Objective: “Undistorted by emotion or personal bias; based on observable phenomena.” According to several Web definitions, those characteristics make up the term that journalism organizations strive to maintain in the news.
But according to Robert McChesney in “The Political Economy of Media,” achieving objectivity is a losing battle. “Journalism cannot actually be neutral or objective,” McChesney states, arguing that decision making about news worthiness and prominence of certain stories over others negates the idea that objectivity can be attainable.
Take a small-town paper for instance: How can an editor “objectively” choose between a lead story about the crisis in Haiti and a devastating car wreck involving members of the community? The answer: It would depend. Was the editor personally connected to the accident victims? Or did they have family or friends in Haiti? As much as journalists don’t like to admit it, these factors do play a role in the decision-making process. Some stories touch our hearts or hit closer to home than others, and there is nothing we can do to stop that from happening.
But this dilemma about objectivity in terms of the stories appearing in newspapers or on the evening news is all about prominence of certain issues over others. What about the actual content in the stories: The words on the paper, the sound bytes used in broadcast news packages. Is objectivity a moot point for them too? I would argue no; journalists can write objectively in news stories.
Going by the Web definition, it seems entirely possible that stories can be constructed “based on observable phenomena.” I mean, why not? After all, it is the job of the reporter to gather evidence and report on it in an unbiased manner.
But this brings me to another issue. Are objectivity and neutrality one in the same? McChesney presents them as such, but I would argue against it. Nicholas Lemann, associate dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, cites Thomas Haskell’s book “Objectivity is Not Neutrality,” in supporting the idea that “it is wrong to understand objectivity as requiring people not to have an opinion or not to make judgments about everything” (http://bigthink.com/ideas/2883). If judgments are made based on fact, then objectivity is possible, in a way that will not reduce journalism to bare bones facts with no angle or excitement for the news audience.
At a time when traditional news organizations are struggling to compete with the vast amount of resources more readily available to the public on the Internet, quality of content is an essential factor. Journalists shouldn’t just take quotes from official sources and print them word for word. They should delve into the story one step further. Look at the facts presented on each side. Are there contradictions? Similarities? Give us the good stuff. It shouldn’t be fabricated by any means, but it should be something truthful and interesting–more than a mere presentation of facts at face value.
The value systems and personal beliefs of journalists or editors will undoubtedly jump into their minds when deciding the stories that need to be covered for the week, or which ones should hold more prominence over others, but the content itself is a different issue. Despite McChesney’s beliefs, objectivity in the content of professional journalism is an attainable goal.