? I guess my surprise was based on the fact that our local papers’ publishers/editors never seem to take a side on controversial issues — despite the calls for them to do so at times.

So I asked the author of the comment directly. I thought by posting his business email address he was inviting such inquiries.

Don Jaque, award-winning publisher and managing editor of the Northern Journal responded to my questions defensively, as if I was accusing him of being somehow less of a journalist. He seemed to take my statement of his newspaper as an “activist publication” as particularly insulting.

“I do not understand why you feel it is unusual for me to put my name on such a post,” he replied. “We report on things like that routinely and my name as editor and publisher is on all of them. Why would I not?”

I did not have an answer for this — I only knew there was this supposed (if completely artificial and fictitious) claim that objectivity is the cornerstone of journalism and was inquiring as to his thoughts on the matter as one who clearly (in my presumptive view) felt otherwise. He would go on to contradict my assumption about his way of thinking on the subject.

I asked him, quite forwardly, after reviewing his publication online, which by all accounts, including my own, is an excellent one (especially for such a small community in such a remote location), “Is it more important to be clear with your readers about your goals and biases than it is to give them unbiased facts and let them choose a position? Do you openly show the other side of the coin, or more so promote your impression of things and hope it resonates?”

I typed this question completely innocently, as it was clear to me through perusing the articles on the Northern Journal site that they were anti-oil and there was a distinct lack of discussion of economics and business (I have no problems with advocacy journalism, and mistakenly assumed he would be pleased it was recognized), though will admit that looking back at it knowing what I now know about the divisiveness of the topic of objectivity, it does feel a bit accusatory.

“We do not state our goals, although since they are about things such as fairness, objectivity, justice and playing a strong role in community, we would have no problem doing that, but feel that is not needed,” he replied.  “Hopefully we have no biases. We certainly strive to be objective. We attempt to present the facts from all issues, from all sides as objectively as possible and present them in an interesting, compelling way.”

Based on this response, I would definitely put him on the “objectivity is the cornerstone of the industry” side of the debate — which seemed strange to me, based on his openness in the public sphere about his opinion on things like environmental regulations and government, and his candour and resolve about that openness.

The great debate: Transparency

Jaque’s openness on that environmental blog would seem to reflect the school of thought championed in part by David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, in an article titled, “Transparency: the new objectivity,” published in September 2009.

“[W]e have taken objectivity into realms where it really should not go,” he said. “For example, for a long time, journalists aimed to be objective. That’s not an achievable aim and the claim that reporting is objective is not just wrong but seriously misleading.”

He goes on to say that because objectivity is technically impossible, despite the long-time journalistic assertion, authors should, instead of pretending objectivity, present their own biases to their audience so they can take those biases into account when reading and interpreting the work itself.

“Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases,” he said. “Transparency brings us to accept ideas as credible the way the claim of objectivity used to.

“[P]resenting information as objective means hiding the biases that inevitably are there. It’d be more accurate and truthful to acknowledge those biases, so that readers can account for them in what they read.”

But according to J-Source, the online “Canadian Journalism Project,” in an article dated Nov. 21, 2011, “Transparency is a double-edged sword.  It can increase and diminish credibility at the same time.  Knowing about a potential conflict of interest is better than not knowing.  But no disclosure statement can ever be complete enough to satisfy the truly skeptical.”

The media landscape: can the audience tell the difference?
Should they be expected to?

“I think average readers can calibrate for bias,” said Reuters columnist Jack Shafer during a live chat session on Poynter.org, a global leader in promoting, informing on and examining the craft of journalism. “For example, is there a viewer in the nation who, when he tunes into the opinion shows on Fox News Channel and MSNBC and Current at night, doesn’t know he’s hearing biased, opinionated coverage?”

Shafer claims that transparency is not, as some claim, the way to cause an audience to easily dismiss an author or their work based on the writer’s leanings, but instead causes the work itself to be examined on its own merits, because there is no assumption of bias when one’s views are already known.

“We’re kidding ourselves and kidding our readers when we pretend that journalists have no opinions and no biases,” he said. “My view is that journalists can’t be objective, because as human beings we are all subjective. What we can do is employ an objective method in the reporting and writing of the news: To be fair, to be accurate, to be comprehensive.”

When I asked Jaque to comment on the state of Canadian media in general, he had a different opinion than the one he shared about his own objectivity.

“Do you feel that the media has been given an image of itself about its responsibility?” I had asked. “By that I mean is there an assumption that the media merely reports findings or has it become necessary for them to affect the interpretation of the public based on their own (the media’s) views?”

“I think the media in most cases is about, a) making money; and/or b) entertaining, rather than journalism for the most part these days and as a result the quality of the information we get (as the public) is low,” he said. “As a result the public’s image of the media is low — so yes that image is earned, unfortunately. The second part of that question is difficult to answer, mainly because there is no blanket response to it. Some journalists within some media report findings in a quality way and some others definitely try to spin the findings,” he said, though he clearly considered this “lesser” journalism.

I suppose that is why he seemed so offended by my original line of questions. He thought I was accusing him of being the type of journalist he clearly has distaste for.

“There are, in certain cases, those in control [who] want to present the news from an ideological perspective, so they purposefully see to it that the news is coloured or spun a certain way, or only certain things are reported – and their bias is apparent,” he continued. “This is not objective journalism, but it is the reality with some modern day media.”

He concluded his statements with a cold, depressing and bleak view of the current media landscape as far as the public perception is concerned.

“The whole concept and importance of a free press and its role in maintaining democracy is no longer held in as high regard as it once was by the public, it seems.”

A media legend chimes in

A sweaty, shaky-handed student journalist sits in an armchair and tries to calm his voice as he asks the man in the chair opposite for his take on the issue.

“Sometimes there’s a luxury in our job of not having an opinion,” laughs Peter Mansbridge, CBC’s most recognisable personality, and probably the most-respected individual in Canadian media, before giving his thoughts on the debate itself when I was lucky enough to have him grant an interview Jan. 19, 2012.

“There’s nothing new about this debate,” he said. “It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been in journalism, this issue about whether or not you have to lay out how you feel about every topic before you cover it. I don’t agree with that.”

Mansbridge said that despite his serious, unaffected persona on-air, there have been rare occasions in his career where he had “personal feelings about a particular subject,” but that it is in everyone’s best interest to not put those feelings forward — because it doesn’t affect his ability to do his job as a journalist. Therefore, it shouldn’t come into the equation of the audience response and cannot possibly effect their view of his integrity.

“It’s like saying, if you’re a heart surgeon and you hate the patient, you’re going to let that impact the way you do the surgery? No, you’re not,” he said emphatically. “You’re going to do the best job you can to save that person’s life. It’s no different for a journalist, in my view.”

So there’s some disagreement, still — but more importantly, there’s some acceptance and affirmation.

We, as a society and as a media-consuming entity, acknowledge, as Mansbridge does, that, “It’s not like we’re neutered about every opinion on Earth. Journalists have opinions on things.”

We also need to recognize that these opinions and biases don’t prevent talented journalists from doing their job.

We just can’t agree on whether those opinions and biases affect the work being done by those talented journalists.

I think perhaps Shafer put it best when he said, “Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness.”

And no one wants to look foolish.