For the last few decades, the practice of reporting “just the facts” has become a distinguished moral ideal of mainstream journalism, which is warmly embraced by large media outlets, sometimes to the extent of representing news “from nobody’s point of view” (CBS News Former President). Readers also expect news reporting to be “objective, unbiased, non-partisan”, although the audience themselves tend to be subjective about which news sources to trust. Yet the concept of objectivity, up to now, appears to be something close to an ideology, worshipped by a handful of conventional theorists and practitioners.
In Schudson’s definition of objectivity (2001):
“The journalist’s job consists of reporting something called ‘news’ without commenting on it, slanting it, or shaping its formulation in any way.”
However, it’s noteworthy that the practice of objectivity only emerged in the late 19th century, as a result of changes in economics and technology. Before that particular period, American newspaper proprietors saw themselves as tradesmen, not learned professionals, which means they would print any materials from any sources that paid well.
After independence, “partisan journalism” became the norm in the United States, in which newspapers openly supported their favourite political party. During the 1870s–1880s, journalists in Washington DC even earned their living by working for congressional committees.
With the introduction of the penny press in the 1830s, newspapers became more profitable, and starting from the 1880s, reporters were focused more on making stories that sold, rather than promoting parties. Commercialisation, some would argue, was the root of journalistic objectivity, as newspaper proprietors sought to appeal to a broader public, as well as to manage risks in news reporting.
In the 1920s, modern objectivity in journalism began to take shape. The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Code of Ethics maintained that “news reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”
But can anyone really be free from bias?
Holtzman (2014) argues that our interpretation of the world is shaped by our education, experiences, social circles, and many other factors, thus making objectivity in journalism impossible. On the other hand, mainstream media outlets often – subconsciously – go with the master narrative when selecting facts, which in turn results in another type of bias.
For example, in the case of global warming, while 97% of established scientists endorse the reality of climate change, many newspapers still present it as a “global debate”, with attempts to cover ideas from both sides of the story. In fear of subjectivity, they have failed to create a broader context for the audience, and also undermined the seriousness of the situation.
Thus, merely reporting “just the facts” can turn journalists into machines and dismiss their responsibility as the Fourth Estate. In the age of digital, when the audience can get access to the news from various online sources, journalists must take a step further to add value to the data, by deliberately selecting the information and create a bigger picture. And by doing so, they can uphold their own ideal of subjectivity, without distorting the truth.
So, audience, do you want “the truth” or the whole picture?