Objectivity vs. Neutrality: One in the same?

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.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Objectivity vs. Neutrality: One in the same?

  1. steveearley

    Considering news coverage as a whole, objectivity is impossible.
    No news organization can cover everything it considers newsworthy, let alone everything others consider newsworthy. By choosing certain stories over others, it ceases to be objective.
    But its objectivity ends even earlier than that. News organizations can’t even consider covering what they don’t know about. And it’s impossible for them to know about everything.
    Therefore, all news coverage is biased by the finite universe of potential news stories a news outlet considers. As news staffs shrink, what potential stories populate this universe is increasingly a product of convenience, increasing the influence of public relations practitioners, savvy Web marketers and others in the business of manipulating public opinion and decreasing the influence of those performing outside the modern information economy.
    Individual news stories, on the other hand, absolutely can be written from an objective point of view, even, as you point out, when they include statements of opinion.

  2. melspence

    Objectivity is like believeing in fairies….it’s out there…somewhere.

    Oh Shelley what insight! I think McChesney is full of himself, but that’s just my personal opinion. It’s possible to be neutral where it’s impossible to be objective. If McChesney is treating these as one in the same why are we even reading this?

  3. This is a really interesting topic and you’ve made the case that objectivity can be achieved with respect to content.
    The question I’m left with, however, is whether there’s an audience for objective journalism, enough to sustain the industry commercially.
    Audiences today have shown a preference for quick and tidy takes on the news, with little appetite for nuance. They also want their authors to have strong voices who create engaging content.
    It’s almost impossible to deliver an objective piece in this format, since every major issue has thousands of relevant facts to highlight or ignore. Whatever doesn’t get reported is perceived as a victim of bias, with those unhappy at the journalist’s conclusions complaining that he/she omitted key information. Trying to inject a personal voice into the writing has a similar effect.
    The same story is often reported very differently in the New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. All of these outlets strive for objectivity, but their staffs have different perspectives that color what facts and data are deemed relevant. That doesn’t make them bad, it just demonstrates how hard it is to be commercially successful and free of subjectivity.
    You can see true objectivity in scientific studies or government reports, but these documents are never going to attract much public attention. As journalists, is it possible to share important information with a large audience without injecting some subjectivity into the piece?

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