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Cover of "Liberty and the News"

Cover of Liberty and the News

In his article The objective norm in American journalism, sociologist Michael Schudson (2001) traces both when and why the occupational norm of ‘objectivity’, the chief occupational value that distinguishes American journalism from the dominant model of continental European journalism, arose . Having always thought of objectivity as a “classic journalistic notion” (Richards, 2005, p. 33), I was very surprised to learn that it was born only in the 1920s.

I spent a year living and studying journalism in Italy in 2007, where I certainly became aware that journalists there felt under no such constraints to report objectively only. Quite apart from and despite the notorious and unprecedented level of media control yielded by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and its impact on freedom of expression in that country, Italian journalists and academics hold commentary, analysis and opinion-based pieces in far greater esteem than merely factual reportage. Yet still I imagined that unbiased, objective reporting had a long, distinguished and inviolate history in American journalism (that was translated into British and Australian journalism) but somehow just didn’t catch on in continental Europe.

Schudson argues that objectivity in American journalism was aligned to the growth of journalism as an occupational culture, independent of political parties. “They [journalists] developed their own mythologies (revelling in their intimacy with the urban underworld), their own clubs and watering holes, and their own professional practices.” (2001, p. 156). The practice of interviewing, for instance, is cited as having become a common activity for reporters in the 1870s and 1880s, widely practised by 1900, and the mainstay of American journalism by the First World War. While this new style of journalistic  intervention did not erase partisanship, Schudson explains that it heralded “reporters’ new dedication to a sense of craft, a new location in an occupational culture with its own rules, its own rewards, and its own esprit” (2001, p. 72-93).

Most importantly, interviewing is identified as a practice oriented more to pleasing an audience of news consumers, than to parroting a party line. Responding to the fact that newspapers had become big businesses by the 1880s, with vastly expanded readerships, “reporters writing news came to focus more on making stories, less on promoting parties.” (Schudson, 2001, p. 156). Hence, while the practice of interviewing did not give rise to the objectivity norm, it was one of the growing number of practices that identified journalists as a distinct occupational group with distinct patterns of behaviour, that would eventuate in a self-conscious ethic of objectivity in the 1920s.

I found Schudson’s conclusion that modern analytical and procedural fairness had no secure place until journalists “developed loyalties more to their audiences and to themselves as an occupational community than to their publishers or their publishers’ favoured political parties”, convincing and compelling. From the 1920s, we see journalists articulating “rules of the journalistic road” more often and more consistently. (Schudson, 2001, p. 161).

Pratte notes that newspaper editors formed their own national professional association for the first time in 1922-23, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (Schudson, 2001, p. 162). At their opening convention, they adopted a code of ethics or ‘Canons of Journalism’ that included  the principle of ‘Sincerity, Honesty and Truthfulness’ and another of ‘Impartiality’, with the latter including the declaration: “News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.” (Schudson, 2001, p. 162).

Finally, by the 1920s, following the endowment of the School of Journalism at Columbia (in 1904 with classes beginning in 1913) by Joseph Pulitzer, advocates of journalistic professionalism such as Walter Lippmann are invoking adherence to scientific methods and ideals. (Schudson, 2001, p 163). Lippmann wanted to “upgrade the professional dignity of journalists” and provide training for them “in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal” (Schudson, 2001, p 163).

If the conclusion that objectivity in journalism emerged as a code of practice so late in the piece is surprising, not so are the difficulties I have sometimes experienced of putting it into practice and the questions and anxieties over it that have been expressed by journalists and commentators alike. Objectivity has been denounced as: a “strategic ritual” used by journalists to defend themselves from critical onslaught (Tuchman, 1972, p. 660); a cultural form with its own set of conventions (Richards, 2005, p 38); and an ideology that favours the status quo (Richards, 2005, p 38). It has also been mocked for being based on a “naively empirical view of the world, a belief in the separation of facts and values, a belief in the existence of a reality – the reality of empirical facts” (Richards, 2005, p 38).

Journalistic objectivity historically referred to the elimination of personal prejudice from journalistic reports and the separation of facts from interpretation and opinion (Richards, 2005, p 39). More recently, it has been defined as:

1. being non-partisan, in the sense of not advocating a position on controversial issues;

2. maintaining balance, as when a report provides a fair representation of opposing partisan viewpoints;

3. maintaining value neutrality, in the sense of stating facts without making value judgments; or

4. not distorting facts and understanding (Richards, 2005, p 39).

Either way, fundamental to both interpretations is the question of the journalists’ ability to separate ‘facts’ from personal opinion. In my own experience, in the least complicated and most basic news situations this does not pose any serious difficulties. Even for more complex stories I feel generally capable of acknowledging my personal prejudices and allowing for them in my work. By the same token, I agree with John Hulteng’s analysis that “too many biases, beliefs and experiences are built in our background for us to be truly objective” (Richards, 2005, p 39).

This is further complicated and summed up extremely well, in my opinion, by Bagdikian:

Every basic step in the journalistic process involves a value-laden decision: Which of the infinite number of events in the environment will be assigned for coverage and which ignored? Which of the infinite observations confronting  the reporter will be noted? Which of the reported events will become the first  paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed on page one and which  buried inside or discarded? (Richards, 2005, p 39).

My response to this dilemma is in line with Hulteng’s, put simply I accept it and try to make the best of it: “it is better to aim at the objective ideal, even if you will inevitable fall short of the mark, than it is to abandon the effort and allow bias free rein” (Richards, 2005, p 39). In other words, I don’t think the fact that literal objectivity is impossible because as well as being a journalist I am also a human being with beliefs, values and opinions, should discourage me or journalists generally from striving for it.

After all, as Meyer explains (Richards, 2005, p 39), “most of the ideals prized in our society are impossible to attain in pure form.”

Reference List

Lippmann, W, 1920,  Liberty and the News, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Hone.

Pratte, P A, 1995, Gods Within the Machine: A History of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1923-1993, Westport, CT: Praeger.

Richards, I, 2005, ‘Journalism and objectivity’ in Quagmires and Quandaries: Exploring Journalism Ethics, UNSW Press, pp 32-47.

Schudson, M, 2001, ‘The objectivity norm in American journalism’ , Journalism, Vol. 2, No 2. pp 149-170.

Tuchman, G, 1972, Objectivity as strategic ritual: An examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity, The American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-679.

Wikipedia website, Silvio Berlusconi, accessed 16 August 2010.


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