The rise of objectivity (2022)

Turning to unpacking the development of objectivity in journalism, Maras (2013), Schudson (1978), and Allan (2010), among others, identify four related factors: a) professionalization; b) technology; c) commercialization; and d) politics (Maras, 2013, p. 23).

The professionalization argument states that the rise of objectivity can be understood as a result of the process of professionalization that journalism underwent between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Schudson & Anderson, 2009). In the context of rapid industrialization, newspapers were forced to reconfigure themselves in order to serve politically heterogeneous audiences and to respond to an increasing lack of public confidence (Broersma & Peters, 2013). In response, journalists were encouraged to stick to the facts, covering all sides of the story, and allowing readers to judge for themselves and form their own opinions. Schudson (1978) illustrates that this idea of objectivity became embedded in journalism education, introducing a scientific concept of the world that, by then, replicated a profoundly empiricist and positivist trend in social sciences and higher education. The emergence of journalism schools in this academic setting helps explain (in part) the prominence given to objectivity in journalistic practice. As Maras puts it, “objectivity was fast-tracked as a way to characterize the profession, as well as indicating a point of mutual interest for practitioners and educationalists” (Maras, 2013, p. 25).

The technological argument for the rise of objectivity in journalism has primarily been linked to the invention of the telegraph and to the series of constraints this technology imposed on language: “The wire services seemed to have imposed a lean, unadorned ‘objective’ style: a form of writing stripped of locality, regional touches and colloquialisms” (Maras, 2013, p. 28). Besides being expensive, the use of wire services was constantly threatened by technical problems, prompting its users to be brief and to place the factual and novel information at the beginning of their messages (or so the argument goes). In this sense, the telegraph may have contributed the creation of the inverted pyramid writing style. Thus, “the origins of objectivity may be sought, therefore, in the necessity of stretching language in space over the long lines of Western Union” (Carey, 2009, p. 162). Moreover, for Carey, the telegraph not only reconfigured the use of language in journalism but it also reconfigured our sense of awareness by establishing a strong link between the facts that people should know and a specific and standardized linguistic mode of addressing them. Although acknowledging the enormous influence that technology has on journalism, scholars warn of the danger of falling into a technological determinism that would prevent us from recognizing the impact of other factors in shaping journalism practice. Contravening accounts that push back against Carey’s view are outlined below (cf. Schudson, 2001, p. 159).

The commercialization argument sees objective and politically neutral information as serving the wishes of advertisers, hoping to reach large heterogeneous audiences. According to this argument, objectivity responds to business logic: instead of focusing on specific niche targets, news media should produce and deliver news for the masses. This concern with pleasing advertisers led news editors to favor what could be called a “stick-to-the-facts” approach to news, in order to avoid the risks involved in providing interpretations that might not please all their readers. But there is another factor that links objectivity and business logic: productivity. Sticking to the facts and to the version provided by news sources and not having to engage in deep research reduces costs, besides allowing reporters to swap between sections, liberating them from acquiring specialized knowledge and allowing editors to retain control over their newsrooms (Schudson, 2001, p. 152).

The political argument for objectivity posits that no comprehensive account of the rise of objectivity in journalism can neglect its political dimension. Against a widespread belief that the emergence of the penny press suppressed the partisan press, and thus the rise of objectivity' in journalism was assured, Michael Schudson argues that it was the need for news agencies such as the Associated Press to deliver contents to a wide range of newspapers that led to a more neutral and impartial approach to news. Other interpretations of the importance of political factors in the development of objectivity' in journalism claim that commercial newspapers developed their editorial strategy around the central political function of surveilling the public good, holding the powerful to account, and providing citizens with objective and reliable information. Alternative accounts of the relationship between politics and the rise of objectivity in journalism suggest that the reason why the nineteenth-century press moved from being partisan and politically committed to more central and detached could also be related to a progressive detachment from politics that occurred in the United States, notably from the 1850s onwards (Maras, 2013, pp. 34-35).

Across these influences, what makes determining which of these factors was more influential in the development of objectivity in journalism complicated is knowing exactly when this development started. To cope with these difficulties, Maras proposes discussing the issue in terms of a general “‘orientation’ towards objectivity,” that is, “an approach to news production disposed towards the fact” and placing its origin in the 1830s (Maras, 2013, p. 42). Following Ward (2004) and Schudson (1978), Maras describes the period between 1830 and 1880 as the “proto-objective era of news as commodity,” characterized by the “triumph of ‘news’ over the editorial and ‘facts’ over opinion” (Schudson, 1978, p. 14) and by an increasing concern for factuality, independence, and impartiality (Maras, 2013, p. 42). These values were not contrary to the kind of journalism practiced by the penny press, which focused on crime, the local police, the courts, and city life. Indeed, in targeting an increasing literate urban population, the penny press delivered news in a simpler and more entertaining way, using more “everyday” language. Certain important stylistic changes associated with objectivity also became common in this period, such as the use of the “lead” sentence (or “lede” in the US news lexicon), further fostered by the advancement of the telegraph in the 1840s. Yet while these trends offer indications of objectivity’s rise, Schudson sees a risk in marking the birth of objectivity' in journalism in this period, as journalism in the

United States had yet to fully industrialize; that would have to wait another century (Schudson, 1978, p. 60; Schudson & Anderson, 2009).

Nevertheless, the rise of the figure of the reporter during the last two decades of the nineteenth century ushered in a second important step in the orientation of journalism toward objectivity. With the telegraph, the reporter displaced the editor as the prototype of the journalist, further shifting newswork towards a division of journalistic labor. Reporters gained autonomy and control over their work, and editors became responsible for policing accuracy and separation of facts and opinions. According to Schudson, it was probably this re-organization of daily newswork and the need to establish new routines in news production that fostered an attachment to facts aligned with notions of objectivity. Again, we have contravening narratives. The end of the century also ushered in the era of the “yellow” sensationalist press of Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World, and of William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal which hardly seemed to hold fast to notions of objectivity and detachment (Conboy, 2002, p. 56). As Schudson remarks, we nevertheless see newspapers of the end of the century extending the revolutionary changes introduced by the penny press in the late 1830s, reinforcing their independence and detachment regarding politics, promoting the separation between facts and opinions, while at the same time using a simpler language, including illustrations and focusing on the needs and interests of a growing urban population.

The third major contribution to the rise of objectivity in journalism is associated with a new informational ethical model represented by, among others, the editorial project of the New York Times, especially following its acquisition by Adolph S. Ochs in 1896. According to Maras, when compared to the yellow press, the New York Times represented an alternative approach to news, grounded in a clear distinction between entertainment and information. This set a new paradigm to pursue objectivity in journalism, which until then was mainly conceived of in terms of political detachment and the separation of news from opinion. According to Ochs himself, the Times’ aim was to give “all the news in concise and attractive form,” to give it “impartially, without fear of favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved” (Ochs 1896, cited by Maras, 2013, p. 50). The purpose of newspapers like the Times is not to sell stories, reliable as they may be, but to provide citizens with important information to help them take decisions regarding their community. Within this new informational ethical model, objectivity became an ethical claim in itself. Regardless of the fact that this new informational model of objectivity has monopolized our contemporary concept of quality press, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of the sensationalist and popular press in promoting and dignifying everyday life and thus in extending the boundaries of the concept of public good (Schudson, 1978; Conboy, 2002).

Returning to Schudson, he argues it was only between the 1920s and 1930s, partly in response to the criticism directed toward the press in the aftermath of the First World War, that the ideal of objectivity in journalism became fully articulated. Concerns with the propagandistic use of the media by government pressagents and with the increasing influence of public relations generated a sentiment of suspicion among journalists regarding the informative value of the “sticking-to-the-facts” principle and among the public in general regarding the media itself. However, the ideal of objectivity in journalism is also the result of the reaction to a complex, multi-faceted cultural moment ranging from developments in theoretical physics questioning the existence of a stable, uniform reality, in psychology influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud questioning the transparency of the conscience to itself, and in the artistic avant-garde that questioned the power of representation including of “the other.” Factor in the influence of neopositivism in many academic and scientific circles, and we can see that rather than being the culmination of a process based on the belief that facts speak for themselves, objectivity in journalism reached its full articulation mainly as “a method designed for a world in which even facts could not be trusted” (Schudson, 1978, p. 122), and more than an “expression of professional excellence,” objectivity became “an expression of professional anxiety” (Maras, 2013, pp. 52—53).

As a result, calls for professionalization intensified, and an understanding of objectivity in terms of the inverted pyramid, non-partisanship, detachment, balance, and verification gradually started to take shape in codes of ethics and academic textbooks. These conceived of objectivity as a method designed to minimize the distortion and bias that inevitably affect news production. For Walter Lipp-mann (1922), in order to reverse the subjectivist tendency in journalism and protect citizens from manipulated journalistic coverage, journalists should receive professional training, acquire expert knowledge, and adopt a more scientific approach to reality.

It should come as no surprise that, in this context, the use of photography was generally seen as a positive contribution to the promotion of news credibility. The belief in the objectivity of photography, grounded in the idea that photographs were the result of a scientific chemical process performed by a machine, rather than subjective endeavors of a fallible individual, was very much in line with the widespread enthusiasm for all sorts of scientific and technological developments.

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