November 15th, 2012
An air of objectivity
By Kevin Smith
A lot has been made of the word “objectivity” as it relates to news coverage and reporting.
Some people believe it is an attainable value in American journalism, a principle worthy of our efforts. Others think it is nothing short of a myth. The rankling over whether objectivity can truly exist in journalism has been the subject of so much contention over the years, I feel like I can stand before a mirror and carry on a lengthy debate with myself.
I know the rhetoric.
I also know what I believe and how I apply it to my role as chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.
To the many voices who respectfully say it’s a farce, and to the growing voices who contend it’s nothing more than a concocted standard by which journalists could hang their principled crowns for display for all these many years, I concede this point – we are all biased.
We have favorites and there are those things we do not like. We have a core set of beliefs and we nurture them, guard them and share them, and we feel threatened if we are asked to shift our thinking in another direction, be that politics, religion, social issues or fiscal philosophies.
I use those four constants because they’ve been at the core of a lot of national debate during this presidential year. They will continue to garner attention in the next. Our core feelings of conservatism or liberalism are at odds. We are figuratively crossing swords every day over social issues and how to manage the nation’s finances. The rhetoric is divisive and acidic many times. And journalists are weighing in.
Over the past months the SPJ has been deluged with calls and emails from journalists with questions about political ethics. Aren’t journalists supposed to be objective? Why are they lying and spinning the truth?
One journalist’s blog response could best be summarized by “Get over it. American journalism hasn’t been objective for years. Think Yellow Journalism.” In other words, why are we still having this discussion and why do people still cling to this lame, cockeyed notion that journalism is about impartial, unbiased, objective reporting?
Here’s my retort. I admit up front it’s not objective.
We are still having this discussion and we still harbor hope for objectivity because it matters that much to people who want to believe that the press is the bridge between the lies and the truth. They want to believe that journalists can resist their inner voices and personal feelings and deliver news that has truth and fairness at its foundation. It matters because in a world of increasing distortions and subjective opinions being packaged and sold as “fact” it’s still important to hear information that fairly takes all views into account, even those we don’t personally agree with. It matters because when we stop being objective and fall into the trap of adjusting news to accommodate our sources and not our public, we sell out our reputations and hand over our credibility. Our integrity is gone.
Think of objectivity as the act of holding your breath under water. No one expects you to be able to do it 24 hours every day. They expect that you can do it when the need arises. The consequences of not doing it are dire.
In the privacy of your home, among family and friends, you can choose to breathe as you wish. But, when you are reporting and producing news, you are expected to “hold this breath” and repress those personal feelings, working toward the goal of objectivity, much like the person submerged needs to strive for the goal of staying alive.
You “hold your breath” when you cover an event, create a news story, when someone asks you to wear a political button or erect a sign in your yard. You “hold your breath,” too, when your friends and family ask you to write stories about them, when the publisher asks for a business story about his dry cleaner. The breath holding doesn’t mean you can’t have personal feelings or opinions. In fact, it’s best if you recognize those and admit them to yourself. What it means then is these biases, subjective political, religious, social views should not surface in moments when it can impact your work as a journalist.
You see, attainable or not, it’s still worthy of our strongest efforts. To give in and suggest that journalists can’t reach this platitude is to hand over our trade to the charlatans, the carnival barkers and the mind benders. And that would surely suffocate us, our public and our democracy.