Objective journalism is considered good journalism. Do you agree? It will not be surprising if you do, because the majority of both readers and reporters perceive objectivity in the media to be a virtue.
So what is “objectivity”? The notion of objectivity encompasses accuracy, truthfulness, factuality, neutrality and fairness, and concerns itself with how those elements are applied in reporting on people and events. Objectivity lends credibility to the reporter, and it allows readers to make informed decisions.
Since objectivity is regarded so highly in journalism, reporters prioritise objectivity in their news reports. However, the nature and significance of journalistic objectivity has been subject to much debate, and with some controversy.
Particularly with the appearance of Donald Trump, objectivity as one of the most significant professional journalism norms has become more contested. According to the Los Angeles Times, journalists have dispensed with “objectivity” when reporting on Trump. Due to Trump’s controversial words, actions and behaviour, journalists have felt the need to sometimes take a stand and to challenge his statements, resulting in what may seem to be some imbalance in news reporting.
However, given Trump’s numerous false statements and absurd comments, if journalists were to merely report what he says, the media would be spreading incorrect information. Thus, objectivity in practise could lead to very problematic outcomes. The concept of objectivity is thus challenged.
Pure journalistic objectivity could hinder a reader’s ability to get to the truth. As objective reporting involves stating the facts without any analysis, journalists have often simply conveyed information to the public without moving them toward a deeper comprehension of the truth of the story. This does not allow journalists to scratch beneath the surface to uncover deeper issues, nor to challenge the status quo (including speaking truth to power).
Objectivity may also distort reality. Uncritically reproducing the accounts of all positions of a case, thereby giving them equal attention (even if one position is more able to substantiate its claim), can cause a misleading equivalency. False balance on important problems such as climate change, whereby strong scientific unanimity is downplayed, has serious consequences as the wrong perception can be spread.
However, this is not to say that objectivity should be eliminated or has no importance at all in journalism. Objective reporting can lead to the truth, especially in this era of information overload, with readers being bombarded with information from organisations with hidden motives. By giving attention to all sides of an argument, objective reporting prevents the underrepresentation of information which does not align with commonly-held, predetermined beliefs.
Objectivity still has value in journalism. However, as adhering to it unmindfully can lead to undesirable outcomes, reporters should consider the circumstances. Perhaps the notion of objectivity can be redefined such that it is less restrictive, allowing journalists to be more critical and to play a part in important political dialogue.
Teo Zi Ying (Singapore)