Objectivity in Journalism: An impossible pedestal (2022)

What to expect when you’re expecting ‘objectivity’ from Journalism.

Objectivity in Journalism: An impossible pedestal (1)

“To give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved” — Adolph H. Ochs

Adolph H. Ochs was the former owner of the New York Times and the newspaper still considers these words as their golden rule (Dunlap). However, are these the words media houses live by in this day and age? Is the information we receive really impartial?

With the recent growth of Islamophobia around the world, especially within India, it has become a trend for media houses to tap into the mass’s conscious and unconscious ‘fear’ and leverage it. The news around the recent event of Tablighi Jamaat is a prominent example where facts were given a communal colour in order to fuel the ongoing rhetoric of ‘anti nationalists’ in the country. Media houses within the country have displayed shades of pro and anti-government biases, they often present one side of the story while completely ignoring the other side of the spectrum. So how are we supposed to fully trust any information coming from the media if we are already aware of their intrinsic biases.

One wonders where is the objectivity in the news anymore; but is that even the right question to ask? Or is the expectation of a neutral view point of the media, solely in the quest for truth, an improbable idea? Is it even possible for the media to be completely objective while presenting information?

Whenever a news breaks, the observer of the event brings in their knowledge, emotion or/and mindset to interpret the facts of the event. While objectivity is possible at the occurrence of these events, it is unattainable at their observance. Since the absolute truth of any event becomes difficult to be discerned immediately, and only a fraction of the truth is processed at any given time by the observer, media objectivity becomes an impossible ideal. The idea of media objectivity is a commercial construct, coined by the owners of media houses to prove in the market that they are selling unadulterated news. Notwithstanding, this notion has become a norm and has forced the media houses to present idealistic claims (Hardwood).

A television camera portrays the perspective of the angle from which it is presenting and can depict the same event from various point of views which, in turn, can shape a completely different interpretation for the viewer. Similarly, the same event can be reported from various angles which can present a variety of point of views. The point of angle and narration are completely directed by the reporter. There does not exist a blanket code within the journalist community which determines the angle of observance or the way of narrating a certain event. The same event can be reported in numerous ways with none of them being false or nonfactual. In this sense, therefore, objectivity uninfluenced by the reporter’s prejudices or preconceptions is difficult to find (Jesuminure 22). In effect, news becomes a ‘construct’ of reality perceived by journalists who operate under a mental map or framework that is socially, ideologically, and culturally determined by their lived experiences and exposure. It is through the lens of this mental map or cognitive framework that journalists often decide what to highlight, what to ignore, what to trivialise and what to mainstream. In this sense, objectivity is not the fundamental principle of journalism, rather, it is to not give into the idea of any abstract utopia and cater to a more responsible style of journalism (Ganesan) — a style where highlighting the shortcomings and foregrounding the subjectivities of the information being presented becomes the foundational principle of journalistic endeavours.

In her article Why Subjectivity is Essential for the Media’s Objectivity, Aarathi Ganesan delineates this stance. She argues that given the competitiveness of the industry, news organisations are required to cater to the preferences of their audience. While doing so, it is impossible for these organisation to cater to ‘one absolute truth’ as the audience varies in terms of their beliefs, socio-economic backgrounds and culture (Ganesan).

Social media has further helped these media houses to cater to specific groups of individuals by targeting them using algorithms. This has led to an increase in individualistic news preferences. More and more media houses have started committing to their political beliefs openly in order to cater to their preferred section of the public. This has led to an endless vicious cycle where in order to target a group of individuals with a certain belief system, media houses feed them the sort of information which merely reinforces the preconceived notions of the audience (Ganesan).

Objectivity, in journalism, lies in the method. It is to develop a transparent approach in gathering evidences and sources for the information. The key is in being disciplined with the method, not the outcome. It is to rely on Realism — the idea that if journalists simply dug out the facts and put them together, truth would reveal itself organically. Therefore, it is perhaps to be expected for journalism to rely on realism rather than objectivity, to ensure that objectivity is inherently maintained in the methodology used to identify sources (Dean).

On the other hand, when media houses rely on biased sources to gather information based on certain preconceived biases and try to neutralise their voice to make it seem objective, they are engaging in a form of deception (Dean). It will rather be a helpful device for the media to be guided by authentic sources of information, and highlighting their subjectivities in opinions once a conclusion is reached. This will help the audience become an aware consumer of the information presented to them.

The objectivity of media is frequently questioned and is a topic of debate. However, it is interesting to note that complete objectivity around observing any event is an impossible ideal which can never be achieved. Every piece of information is the interpretation of the ultimate truth through the lens of the observer. This lens is determined by their socio-economic background, gender, race, caste and political inclinations.

Objectivity in interpretation is perhaps not the abiding principle for journalists. Rather, journalists need to rely on authentic sources to ensure that what they report is not fabricated or misreported because of their own biases. In this sense, objectivity in terms of the method of gathering sources is the only form of objectivity that the media houses can attain. Even if a certain news piece presents a skewed opinion, it is essential to ensure that it is based on facts and is presenting a valid perspective. It is imperative for any nation to have a media which voices the spectrum of opinions emerging from facts. Journalism in its essence needs to have strong facts based opinions in order to dig out the truth and make the nation’s citizens aware.

Read Civics Padhao, Loktantra Bachao by Vardan Srivastava

Works Cited

1. Dunlap, David W. “1896 | ‘Without Fear or Favor’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/09/12/insider/1896-without-fear-or-favor.html

2. Harwood, Richard. “HOW OBJECTIVE CAN THE MEDIA REALLY BE?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Aug. 1992, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/08/16/how-objective-can-the-media-really-be/3962e91b-a2d4-4444-b4e2-d89932f95f20/

3. Jesuminure, Margaret Oyindamola. “Objectivity in Journalism: A Philosophical Perspective.” Journal of Philosophy, Culture and Religion, www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/JPCR/article/view/36701

4. Dean, Walter. “The Lost Meaning of ‘Objectivity’.” American Press Institute, 18 July 2017, www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/bias-objectivity/lost-meaning-objectivity/

5. Ganesan, Aarathi. “Why Subjectivity Is Essential for the Media’s Objectivity.” THE BASTION, 4 Apr. 2020, https://thebastion.co.in/ideas/subjectivity-essential-objectivity/

About the Author: Nidhi is a post graduate in Economics, a former banker and a Young India Fellowship alumnus who is trying to find her place in the world.

Follow Project Democracy on Instagram for regular updates @projectdemocracy.yif

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