The Topic of Objectivity and the Modern Day Journalist

“We’re journalists, and so it’s our job to be impartial and provide a fair and thorough assessment of what’s happening on the ground from the perspective of what we’re able to see.” — Clarissa Ward

Objectivity is an inescapable topic in the ever changing world of journalism. While many argue it is essential for a journalist to remain objective at all times, others say that it is an impossible request.

With the state of digital media today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to effectively hide one’s personal views and opinions. Social media creates a complicated atmosphere for the modern day journalist to remain absolutely objective. Yes, journalists can create personal accounts separate from their journalistic identities, but still, whenever you share or retweet an issue or story — you are revealing something about yourself, your beliefs and opinions, even if not purposefully so.

My inspiration for this final piece arose from an earlier post “The Topic of Objectivity” in which I recounted an incident involving Tracy Tullis and The New York Times. Tracy Tullis had written an article entitled “The Bronx Zoo’s Loneliest Elephant.” Prior to writing the article, Tullis had signed an online petition in support of sending the elephant to a sanctuary. Upon discovery of Tullis’ participation in the online petition, an editor’s note was added to the story stating:

Such involvement in a cause related to news coverage is at odds with The Times’s journalistic standards; if editors had known that the writer had signed the petition, they would not have assigned the article to her.

You can read the full coverage of the incident on Retraction Watch by clicking here.

In her own guest post on Retraction Watch entitled “NYT journalist: I am not a neutral observer — can I still be a fair reporter?” Tracy Tullis pointed out that the manual (published in 2004) presented to her by The New York Times did not necessarily discuss online petitions and appeals. This triggered my interest — while many organizations include social media guidelines and newly updated rules regarding the digital world, there is still much that needs to be reexamined and readjusted to fit new media. An example of this is what Kenneth Irby wrote in “Photojournalism ethics needs a reexamination.” Advances in media, design and photography are constantly being made and as they are being made, we have to adjust ourselves the best that we can.

Yes, most ethical dilemmas should be easily solvable by using one’s personal ethical guidelines or any news organization’s generic ethics code, but there should still be an adjustment to avoid confusion and provide clarity. Think of it as insurance. The same way a person has to include any possible risks as to avoid liability. As an organization, you want to ensure you are protecting your audience and yourselves from any vagueness or possible misinterpretation of your ethics code.

The case of Tracy Tullis and the elephant sparked a class discussion that delved into the topic of objectivity, impartiality and transparency.

Objectivity is a concept that means well, but does not seem practical in the real world. Journalists cannot be stripped of all personal views and opinions because it is unreal. Journalists are not robots, they are people and views and opinions are just another part of being human.

The American Press Institute writes in their article on “The lost meaning of ‘objectivity’” that the concept was not meant to say journalists were completely free of bias. API writes that in its most original form, “the method is objective, not the journalist.”

Impartiality is another animal, it is different than objectivity. The BBC says impartiality “means not taking sides. Impartiality is about providing a breadth of view.” The BBC describes the concept as containing the elements of objectivity, balance and neutrality and reminds everyone that it is more than just being fair. Impartiality resembles aspects of Aristotle’s golden mean by reminding us we need to evaluate all sides of a situation to determine its truth.

The idea that journalists can be completely free from any personal views seems outdated, as also mentioned in “When Reporters Get Personal” by Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan’s piece offers a number of conclusions, the one I found to be the most relevant to my final post is that “transparency is the new objectivity.” And this could very well be true, by being more open with people we can create and build more trust.

A colleague of mine commented on my previous post on “The Topic of Objectivity” offering the idea that is having one’s work further critiqued by an editor or colleague to ensure their work is fair and credible. Maybe in the situation of Tullis, if her work was reviewed and determined to be a fair portrayal and depiction of the events that had occurred and of the situation, then there would be no need for an editors note. Basically, if the final result is work that is factual, accurate and fair; there should be no problem.

Ultimately, it is my firm belief we must make a move onward from the concept of pure objectivity. A new era of journalism is upon us in which it is becoming extremely difficult to even portray ourselves as objective. Social media is unavoidable. It’s everywhere. As journalists, and simply as people, we can easily and sometimes accidentally display our own personal opinions, beliefs and thoughts about various causes and issues without a second thought. Even if a journalist has a private Twitter account separate from the entity they work at, someone who follows them can just as easily screenshot or retweet their words to the rest of the world without the journalist’s knowledge. Screenshots can easily be taken of Snapchats and Facebook statuses without warning. Even if a person has a private account, it does not mean that information is absolutely private and it can always be easily shared. People sign online petitions all the time, just like Tullis, without a second thought because nowadays it’s so easy to do so. Some of these things can be done anonymously, but an online donation would still need credit card information with a name attached. The modern day journalist is under the radar constantly, with or without knowing it.

Richard Sambrook published “Delivering Trust: Impartiality and Objectivity in the Digital Age” via Reuters. In his paper, he proposed three principles:

  1. Evidence-led newsgathering
  2. Diversity of opinion
  3. Transparency about methods and values

Sambrook makes several intriguing arguments, most especially concerning transparency and its benefits in today’s digital world. His three points combine to create a new philosophy for journalism, it takes the best from each previous concept.

Another interesting piece is “Can journalists be objective on social media?” by Savannah Whaley from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. The article actually linked me to another piece entitled, “NYT Public Editor sees social media as ‘double edged sword’ that is changing objective journalist.” And it’s true, these topics intermingle with one another because they are all truly all intertwined. Whaley’s article ends by stating, “more thought perhaps must so go into the difficulties faced by journalists when their professional and private lives are expected to merge, and we must tailor our expectations of their social media presence accordingly.”

The modern day journalist cannot be expected to remain absolutely objective. And with the constant changes being made to social media and design, ethical guidelines and handbooks should be updated to clarify the rules so that there may be no confusion. If we can build on Sambrook’s three principles, we can begin to move forward.

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One thought on “The Topic of Objectivity and the Modern Day Journalist

  1. The strength of your argument lies in its conclusion, Kareya, and your brief discussion of Sambrook’s three main points. The push for evidence-based reporting, of course, is linked to the roots of the objective method as explored by API. It would be interesting to see what the implications might be of listing “evidence-based reporting” as a core journalistic principle. Coupled with diversity of opinion and transparency about methods and values, it might result in the sort of high-value journalism once associated with the fading (for good reason, as you point out) concept of objectivity.

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