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Journalists can’t be objective, and we should stop thinking they can be

| Thursday, March 24, 2022

In “The myth of the noble lie,” Elizabeth Hale criticizes the propagation of “noble lies” by the media. Hale contends that journalists prioritize pushing a particular narrative above the truth, undermining the stream of information meant to serve the public. While I agree with her conclusion that news shouldn’t simply be a “dry recitation of facts devoid of any sense of the good,” I take issue with her idealization of objectivity in journalism.

Hale’s letter repeats a sentiment routinely found in criticisms of the journalism industry, namely that journalists are overtly biased and skew their reporting to fit their worldview. The view supposes that rather than actually reporting the news, journalists twist information and carefully select narratives to the benefit of their personal political outlook. Instead, journalists should be strictly objective, void of bias and committed to the reporting of unfiltered information to enable members of the public to form their own opinions. This may be understood as objective journalism, defined as a “consistent method of testing information” so “personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.” It’s often praised as the most accurate form of journalism that adheres best to the facts, not opinions. 

For the purposes of this column, I won’t delve into whether the media is actually biased or the extent to which it may be. Rather, I’m concerned with the idealization of objectivity in news coverage. It’s true that journalists should strive to limit biases and account for how their personal beliefs may influence their coverage of the news. However, the supposition that pure objectivity is the preferred, attainable goal is unrealistic. It fails to account for the biases that exist in journalism by design and as a consequence that journalists, like the rest of us, are human. 

There are three reasons that demonstrate news cannot be objective. First, the nature of news and the journalism industry itself perpetuates bias. A newsroom will involve countless journalists, reporters, copyeditors, editors and for television, producers, anchors and countless other roles that all influence the news that’s reported. For any news report, decisions must be made concerning what story is covered, who is interviewed, what research is cited and how it’s presented to the public. Each decision in this process is inherently rooted in the implicit biases of the individuals involved in the story, creating a distorted version of the story. Even if multiple news stations cover the same set of facts, their coverage will be different due to these predispositions. This is especially true when one considers the profit motive behind many news organizations, which further influences story selections based on audience appeal and advertisers’ interests. 

Second, the elevation of objectivity as the goal in journalism introduces a startling course of action when discussing moral atrocities. A key premise of objective journalism is the use of neutral language when reporting events, including those that have obvious moral implications. The reasoning is that through neutral language, journalists are able to limit personal biases and simply present information. However, this incurs an absence of morality when reporting stories on human rights violations, unjust wars and other obviously immoral actions. According to the objective news doctrine, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be reported without denouncement of Vladimir Putin for his disregard for human life. Coverage on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims couldn’t criticize blatant human rights violations. The requirement to avoid all biases in the name of neutrality and objectivity precludes the ability to accurately portray moral atrocities. The expectation that journalists should adhere to these instructions is an affront to the victims of such tragedies. 

I recognize that in her letter, Hale expresses some sympathy for incorporating morality into journalism, but my criticism applies to defenders of objective journalism writ large. 

Third, the demographics of the journalism industry prevent adequate objectivity. Compared to the general population and other workforces, newsrooms in the United States overwhelmingly lack diversity. Despite comprising nearly 40% of the U.S. population and 35% of the workforce, racial and ethnic minorities only make up 23% of newsroom employees. In fact, almost half of newsroom staff are white men, compared to 34% of the general workforce. This diversity problem is exacerbated at the leadership level of the news industry, where only 11% of editors in the U.S. are non-white. The disproportionate representation in the newsroom inherently leads to biased reporting, as necessary voices are excluded from the room, especially at the decision-making table. 

Objectivity in journalism is simply not possible. Instead of pretending it can be mitigated to the point of insignificance, we should acknowledge that bias exists in journalism, implicitly or explicitly, and determine how journalism can still act as a source of information for public discourse. My goal in this column is not to propose a new system of journalism. My hope is that others with more experience can tackle that problem. Rather, my intention is to highlight the misconception of objectivity’s attainability in news reporting and impress the need to grapple with the inherent bias in the newsroom. Objectivity is important in pursuit of reporting accurate information. However, while objectivity does have a role in journalism, it should not be the sole aim of a journalist. 

Blake Ziegler is a junior at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He enjoys writing about politics, Judaism and the occasional philosophical rant. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or followed at @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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