Complete objectivity shouldn’t be the gold-standard of journalism anymore

It is human nature to be subjective


(Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

By Rithika Senthilkumar, Collegian Columnist

Whether it involves politics, culture, global affairs or the economy, journalists and news media have always strived to commit to complete objectivity and impartiality when reporting or presenting the news. They often adhere to a “view from nowhere,” a phrase coined by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, which describes the opinion-less nature of news production. The news media claims to be impartial in all news it produces. Journalists attempt to remove themselves from the topic at hand and be completely unbiased in order to gain authority and credibility from the public.

The Washington Post, for example, made its administrators’ views on impartiality clear when its former executive editor Leonard Downie expressed how “in [The Washington Post’s] news reporting, [there] is no partisanship or ideology of any kind. It is not coming from a point of view.”

However, are complete objectivity and impartiality achievable? Should they be the gold-standard that journalists try to attain?

One of the main problems with the “view from nowhere” approach is that it fully dismisses the journalist. The delving into, researching, fact-checking and verifying that journalists perform for a particular story leads them to develop a certain view or gain a particular perspective. The “view from nowhere” approach forces journalists to disregard the views and perspectives they have developed along the way and simply report facts and provide weak analysis, which rids the news article or segment of the journalist who is producing it. Expressing the view they have developed in the process of practicing true journalism does not diminish the journalist’s authority or credibility. In fact, it does the exact opposite and adds value to the piece that they are producing.

Another important problem with the “view from nowhere” approach is that most news articles and segments fail in their attempt to be unbiased. It is human nature to be subjective, and journalists are no exception. Because journalism involves not only providing facts, but also analysis, interpretation and contextualization, it is not possible for a journalist to maintain a completely objective and unbiased view. “Removing all bias from their reports is something that professional journalists actually aren’t very good at,” says media critic Jay Rosen.

The news media is fooling no one with their promises of objectivity and bipartisanship. In fact, the news media’s claim to be impartial, contradicted by their failure to be impartial, does not sit well with the public. According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, a plurality of those surveyed said they had very little to no confidence in newspapers and television news. In addition, a Gallup-Knight survey found that fewer than half of Americans said that they could name a news source that reports the news objectively.

The “view from nowhere” approach is not working in recent times like it has in media history. It is time to adopt Rosen’s “here’s where I am coming from” approach. Journalists should disclose and declare their personal opinions and then use their full knowledge and expertise in a topic while reporting. This approach would allow the audience to gain a complete picture of the journalist’s report: facts, figures and events along with views, perspectives and opinions. After being presented with the complete picture, it should then be up to the audience to weigh the various factors and evaluate the report accordingly. Instead of pretending to have no views, journalists can be candid and forthright with this approach, allowing them to reach audiences that share their views as well as those that do not.

This approach, however, does not call for news organizations to shamelessly and unabashedly support the liberal or conservative agenda for their own benefit. It also does not call for journalists to taunt or jeer politicians on social media in the way that CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta did on Twitter. The “here’s where I am coming from” approach should be used to provide audiences with a complete picture of a journalistic investigation or report, and therefore, should be accompanied by matters that have substance. It should not be used as an excuse to express petty and spiteful comments against politicians.

As appalling and abominable as it might be for legacy news institutions to move away from their traditional practice of impartiality and non-partisanship, it is necessary for them to adjust to the current anti-media rhetoric running rampant.

Rithika Senthilkumar is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]