Is Objective Reporting possible or even desirable?

With President Trump and his large body of supporters tweeting and sneering about fake news and the lack of objectivity in reporting the entire concept of objective reporting as an ideal needs inspection. We have come to believe that objectivity in reporting is a golden goal by which the effectiveness and legitimacy of the press, or at least the largest organs of the press. must be judged. Perhaps, however, instead so called ‘objectivity’ is an undesirable, artificial, disingenuous standard that works counter to the very thing it claims to advocate.

Unrealistic and Undesirable Goal

I contend that objectivity is not only an unrealistic goal but also an undesirable goal for the Press. We often confuse journalistic professionalism as a whole with the notion that the energies of reporters, the allocation of column space or airtime must be guided by an objective standard. We are told, usually by those on the unfavorable side of a report, that every press outlet must assure that equally bad news about both sides of any issue or faction must emerge balanced by a story on misdeeds or general un-favorability on the ‘other side’. Both stories must emerge at the same time or from the same press outlets or else the stories themselves are no longer relevant, and to be disregarded or marginalized.

There is a popular insistence that scandals from the so called ‘right’ must be reported in no greater measure than scandals from the so called ‘left’. Those ‘smarting’ from reporting that makes them look bad cry foul if a paper or channel or blog dedicates a far greater proportion of resources to digging and investigating one political administration or candidate more than another. In fact those cries for objectivity are a cry for uniformity and quotas of news rather than for maximum truthfulness or principled reporting.

The Press Responds to the Free Market

The press, like most services or goods, responds to the marketplace. It produces a product that a certain market cares to consume. Folks on the right do not care to see stories about failures or lies or poor decision making on their side of the political spectrum any more than do folks on the left want to hear about the flipside. Attempts to garner share in both markets would and often has dictated that press organs refuse to dig very deep in any one issue or incident for fear of alienating one side or another. Unfortunately, scandals, dishonesty, intrigue, errors, corruption et al do not emerge equally at the same time from all sides or factions.

Similarly, one side or another is ascendant in the government at any given time and controls the release of information generally filtered through their own interest. Political factions not in power also spin or filter their releases of information. An objective press would accept the information released from the government, from political factions, or from press offices of companies and attempt to allocate no more press resources to penetrate the press office censorship that naturally occurs in one than in the other. This would create a news product that is simply a publishing house, a recitation of the talking points of both sides on any one issue regardless of merit or motive. You might recall Sean Hannity’s suggestion that press briefings be eliminated and that all official information about administration issues simply come via Twitter from Donald Trump[1]. Such would in fact be more efficient dissemination of the spin of either side and likely, in the case of more perfect objectivity, lead to the very elimination of the press and deeper albeit motive driven investigation.

There would be no market for news and no resources to delve into the truthfulness of claims and penetrate the press office façade created by all interested entities. Therefore any attempt to serve all markets equally and in a quota like manner will result in the demise of the press and in the demise of resources to find the truth beyond press releases by interested parties.

The Truth is Not Objective, It is The Truth

The use of a standard of objectivity in reporting eliminates the vital role of press pointing out the outrageousness of actions in favor of a simple statistical recounting and reporting. Examples are the publishing of superficial accounts of lynching in the deep south in which the majority population simply stated, uninvestigated, a concurred upon justification for a lynching with little to no deeper digging into the horrific truth or the application of the doctrines of lack of due process. This ‘objective’ reporting reported only the facts and the statements and it was given with no regard for whether the statements given or the acts reported were true.

War reporting that simply reports figures from both sides and refuses to report one atrocity that does not have a corresponding atrocity or to unequally allocate resources to investigate one side’s claim in a controversy for fear of cries of not being objective is a useless and soon to be bankrupt organ.

Brett Cunningham, of the renowned Columbia School of Journalism says in an op-ed entitled ‘Re-Thinking Objectivity”, in the Columbia School of Journalism Review August 2003, stated :

“In October 2001, with the war in Afghanistan under way, then CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his foreign correspondents telling them to “balance” reports of Afghan “casualties or hardship” with reminders to viewers that this was, after all, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. More recently, a CJR intern, calling newspaper letters-page editors to learn whether reader letters were running for or against the looming war in Iraq, was told by the letters editor at The Tennessean that letters were running 70 percent against the war, but that the editors were trying to run as many prowar letters as possible lest they be accused of bias.”[2]

Accuracy and Fairness as Goals Rather Than Objectivity

Instead an un-objective press, a press that has a readership inclined to want the deep and dirty about the other side is motivated by desire to market their goods and perhaps by an ideological fervor to investigate, to question and yes, unequally allocate their resources to do so. Press organs serving disparate readerships and employing reporters and investigators fired by ideological fervor on one side or another will deeply delve without worrying about an artificial ‘balancing’ of the news. Any balancing occurs only in that partisans on both sides can spend their money to purchase the product of deeper reporting and analysis by their press organ of choice.

So given a biased release of information by interested parties and a biased press digging unequally on both sides of an issue what hope is there? Well this is where journalistic standards and professionalism, the true golden goal of good journalism come in. Press organs should not be pressured to be objective in applying their energies to investigate and report but instead held to strict standards of accuracy and fairness on whatever they report. Events, quotes and statistics reported must be accurate and there must be an opportunity for persons implicated, accused or made to look bad to respond.

This does not mean that the resources allocated to investigate were equally allocated to investigate all sides in a matter or that there is an editorial duty to balance negative news about one party or participant over another. Instead it means that the product of an unequally prosecuted investigation should be factually accurate and that in the spirit, not of a false objectivity, but of fairness, that the other side has been allowed to counter a report or qualify it.

Objectivity in reporting is much like racial or gender quotas in hiring and promotion. They are a goal that leaves a far less desirable outcome and weaker society than a strict application of hiring for integrity and color blind and gender blind selection. The very thing they seek to promote is weakened and while producing a seeming statistical equality they in fact promote inequality and hyper selection based on the factors they wish to negate. Objective reporting produces unbalanced and unfair reporting that relies upon unvetted and biased sources for superficial information in order to create an illusion of homogenous objectivity rather than a real free press that features numerous biased but accurate and fair investigations by partisans on both sides of an issue.

[1] http://www.joemygod.com/2016/11/29/sean-hannity-trump-ban-press-white-house-just-people-tweet-news/

[2] http://archives.cjr.org/feature/rethinking_objectivity.php?page=all

Updated: May 12, 2017 — 10:40 am
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