The Topic of Objectivity

One of the topics we approach again and again is the matter of objectivity. Is it possible to be completely objective in journalism? There are some that argue, it is possible and others that argue, what’s the harm in showing an opinion so long as the actual facts of the case are delivered.

It seems as though it’s getting more and more difficult to hide one’s views, especially with social media. Everyone shares what they like, what they know and what their interested in and sometimes it can be hard to hide what might be a cause or an issue you are passionate about.

This week, I was on Twitter and fell upon a tweet from Retration Watch featuring this piece entitled “NYT journalist: I am not a neutral observer-can I still be a fair reporter?” Tracy Tullis had written a story for The New York Times about an elephant and had also signed an online petition (before she had written the article) supporting sending the elephant to a sanctuary. What’s interesting is in the manual presented to her by The New York Times did not necessarily discuss online petitions and appeals. And now, again, there are so many different causes that you could sign your name onto without thinking twice but is it a problem? Here is Retraction Watch’s article on what happened.

I suppose in a situation where a journalist would want to sign a petition, they could do so anonymously as to hide their identity and keep their ideals private but does that affect their decision making?

Surely, if someone is going out and writing their opinions rather than stating the facts, it can be an issue. But so long as someone is reporting the actual facts and figures and nothing more, is there anything wrong with signing online petitions for the causes you care about? Whether it be animal welfare or UNICEF?

This is where I believe The Golden Mean principle is fair, you can be evenhanded and simply attempt to hide your beliefs as best you can, but at the same time, so long as your writing is fair, neutral and factual; there should be no issue. If a journalist signed a petition last year to save lions and then covered Cecil the Lion, is there really a problem? So long as you are not spouting your own personal agenda, and sticking to the facts – what’s the harm? Again, it’s definitely harder today to hide what you care about.

Here’s another article from The Guardian on “Does journalism still require impartiality?” that I found interesting.

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4 thoughts on “The Topic of Objectivity

  1. I like the framing that the Guardian used, Kareya — impartiality as opposed to objectivity. While objectivity appears to be an almost unattainable goal, impartiality seems more realistic. True, a journalist has the option of pursuing it or not. Good topic for class discussion. Thanks for the link to the retraction site — I was unaware of it.

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  2. This also could be included in a discussion about conflicts of interest and in that case one of the most important things is transparency with the audience. If a journalist participates in these sort of things, could it have an impact on their reporting? Your point about participating anonymously is one option. I think the main concern would be what kind of activity the journalist was participating in, and also if it is an area that they will be covering. It seems that impartiality over objectivity is a way to acknowledge that journalists are allowed to have interests and activities outside of their profession, and these things don’t implicitly hinder reporting. As you point out, so long as the reporting is fair and accurate, there shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe an option could be having an editor and colleagues who are aware of your beliefs review your story with extra care to make sure it is as fair as possible.

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  3. I had a professor at the University of Puerto Rico who said pretty much the same thing as The Guardian – it’s impossible to be objective, but one should always be impartial. I’ve never forgotten that, and I think it’s a good way to look at this issue. Whether or not true objectivity is even possible, it can be taxing to spend too much time thinking about it. On the other hand, by striving for impartiality, it’s much easier to be sure that you’re doing the best that you can to fairly represent all viewpoints not let your personal opinions creep in.

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