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Objectivity: when ministers, journalists and a norm collide

Peter Dutton claimed that journalists should be ‘objective reporters of the news’. AAP/Sam Mooy

Objectivity: when ministers, journalists and a norm collide

Peter Dutton claimed that journalists should be ‘objective reporters of the news’. AAP/Sam Mooy

Academics and journalists alike are fond of declaring that objectivity in journalism is outright impossible. The fallback is to say that even though the ideal of objectivity might be unattainable, it remains important to strive for.

Fairfax columnist and former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes and the ABC’s director of editorial policy, Alan Sunderland, have debated the issue recently in Fairfax newspapers. Holmes’ column was prompted by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comment that reporters:

… aren’t supposed to be political players, they’re supposed to be objective reporters of the news.

As the author of a book on objectivity in journalism and an avid participant in journalistic forums, I have noticed that journalists commonly make three errors when it comes to speaking about objectivity.

A clearly defined ideal?

The first error is assuming that the definition of objectivity is transparent and shared by all. It isn’t.

There is ample evidence that as a norm it is very diffuse. As such, aside from its inclusion in the ABC’s governing legislation, it doesn’t appear in any journalistic code of ethics in the US or Australia.

Within the ABC, Sunderland’s predecessor as head of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick, responded to this by encouraging some serious reflection on the term in a 2008 discussion piece. As that paper notes:

The weighty words in statutes and policies have practical use only if the people to whom they are addressed think about them, discuss them, interpret them in light of contemporary conditions, act consistently with them, reflect, and do it all again.

Just for journalists?

The second error is in assuming that objectivity is solely a professional norm, used by journalists for journalists. It isn’t.

In a landmark 1972 essay, sociologist Gaye Tuchman traced how objectivity was part of a strategic ritual of responding to criticism from a range of directions. Politicians and readers form important stakeholders in objectivity. Dutton stands in a tradition of ministerial interest in objectivity that dates back at least to to Richard Alston in 2005.

This supports the point that rather than serving exclusively as a professional norm, objectivity today works more widely and diffusely – but no less forcefully – as a criterion or expectation of media performance. It has done so at least since the early 1970s, when the US Congress and Vice-President Spiro Agnew began to use objectivity as a beating stick against journalists who dared to question the government, especially on defence issues.

While Holmes might argue that objective reporting is a thing of the past, it remains, for better or worse, part of the fabric of credibility. This is so even as the walls between reportage and opinion are melting, as Holmes so astutely notes, and concepts such as disclosure and transparency are in the ascendancy.

But Holmes misrepresents the views of Jay Rosen, a leading US journalism academic. Rosen’s critique of the “view from nowhere” was never presented as an outright dismissal of objectivity. It is worth quoting Rosen on this point:

When people talk about objectivity in journalism they have many different things in mind. Some of these I have no quarrel with. You could even say I’m a “fan”.

No exact science

The third error that journalists often make is to assume that objectivity in journalism works like a scientific principle. It doesn’t.

To treat objectivity in journalism as such is to create a very easy target to shoot at or move away from. This straw man makes it easy to discount objectivity because it fails to deliver a view from nowhere. Journalism’s dual commitment to both facts and the story – not to mention the complex ecology of the newsroom – complicates the idea that objectivity in journalism functions as a scientific principle.

The current debate perfectly captures the tension between two rival concepts of objectivity – one passive and the other active.

In the passive school, which Holmes represents, the ideal of objectivity is tied to the separation of facts from any kind of values. Holmes’ last paragraph is the telling one:

But it’s true that the days of “objective” reporting – cool, factual, impartial, unemotional, devoid of adjectives, or personality, or any trace of personal opinion – are well and truly over. It might be admirable in theory. In practice, unfortunately, it’s too bloody dull.

There is much more to be said about the appropriate frame or style in which to present facts. But the more important insight is that objectivity here is constructed along the lines of a subtractive process. Objectivity arises from eliminating perspective, standpoint, personal experience.

The alternative view

But there is an alternative school, represented here by Sunderland. Objectivity is seen as an additive principle, the product of trained judgement and interpretation. This informs Sunderland’s view that anyone engaged solely in the collection of facts is engaging more in stenography than journalism.

This alternative view of objectivity rightly rejects the idea that objectivity is some scientific principle. Rather, it’s the product of editorial judgement. This paragraph from Sunderland is key to this argument:

Being objective as a reporter is not a state of perfection like sainthood or barracking for Richmond. It is a discipline.

Sunderland goes on to see it as a skill arising from practice.

When objectivity was established as a norm for journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, journalists and journalism educators drew on prevailing debates in science and social science to construct an ideal that would form the bedrock of journalism as a profession.

In the process, they committed themselves to too pure an ideal. Objectivity is not a matter of all or nothing, of a view from nowhere or failure. As with disciplines such as law, objectivity can operate as a grounded concept, guiding rigorous and critical trained judgement.

None of this is to discount the importance of questioning journalism and government in an age of Twitter-fuelled reporting and reactionary policy. While we may desire to move beyond objectivity as a norm or even a term for debate, the task of thinking through the relationship between facts and values continues.