The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Objectivity in Journalism:
Should We Be Skeptical?

FOR MOST OF THIS CENTURY, GOOD JOURNALISM has traditionally been equated with objective journalism. The fundamentals of objective journalism have traditionally been the following: present the five Ws, get both sides of the story, and most important, keep your opinions to yourself. Objectivity can be seen as a passive form of journalism—just give the facts in an emotionally detached way. It was believed that a reporter’s personal views could only taint the story and obscure the Truth.

Skeptic magazine 6.1 (cover)

This article appeared in this issue of Skeptic magazine: volume 6, number 1 (1998).

This interpretation of objectivity has been seen as the ideal trait in the ethical journalist. That ideal still, in many reporters’ minds, endures, even though the concept of objectivity has been under much debate for most of this century. Even in the public mind the perception is that the reporter who is the most objective is the most trustworthy. Objectivity seems like a tenet based in moral foundation: no ethical reporter would ever consider tainting a story with his or her own opinions.

But like the “byline”—which began during the Civil War as a way for the Union Army Generals to keep a track of which reporter wrote what information (not as a rewards system)—objective journalism’s origins are based, not in ethical, intellectual or moral foundation, but in good old capitalist smarts. Before the era of objectivity, newspapers were openly partisan, mostly in the hope that the editor’s or reporter’s support for a politician would eventually lead to patronage appointments.

Beginning in the 1830s “Penny Press” Era and taking full hold in the late 19th century, newspapers and wire services started to replace emotionally charged, partisan stories with toned-down, politically uncolored reports. Removing political bias from news stories was used as a way of increasing circulation for newspapers by attracting new readers, regardless of their political leanings. Wire services had their own economic reasons for the switch: partisan pieces would less likely be picked up by a newspaper than politically neutral ones.

But the origins of journalistic objectivity are more complicated. Graham Knight, a professor of sociology who specializes in mass media, popular culture, and contemporary social theory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, notes “objectivity became one of the ways [for the media] to counter charges that a monopoly press stifled the diversity of information, ideas, viewpoints, etc.—particularly in a context where newspapers were relying more and more on revenue from advertising rather than subscriptions, and were thus open to the charge that they suppressed news that adversely affected the interests of those advertisers.” Knight also observes that “the value of objectivity was in many respects imported into journalism from areas like science and the professions. The latter half of the 19th century saw not only the emergence of newspaper chains dependent on advertising revenue, but also the growth of science and the increasing professionalization of a number of areas of white-collar work which took their lead, in terms of legitimizing their claims to professional status, from scientific values such as rationality, empirical evidence and, of course, objectivity. Laying claim to practicing these values was part of a way of laying claim to the social status and influence that went along with them” (Knight, 1997).

Not surprisingly, this strategy worked for a long time. Objectivity was unquestionably a clever business move—a newspaper could not increase its readership unless it had broad appeal. But there were (and still are) other benefits of objectivity. Theodore Glasser, who is on the faculty of the Department of Communications at Stanford University, notes that even today, objectivity is still an economically viable way of disseminating the news: “It’s a very efficient and quick way of doing a story because it doesn’t require journalists to investigate the deeper angles of their story, but rather to simply report the facts accurately and fairly, even when they know those facts aren’t necessarily true” (Glasser, 1997).

The economic benefits of objectivity are obvious. At the turn of the century, however, reporters bought their own hype—objectivity’s role as marketing tool transformed into an ethical one. In 1923, the American Society of Newspaper Editors essentially declared that only objective journalism was ethical journalism.

This illusion began to unravel in the 1950s—the McCarthy hearings cum communist witch hunts exposed what happens when reporters accept their sources’ facts at face value. Lee Wilkins, a professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in media ethics, says “one of the things that McCarthy did was that he’d get out some place and say ‘I have here a list of 200-some people in the US State Department that are Communists’ and journalists would print those charges without ever checking them for their accuracy and in fact the piece of paper that McCarthy was holding up was blank” (Wilkins, 1997).

For awhile, there was an attempt in the press to move away from objectivity. The Age of Watergate showed the power of investigative journalism. Objective reports were slowly replaced with more hardhitting, probing ones. Many reporters declared (and many still do) that objectivity was fading out in favor of a more analytical and probing journalism.

But it didn’t quite turn out that way. The allure of emotional detachment was too much to resist. Besides, objective reporting is simpler and less prone to accusations of bias, sensationalism, or fraud than are deep analytical stories. Most important, investigative pieces are expensive; objective ones are cheaper to churn out.

The public perception of what makes an ethical, trustworthy journalist has also added to the longevity of objectivity. Somehow, an intellectually sensitive reporter isn’t seen as ethical or accurate as a stoned-face one. No one quite trusts someone who may become blinded by emotions. There are those who believe any show of humanity on the part of reporters biases their stories.

The problem with assuming that emotional detachment somehow leads an observer to find the Truth, is that not all truths are built to last for eternity. Clifford Christians, a research professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana, notes “there isn’t an objective world that’s static, that exists outside of us” (Christians, 1997). Walter Harrington, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana, book author and long-time staff writer for the Washington Post magazine, adds, “We have a physical world that exists out there. We have a number of what the Dow is and to report the Dow constantly and uncritically is to not stop and explain to people how the Dow is constructed, how it has been changed over the years, how its alteration shapes its outcome and how the Dow parses with other measures. When we accept something as a piece of objective fact, usually it’s time to start saying ‘Well, wait a minute, it’s time to start looking at that.’ Because once anything is accepted as being a fact that we no longer question, doubt or evaluate, I think that you’re going into dangerous territory” (Harrington, 1997).

Emotional detachment also assumes all truths are created equal. Lawrence LeShan, a clinical psychologist who made similar criticisms about his profession in his 1990 book The Dilemma of Psychology, gave the real-life example of a young girl who takes an IQ test at school. She is asked to answer this fill-in-the-blank: The fox ate the three little rabbits. The fox ate the four little rabbits. The fox ate the five little rabbits. The fox ate the ____ little rabbits. Her reply was “the fox ate the poor little rabbits.” As creative and insightful as her answer was, LeShan goes on to say, unless she answers the question with the word “six,” she won’t be getting any points (LeShan, 1990, p. 64).

Do we want reporters who say “six” or say “poor”? Many reporters say they aren’t trying to be objective, but fair. But what exactly is considered “fair” reporting? Traditionally, the concept of fairness has been closely linked with objectivity. Being fair is usually considered getting both sides of the story—in other words, no story on abortion would be complete without speaking with both pro-choice and antiabortion advocates, even if the story is about a new abortion procedure and a simple interview with a medical doctor would suffice.

But the game of fairness demands dichotomy. If you’re writing a political story, interview a Democrat and make sure you’ve got the Republican, too. Activist versus Suit. Victim versus villain. Good versus bad. Us versus them. Journalistic fairness thrives in the Manichean universe. But is this enough? “A good journalist tries to be fair,’” says Knight. “In practice, this means doing the sorts of things we associate with objectivity—trying to set aside one’s own preferences and prejudices, getting the different points of view of the participants in an event or issue, trying to be balanced in how you represent those views, and so on. What this always seems to skirt around, however, is that usually reporters et al. are dealing with a world that is itself profoundly unfair—a world where opportunities and resources such as wealth, power, and access to the media are unevenly distributed.” Knight adds:

This is the other side of objectivity, viz. the object-like nature of an unequal reality where life doesn’t always conform to our values and ideals—in fact it seldom conforms from the point of view of news which is, almost by definition, about the negatives—crime, corruption, conflict, disorder, deprivation, injustice, etc. This is the dilemma of ethical objectivity: do you define objectivity as a method of investigating and talking about the world (being scrupulously balanced, giving both sides equal coverage, etc.), or do you treat it—objectivity—as the objective nature of reality in which injustice, disorder etc. are commonplace, and where, therefore, some points of view should be given more favorable coverage than others because they are “objectively” closer to the truth. As one reporter once put it to me, “I try to be balanced and fair, but if someone is acting like an idiot, then I have to say so” (Knight, 1997).

This is precisely the problem with journalistic fairness: how fair is it to give equal time to people with unequal resources? A person who is enterprising, savvy and wealthy enough to hire a public relations firm or an image consultant can make his or her five minutes on the air go much further than someone who lives from paycheck to paycheck.

Journalistic fairness can also be too narrow. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and director of the Public Journalism Project, adds “why does the journalist imagine the political world, public controversies as having only two sides?” He adds, “Where are the third, fourth and fifth sides? Where are the sides that are not even spoken, that don’t have a spokesman but may be relevant?” (Rosen, 1997). But journalistic fairness not only suggests there can only be two sides to any issue but assumes these two sides must diametrically oppose each other in every way (after all, there is a reason why these camps are at odds with each other).

The problems of relying on journalistic fairness were illustrated during the days leading to the Gulf War. Although there was outrage at the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, covering the story wasn’t easy. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seen as the villain, but who was going to play the victim? Saying that an entire country was suffering was far too nebulous for reporters to use, and besides, Kuwaitis weren’t exactly the poster children for pious living. The country had virtual slavery, appalling human rights violations, and the Kuwaiti royal family were as decadent as any ruler in ancient Rome. Journalists needed to personalize the story, and to do that they needed a nice, sweet victim to oppose the Iraqi bad guy. We saw Saddam, but now we had to see “the other side.”

That came on October 10, 1990, when an alleged Kuwaiti hospital volunteer named “Nayirah” testified to an American congressional Human Rights Caucus that Iraqi soldiers stormed a hospital, took Kuwaiti infants out of incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die. The girl claimed she was vacationing in Kuwait at the time of the invasion. “Nayirah” would not give her full name, claiming she was afraid of a reprisal against her family. Her testimony sparked a strong public outcry to send American troops to the Gulf to stop Saddam’s tyranny.

Nayirah couldn’t be a more perfect contrast to Saddam—she was young, articulate and seemed vulnerable—a perfect victim. She cried a lot, in sharp contrast with the Iraqi leader’s ruthless and savage demeanor. She tearfully recounted, as cameras were rolling, what she had witnessed in Kuwait: “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the rooms where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” She also recounted how Iraqi soldiers nearly drowned one of her friends in a swimming pool and also “pulled out his finger nails and applied electric shock to sensitive parts of his body” (MacArthur, 1992a, pp. 59; Bilski, 1990).

In their quest to get “both sides of the story,” very few reporters bothered to question the validity of the girl’s testimony and, as is now known, Nayirah was in reality not a nameless and selfless girl who had a penchant for volunteering at hospitals on her vacation, but the daughter of Saud al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S., who was trained by a PR firm to give a flawlessly heartbreaking performance. Not only that, her story was a fraud (MacArthur, 1992a, pp. 59; MacArthur, 1992b).

The reason why journalistic fairness (i.e., getting both sides of the story) was created to ensure that journalists could present the news as neutrally as possible. But can it be done? Harrington notes “the very notion of wrong-doing is itself a value-laden assumption” (Harrington, 1997).

Which leads to the question: what does “fair” mean? Wilkins says “fairness is a messy term in terms of ethics and it’s a term I don’t use very much because ‘fair’ in and of itself—it just can’t hang out there—it’s fair to whom? And the minute you say ‘fair to whom’ you’ve given a whole lot more information and at that point you can say ‘I can be fair to this source in this story and not be fair to anybody else’ ” (Wilkins, 1997). Journalists were fair to Nayirah, even though she certainly didn’t deserve it.

There are other problems with this arbitrary assignation of roles. Knight says “fairness is vague and nebulous precisely because it is a way of reconciling these two ways of being ethically objective— giving both sides a chance to speak, but not letting that prevent you from telling the objective truth about either or both as you see it” (Knight, 1997). Knight goes on to show how this works:

In practice this usually takes two forms. The first is to take the side of the “little guy,” especially where there is a clear cut “victim” who doesn’t have the weight of some powerful groups or institution behind her or him. We see this all the time in news stories about ordinary people being abused in some way by big institutions, especially government. The second, when dealing with big news players, is to take the plague on both their houses approach—be equally critical of both, though perhaps identify one as being more responsible for the situation than the other.

The issue for me, however, is how you break the mold of what I call the division of news labor, [that is] the tendency to treat authority figures (politicians, police officers, experts, etc.) as the primary source of factual and rational information, and the rest of us—ordinary people, representatives of social movements and social actions groups—as primarily a source of information about emotional experiences. This has given rise to what Robert Hughes calls the “culture of complaint”— ordinary people are newsworthy because they’re victims, they tell us their feelings, they complain, etc.—but in a way that makes them seem passive and disempowered. This is part of the whole approach the media take towards their audiences: you’re no longer citizens, you’re consumers and taxpayers. So even when the media create these participatory forums, they still tend to ask people how they feel and what they believe rather than what they know and think (Knight, 1997).

The realm of opinion does exist in the news media—but it is separated from fact in the newsworld. The number of columnists and commentators grows daily, but they cannot be confused with the foot soldiers—the reporters who simply relay the facts and the figures to the viewer, listener, or reader. After these journalists give their objective accounts of the day’s events, it’s up to the columnists and commentators to put their own personal “the-world-according-to-me” spin on it.

However, is this separation warranted? Glasser notes “sometimes objectivity is understood as separating fact from value and that is unfortunate because fact and value are intimately connected, particularly with regard to the use of any language, any system of symbols” (Glasser, 1997). He concludes:

To be objective in modern American journalism, is to essentially distance yourself from the sense of substance of the story and to maintain a degree of disinterest in this. So you can’t at the same time claim to be disinterested in the substance of your story and accept responsibility for the veracity and validity of the claims made in your story. I’m certainly not arguing against balance and fairness but I am arguing against this ideal of language as a transparent means of conveying an empirical world. To the extent that objectivity implies that language can finally describe things in an impartial, neutral, objective way, I think it’s the wrong direction for any writer to be going and certainly the wrong direction for journalists to be going (Glasser, 1997).

“Some ideas [about] objectivity are quite valuable,” Rosen admits, “but objectivity also causes journalists to say things like, ‘we just present the facts; our job is just to tell it like it is; we have no stake in anything. We’re just mirroring the world and the people.’ The problem with those statements is that they don’t describe what journalists actually do. Judgment is unavoidably threaded through every single thing journalists do. How can [something] make the front page without making judgments?” (Rosen, 1997).

Then there is the question: what is considered fact? Government sources? Academic research? Press releases? Spokespeople? Eyewitness testimony? Leaked documents? Opinion polls? All these “sources” can be inaccurate, even fraudulent. But since the objective journalist’s mandate is to work only with facts, this idea cannot be entertained. “‘What is a fact?’ is a really deep question, and most of the time journalists don’t have time to spend ruminating about that,” says Wilkins. Just because one authority or source makes a claim doesn’t mean it’s true—even five sources making the same claim doesn’t make it any more true, either.

Appealing to authority is one of the worst, passive and most primitive ways of gaining knowledge, and yet journalists almost exclusively rely on authorities for most of their information. Objectivity doesn’t allow reporters to ponder or analyze information they are given. Because journalists are under enormous time constraints, it is reaction, not reflection that makes it to print or over the airwaves. This can lead to spreading disinformation and allowing charlatans and scam artists to sound legitimate. A recent example is last year’s media trial of Olympic Park bombing hero Richard Jewell. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution was the first to report that Jewell was under suspicion for planting the bomb that killed one woman and injured 111 others. The story was based on the word of unnamed sources in “law enforcement.” Never mind Jewell had not even been charged by police. How hard did the paper look for facts that might have contradicted their sources? After all, the pressure on the Atlanta police department and the FBI to quickly find the bomber while the whole world watched should have set off Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s alarm bells.

But Atlanta Journal and Constitution editor Rob Martin defended his paper, saying the coverage was “accurate and appropriate.” Accepting anyone’s word as gospel, without vigorously looking for logical inconsistencies or collaborative evidence can lead to a gross obscuring of the truth. The irony of the objective journalist is this: because the reporter refuses to voice an opinion or make value judgments, he or she has to strictly report on the “facts” (thus giving all sources credence regardless of whether they deserve it or not). But without making judgments, all facts are created equal for the emotionally detached observer. So how accurate can the objective journalist truly be? The Atlanta Journal and Constitution may have technically been “accurate,” but they certainly weren’t truthful. Very few people will ever remember Jewell as simply the Olympic Park Hero.

At times, objectivity seems like a good ideal gone wrong, and other times it seems many reporters hide behind objectivity in order to avoid taking responsibility for their work. “You need to be in a position where you want to defend your story, rather than simply say, ‘Well, I can’t defend the story, I can just defend how I put it together.’ That reduces journalism to a matter of technique and journalism becomes nothing more than a mechanical activity,” says Glasser.

If objectivity was supposed to be the journalist’s tool to find the Truth, it hasn’t lived up to expectations. Objective journalism is supposed to be a weapon that helps reporters cut to the heart of an issue. But it also can distort reality, just as easily as any emotional tirade. Emotional nuances shade and give a deeper meaning to an event. Take away the heart and the soul of an issue and all you are left with is an empty shell that tells you very little about the issue in question.

The problems with objectivity became most evident when the news media in Canada were covering the Quebec Referendum in 1995. The French-speaking province was deciding whether to stay in Canada or secede to form a country of their own. The fact that the government in Quebec and the official opposition in the federal government were Quebec-separatists didn’t seem to be enough to motivate journalists into trying a different paradigm other than objectivity. In fact, Canada’s federal government, in a passive, halfbaked logic, asked the press not to taint their referendum coverage with any emotional or patriotic fervor. Don’t rock the boat (lest it give the Separatists ammunition)—just keep opinion out of this, the government asked and the Canadian news media complied.

Objective reporting continued. News coverage for both the Federalist forces, who advocated national unity, and the Separatist forces, who obviously didn’t, was presented in a clinical, detached way. The emphasis was on what was happening that day in the campaign and on the main personalities involved, not on the dire consequences the referendum could have on the nation.

For a while, it seemed this passive strategy was working—the Federalist forces were ahead in the opinion polls. The leader of the Parti Québécois and then Quebec premier, Jacques Parizeau, wasn’t inciting the patriotic fervor in his province that was expected of him. The Canadian press began to relax: editorials and columns seemed confident Quebeckers would opt for a united country and made it sound as if it were a done deal.

What happened next seemed to catch both the government and the news media completely by surprise. The far more charismatic, passionate and capable leader of the federal opposition and Bloc Québécois, Lucien Bouchard, gamely took over the campaign (shortly after he lost his leg and nearly lost his life to necrotizing fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating bacteria). He gave the Separatist campaign new vigor by effortlessly stirring the crowds all over the province. Opinion polls in Quebec reflected this change in leadership: more and more Quebeckers were opting for separation. Bouchard made anything seem possible. Within days, the polls placed the Separatist forces ahead of the Federalists. What this meant was obvious: the country was perilously close to disintegrating.

The Canadian media continued to simply report opinion polls, and quote politicians and government officials for both sides. There were columnists who voiced concern, but emotional detachment was still the reporting style of choice. The polls still showed separatist forces leading. Canadian citizens were waiting for either the federal government or the media to do or to say something—anything to convey to Quebec what the rest of the country truly felt about the situation. Nothing happened.

Then, on Friday, October 27, Canadians finally took matters into their own hands. Over 100,000 Canadians came by car, bus, plane, and train to Montreal to hold a massive rally in support of national unity. Canadian flags and powerful speeches saturated the city. It was a rare show of passion and patriotism on the part of the country that was meant to show Quebeckers that the rest of the nation wanted the province to remain in Canada.

When the referendum finally took place on Monday, October 31, the federalists forces managed to win by a slim margin of less than 51 per cent of the vote. In fact, federalist forces won with roughly 50,000 votes. Without the eleventh-hour rally, some argue, the final result might have swung the other way.

When I was interviewing those in the news media for a story on the press coverage of this political mega-bomb shortly after the referendum, what I heard was surprising. The consensus was unanimous: objectivity and emotional restraint almost tore the country apart. One television news director said (Clark, 1995): “We encouraged people not to get involved. It appears now, in retrospect, that when the public did get involved, with the massive rally in Montreal on the Friday, that may have been helpful in swinging the vote at the last moment. Perhaps we [in the press] should have second-guessed those who were saying ‘stand back and let it happen.’ Perhaps we should have been encouraging folks all along to say what was on their minds.”

He was not the only one with regrets. A newspaper editor felt his paper should have “pushed a little harder earlier to find out what was on readers’ minds so we could have anticipated those questions at the end better than we did” (McLeod, 1995).

Too many journalists (including many columnists and commentators) kept their opinions to themselves and their emotional ambivalence was construed by many Quebeckers as apathy. Not only were the Separatist forces managing to gain momentum without competition, but they were abetted by the press, who in reality vehemently opposed them. Not until regular Canadians decided to shuck their reserved demeanors and went in droves to Montreal to rally for national unity did many Quebeckers realize Canadians outside Quebec actually cared about them.

Not that this misunderstanding isn’t warranted. The emotionally castrated journalist can often seem like a person who suffers from an anti-social personality disorder. According to the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), published by American Psychological Association, a person who suffers from the disorder is one who is indifferent to the suffering of others. How good can a system of reporting be if it partially mimics a psychopathological disorder? Most reporters aren’t suffering from a personality disorder, but with objectivity, it can be awfully hard to tell sometimes.

Emotional detachment, by its very essence, does not allow reporters to take full advantage of their humanity. When misused, objectivity takes normal, feeling human beings and makes them seem callous and unaffected by their surroundings, it is as if they do not care about the what’s happening around them. As in the case of the media coverage of the Quebec referendum, the reporters’ seeming lack of concern for the referendum could have arguably led to a country’s demise.

So we’re left with the question: what is good journalism? Good journalism does not have to be confined to passive, detached and insensitive regurgitation. Journalism does not have to be cold and ambivalent—it can be creative, dynamic, investigative, opinionated and truthful at the same time. While the examples outlined above illustrate the shortcomings of objectivity, those same events have also sparked some very good journalism as well.

For example, John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, exposed the Nayirah Kuwait hospital hoax in a January 6, 1992, New York Times article (which won the Mencken Award for best Op-Ed column in 1994), and later in his book Second Front. MacArthur not only exposed Nayirah’s true identity, but he also revealed that the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton was hired by Citizens for a Free Kuwait (read: the state of Kuwait) to gain world support for liberating the country and had coached Nayirah to give her tearful performance. (As for the babies and incubators story, MacArthur pointed out it was ABC’s John Martin who exposed the hoax).

Could this piece be considered objective journalism? No. There was more than the simple relaying of facts. Was it good journalism? Absolutely. He didn’t give “both sides” equal time to present their respective cases. Nor did he accept the facts at face value. In other words, he wasn’t fair, he wasn’t objective— he was truthful, and as Glasser points out, “There are all sorts of things that we ought not to be fair about. Should have we covered the Holocaust in a fair way? Should we cover the Unabomber’s activities in a fair way? Journalists have enormous power when it comes to legitimizing people, legitimizing events, and legitimizing issues and they ought to approach that with great care. Fairness and balance bring legitimacy to things that I think don’t deserve legitimacy or journalists don’t mean to legitimize but do it unwittingly.”

With the case of Richard Jewell, not every news outlet was quick to convict the beleaguered security guard. For example, 60 Minutes aired a story which carefully analyzed the accusations and rumors against what would be physically and logically possible, and they concluded that Jewell could not have planted the bomb that ravaged Centennial Park—he simply did not have enough time to be both the villain and the hero. In this case, 60 Minutes definitely took sides—Jewell’s—and did not simply repeat every rumor, profile, or press release as fact.

Sometimes reporters can learn more from the public than from experts. In the case of the Quebec referendum, when it appeared that Canadian politicians and reporters were going to be so objective and fair that they were going to help dismantle a country, thousands of Canadians from coast to coast went to Montreal to send Quebeckers a message: stay. But they also unwittingly sent reporters a message: reporters have a stake in what happens to a nation.

However, there are journalists who have gradually began to see the limitations and problems of emotional detachment and have decided to try others ways of covering the news. “There is a current trend towards ‘civic journalism,’” says Knight, “in which local papers, TV and radio stations hold citizens’ forums to discuss and report on attitudes towards pertinent issues and events” (Knight, 1997).

Civic journalism (also known as public journalism) started after the 1988 presidential elections and has slowly gained momentum— in 1993, NYU began its “project on public life and the press,” which is a “research, outreach and professional development” program for both journalism students and professional journalists who are interested in getting away from their role as detached observers.

Newspapers have been one of the first in the news media to experiment in public journalism. In 1993, the Indianapolis Star ran a week-long series of stories on race relations, based on the public journalism model of reporting. The articles were determined by the results of polls commissioned by the Star. Instead of relying on experts for sources, the paper reported on residents’ personal experiences with race relations in the workplace, in education, and in other institutions such as government and the media.

Public journalism tends to use a “town hall meeting” style of reporting where the citizen is more than just the victim of every journalistic melodrama. It assumes citizens have ideas to contribute to society. It also allows reporters to take an active role in rebuilding and shaping their communities. Glasser believes this type of journalism is different from traditional ways of reporting the news. “Public journalism is based on the premise that the press should do more than describe and complain about the community’s state of affairs. The press should make a commitment to make the community work better. In my mind, you can’t make that kind of commitment and at the same time, claim to be disinterested in the community,” he says (Glasser, 1997). In other words, reporters can’t claim to be detached crusaders. Adds Christians, “The mission of the press is not the accurate transmission of factual data, but the mission of the press is to develop citizenship, to give people a voice, to enable them to function well in democratic life” (Christians, 1997).

Should civic journalism be considered the one, true alternative to objective journalism? To assume there can only be one “right way” to describe the world around you is overly simplistic. Just as there is a no one “wrong way” of reporting the news, journalists must be given leeway to find the best way to do their jobs, without finding themselves being painted into the same corner as they were with the concept of objectivity. While some reporters are experimenting with civic journalism, others are moving toward a more narrative, literary style of reporting. But journalists must be given the freedom to choose their path. One of the main problems objectivity presented to reporters was that once journalists declared objectivity to be the best, the only way to present the news accurately (without ever bothering to verify their truism), they were not only reproached once the limitations of objectivity became evident, but they were also imprisoned by the same concept that was supposed to liberate them in the first place. Whatever new paradigms journalists ultimately decide to use, they must make certain that the assumptions behind those standards are not so static and restrictive that new ideas cannot be woven into the ideological latticework.

Journalists are not outside society—they are in it. “The idea that a person can be objective, stand completely outside his or her own socioeconomic background, cultural experience and still be a lens through which every possible point of view or perspective can be reflected is really an ideal notion that I think most people these days think is literally not possible,” Harrington says. “There is always some kind of filter put on that information” (Harrington, 1997). Members of the news media are citizens and it is not a crime for them to care about their country, nor would taking an active role in their communities make them bad reporters. As Rosen points out “journalists have an ethic of care embedded in their professions, somewhat like the ethic of care in nursing, in medicine. You can think of the doctor’s job as to cure people who are sick, but you can also say that doctors have the job of keeping us healthy. I don’t mean ‘oh, we care about what we do.’ I mean we care about whether democracy works. We care about whether public discussion works and whether citizens get engaged or are turned away in disgust” (Rosen, 1997). If reporters want to be taken seriously and be respected and believed, they had better tear down their robotic facades and start acting human. Normal human beings have opinions, beliefs and biases, and to delude oneself by pretending otherwise is not only dishonest, but it’s unhealthy as well.

But until journalists are allowed to legitimately coalesce their rights and duties as citizens with their profession and find newer, more responsible ways to record the world around them, the press will find itself becoming increasingly irrelevant and isolated from society. And if reporters lose credibility and acceptance—they’ve lost everything. END

About the Author

Alexandra Kitty has a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from McMaster University and a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. She interned at CTV’s Canada AM, the top-rated morning show in Canada, conducted research for 60 Minutes on public relations firms, was a freelance reporter with the Burlington Post, and an advice columnist for the Thomson Newspapers. Her research interests are in psychology, rumors, hoaxes, artificial intelligence, and public relations.


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This article was published on November 7, 2013.

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