On objectivity

Wait, let’s back up. What does it mean to be objective? Well, obviously, “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” Yes, yes, we know. We all know. I mean, it’s so obvious. How difficult could it be to…

Oh! There it is. The realization.

That’s right, folks. Nothing about journalism is objective. Not a damn thing. Objectivity is a goal of journalism, not a reality. It’s like “reaching for the stars.” No, you’re not going to climb on your roof and grasp a sparkly, flaky little white speck in your very hands. But it’s something you (an astronomer? an astronaut? a physicist?) should always strive to do, figuratively.

Writing news involves a series of decisions: from what qualifies as “news” to which words the writer selects to embody the story. Decisions are inherently opinionated. As we seek to find the words that most “accurately” describe a situation, we are depending on the accuracy of our own perception. I gather that my perception of a Tea Party rally may be much different than my father’s, and as follows, so would our word choice.

It’s fairly widely accepted that the 24-hour FOXNews network is, if objectivity were a continuum ranging from Math to Glenn Beck, well…  And it’s not just FOX, but every news outlet, every writer, has opinions. Opinions undoubtedly influence what facts are covered, who gets face time, which quotes are deemed more important, what stories are selected, etc. There’s no getting out of it.

It’s not something we (journalists, historians, teachers, educated citizens of the world) like to admit freely.

So, what’s your problem?

Thomas Jefferson, as many know, was a big believer in universal education (among white men, at the time). It’s pretty logical: You’re either a voter or a voter-in-training, so what’s the point in voting if you don’t know what’s going on? How are you supposed to make responsible decisions for the union without the knowledge to back it up?

The percentage of Americans who (will admit they) ignore the news is relatively small. During the 2008 elections (a booming news time) less than 8 percent said they don’t read/watch the news.

So, at least most people are informed on some level. But networks are being pushed out by their cable competitors. Remember, while FOX has local network affiliates, FOXNews is 24/7 cable news & commentary. CNN and MSNBC are cable. ABC and CBS are network. Basically, if the show tells you about Grandpa’s pantless journey to the local five-and-dime, it’s network.

Americans are drawn to drama, which lies in the extremes, who live in cable news channels. Instead of reading the 1,000+ page health care bill (not dramatic), watch FOX commentators tell you how Socialist it is (so dramatic) or watch MSNBC commentators tell you how Fascist the FOX pundits are for not supporting it (totally dramatic).

By now you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Drama is interesting, but not that informative. Each news outlet picks the “most interesting” i.e. “most dramatic” points in any given event. Ideally, we’d watch FOX and MSNBC to get both sides of the commentary and read the bill ourselves to get the raw facts.

I mean, I try, but I’ve got a job, jewelry to make and a new blog to run, and there are only so many hours in the day.

It all boils down to: pay attention.

Be a responsible news consumer. Know, despite all labeling defects, whether you’re reading news or opinion, seek out weasel words and train yourself to notice when information is missing from a story.

Whether it’s intended or not, missing info always slants an article. Know that we’ve only got six column-inches to write this brief, so we can’t include every piece of information.

Make it your mission to learn more.

Relevant readings:

Public Journalism and the Problem of Objectivity by Philip Meyer/University of North Carolina

The Search for Objectivity in Journalism by Howard A. Myric/USA Today

“Objectivity in Journalism is an Illusion” by Joseph Appiah-Dolphyne/International Institute for Journalism


One thought on “On objectivity

  1. Pingback: Continuing my epic quest for bias acceptance in media « The Photographer-Journalist

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