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Reputable journalists around the world desire to disseminate news in an unprejudiced manner. They focus on furnishing the public with information about local or international occurrences through minimal personal interference.
While the virtue, of reaching this goal is reasonable, the feasibility of attaining it is another matter altogether.
Challenges of striving for objectivity
It is possible for people to experience the same reality, but their understanding of the same depends on their perception (Brooks 2006). A microwave may seem like an indispensable device to a restaurant owner, but the same item may be perceived as a box or an awkward piece of furniture by a bushman in the Kalahari Desert.
Alternatively, a person’s definition of intelligence may depend on that person’s cultural inclinations. Education, norms, and biases filter what people perceive in their worlds. It is these filters that cause people to have different religious standpoints, gender identities, personalities or economic opinions.
For instance, a group of people may witness a mob lynching in a part of town. A lawyer may talk about the possibility of a lawsuit by the concerned assailant; a politician may consider strengthening the city’s security laws; a clergyman may talk about God’s role in sparing the victim from death.
All these perceptions stem from old information that the viewers used to understand the new information. Since people subjectively construct the world, then even journalists perceive events against this backdrop.
Methods or platforms used to convey information are quite unsteady in the field. Journalists need to use words in order to convey information, yet words can mean different things to different people.
For instance, the statement “Mergina is an exotic location bursting with native energy” could mean different things to different people. Does the word exotic refer to something bizarre or is or just another way of demonstrating that the location is exciting and different?
If it is different, then the author should specify his reference point. Native energy may be translated negatively by the people of Mergina who may assume that the term connotes primitivism. Therefore, journalists may intend on conveying factual information, but their choice of words and interpretations could betray them.
Even the sheer notion of doing conflict war zone reporting brings the matter of objectivity into question. An employer cannot force a journalist to enter a war zone unless the correspondent consciously chooses to do so.
This means that he or she must feel strongly enough about a certain story to put himself or herself in danger. At that point, the journalist will compromise on objectivity because he or she is passionate about the matter.
Reportage requires detachment, but this is close to impossible to achieve when journalists already feel so strongly about something.
When engaging in journalistic work, stakeholders must make numerous decisions on news reporting. They must decide on occurrences that qualify as news.
Not every event (religious meeting, violent interaction, political episode, and economic matter) that happens will make the news because editors often determine which ones journalists will report.
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Although most editors have a lot of experience in the industry, this only proves that journalism pegs on experience as a filter of the newsmaker’s world. Reporters and journalists may dedicate a lot of time and effort towards to the collection of valuable information on conflict.
However, their efforts may be thwarted by media houses if they are not politically correct. For instance in the UK, some natives attacked and beat up Iranian girls for wearing Hijabs.
No local media outlets reported the incident, yet the matter received extensive coverage in Iranian media houses. It was the decisions of higher powers in those stations that determined what they transmitted. Numerous media houses tend to reflect the ideological preferences of their editors.
Although many of them try to show the other side of the story, the vast majority will endorse their superior’s ideologies. Journalists do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of their society and will often implement the perspectives embraced by established powers, political or government leaders (Jones 2009).
Aside from the decision process, even the process of reporting the news is quite difficult to perform for those individuals who have the responsibility to do so. Besides the choice of words that journalists select, the images they convey can also alter perceptions.
On television, cameras may zoom in on ten demonstrators and make them look like a large crowd. Alternatively, cameras may take aerial shots of a large crowd and make it appear as though it was a minor dispute.
Even the order in which news reports occur can determine viewers’ or readers’ interpretations. The amount of time dedicated to a story will determine how people will think of it. The reader’s tone of voice or facial expression may also change the way the public perceives the matter.
Journalists are quite human; they can get fully engaged in the conflicts or issues that they are covering if the issues affect them. When a reporter visits a missionary – operated orphanage, where children can only get food when they become Christians, then the journalist will most likely deplore that behaviour.
Alternatively, if terrorists kidnap a correspondent in a conflict zone, then this can dramatically alter the individual’s opinion of the terrorists. Even the general experience of war causes many reporters to become empathetic about torture victims.
They may be prompted to condemn the atrocities that they witness, and this may undermine their ability to objective. A correspondent who faithfully records violent behaviour without criticizing it will be an upstanding journalist but not a decent person.
Dispassionate reports often yield dispassionate reactions from the public. Readers, listeners and viewers often respond to passionate and genuine stories. If journalists stick to news items, without showing their human side, then they may elicit negative responses from the public.
Emotions are what make people human, so audiences do not expect journalists to eliminate this aspect from their work. Furthermore, sometimes certain atrocities are so blatant that it comes naturally to take a stance against them.
If a journalist tries to use words such as alleged when the violent acts are so obvious, then the individual may fall into the trap of false objectivity. Sometimes a middle-ground approach may not be tenable.
Virtues of objectivity
Numerous external parties may interfere in journalistic activities. Perhaps the most notorious ones are politicians. If journalists did not care about objectivity, then they would be reduced to political puppets.
In the government, loyalty to one’s group is more valuable than allegiance to the truth. A member of parliament would need to consult and support members of his party in order to get any piece of legislation passed. However, undesirable results would occur if journalists did the same thing.
Some governments have reduced media houses into propaganda platforms. If journalists in those countries committed to objectivity, then they would perpetuate the truth, even when this meant betraying their governments.
A case in point was the Nanking Massacre of China. This was an atrocity that occurred at the city of Nanking in 1938. The conflict involved the killing, rape, arson and torture of Chinese people by Japanese soldiers. About 300,000 casualties arose from the war with most of the victims being civilians or unarmed Chinese soldiers.
The Japanese combatants raped women and forced them to commit acts of incest. They looted their property and left them with nothing. When stakeholders revisited the matter in the 2000s, some Japanese politicians, such as Mayor Kawamura of Nagoya, Governor Ishihara of Tokyo and Japanese LDP party members, claimed that the Massacre never occurred.
Others who acknowledge its existence have tried to play down the magnitude of the atrocities. Journalists who report these events have also fallen victim to the above sentiments owing to the need to obey authority. If they stayed committed to objectivity, then they would have focused on both sides of the conflict.
They would have discussed the varied interpretations of the matter and the need for apology from the Japanese government. As such, their biased journalists have fanned Chinese-Japan mistrust and general relations (Gallichio 2007).
Members of the media industry also have the unique challenge of handling stereotypes. Human beings tend to focus on facts that confirm stereotypes and ignore the ones that contradict them.
Objectivity in journalism is essential in order to reduce this preference for stereotypes. Therefore, the possibility of staying objective can be considered in this industry.
Journalists reporting about violence, conflict, or atrocities have several reasons to strive for objectivity; therefore, this illustrates that there is a possibility for existence of objectivity. First, atrocities rarely occur in isolation; this means that every conflict has a context that led to the culmination of violent behaviour.
A warring society may have undergone decades of polarisation and unresolved issues; it may possess structural issues that perpetuated the violence. Issues such as government neglect, military oppression, and poverty should receive just as much attention as the personal atrocities committed by individuals.
Journalists who strive for objectivity would not just focus on irrational aspects of atrocities; they would also explain the factors behind the violent behaviour. It is necessary to suspend judgements when making these calls, no matter how divergent the issue is from one’s worldview.
A journalist who endeavours to become objective will not just concern himself with issues that support his perspective; he will try as much as possible to look at all the facts.
De-contextualisation of violence necessitates working towards objectivity. Conflicts or wars are usually quite complex. It is easy for journalists to fall into the trap of dualism.
Here, they may reduce the stakeholders in the conflict to just two individuals, yet other external parties such as multinationals may also play a role. For instance, international journalists reported the 1994 Rwandan atrocities as a conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis.
While the latter groups were the majority stakeholders, the UN, US, Belgian and French forces also contributed to the conflict. Furthermore, journalists downplayed their role in ending the conflict. If reporters at the time strove for objectivity, then they would not have ignored the role of these external players in the genocide.
Alternatively, when reporting about conflicts it is easy to present the most outstanding or dramatic aspects. Reporters may make violence seem like the only option, yet this is not always true.
Journalists ought to strive for objectivity by refraining for Manichaeism; a term that refers to the process of demonising one group and regarding the other one as chaste. No conflict is ever black and white; that is why journalists need to note all the negotiations that may occur in a conflict.
Furthermore, ceasefires may not always signify peace. If escalation occurs in a war, then journalists must explain the causes of the occurrence. Alternatively, if journalists ignore the views of the bereaved in news reports, then the public may not understand why an escalation or act of revenge occurred.
When reconciliation takes place, journalists have the power to perpetuate healing by showing images of resolution. In order for all these positive outcomes to occur, then journalists working in such environments need to strive for objectivity. Reporters who strive for this objective should exercise self control.
They need to suppress their own emotions in order to get to the truth. This means that they ought to embrace the possibility of being a little dull. Outright attacks against certain prominent figures may attract readers’ attention, but they do not necessarily indicate that the matter is true.
Most attacks tend to exaggerate the vices of an individual while ignoring the person’s strengths. Journalists should process all the information they have collected and put it in one coherent pattern (Holber & Zubric 2000). The act of connecting all the parts takes strong judgment, which may not always be prevalent amongst all reporters.
They need to report issues as they are without demonising one group or ignoring certain aspects of the conflict. Such issues provide proof for the possibility of objectivity in journalism.
Sometimes attachment in journalism can lead to severe consequences, which points to the possibility and usefulness of objectivity. This is especially so when the concerned reporter is passionate about a certain topic.
British correspondent Marie Colvin died in Syria when one of the warring parties fired a missile at her and her group. Colvin belonged to a group of journalists who ascribed to a school of thought known as journalism of attachment.
In this group, members believe that correspondents have a moral duty to the public by taking sides (O’Neill 2012). They affirm that one must identify the evil and pure sides in a conflict and then show a preference for the positive side. Here, journalists cease being reporters only; they transform themselves into moral crusaders.
Many newspapers have praised the courage of these individuals; however, they do not realise the danger of such an approach to those crusaders. When journalists abandon objectivity, as Colvin did, then they become players in the war. In one instance, Colvin rescued 1500 people in East Timor when Indonesian forces arrested the victims.
The latter event occurred in 1999, and peers commended Colvin for her heroic efforts. The individual also urged western governments to intervene in the Kosovo conflict during the 1990s because she identified the Serbs as evil and the area’s Liberation army as virtuous, yet these factors changed dramatically.
In other similar scenarios, journalists have used their positions as activists to force western governments to intervene in foreign conflicts through military action. A case in point was the intervention of the UK, US and the French in the Libyan conflict of 2011 through bombing campaigns.
Activist journalists have the ability to change the direction of a war by garnering support from their governments against sides they perceive as evil. One can thus deduce that such journalists are no longer neutral and objective. They choose to replace their quest for the truth with their moral objectives.
Many of them even criticise unbiased journalists as bystanders who have no place in modern journalism. The challenge with taking such a stance is that it causes reporters to become too engrossed with emotion.
A large number of these activists will reduce news findings to morality tales and disregard the complexities involved in the conflict. In other words, they will perceive things as black and white. Therefore, one can see the importance of objectivity in such circumstances.
Objectivity, or at least its quest, is possible in the face of atrocities in order to present the true picture of a conflict. When journalists get carried away by their emotions, they will detach themselves from reality and loose balance in their work.
A case in point was the issue of global warming. Initially, most reporters focused on the impending danger that the world would be subjected to if it did not change its consumption patterns.
However, with time, the media realised that there was another side to the issue and started to report it too. Objectivity is desirable and possible especially when covering controversial topics.
Journalists who abandon objectivity may also fall into the trap of becoming targets in the conflict. When reporters take sides, usually against the local regimes in which they are reporting, they often cause those local leaders to turn against them too.
Some of them may bomb their media houses or target them for military purposes. Correspondents who urge western governments to participate in a war may ignite anti-western sentiments in conflicts.
Therefore, everything that represents western influence, including western reporters will become enemies of the local regime. Not only is the quest for objectivity the best way to ensure that the public gets to see a conflict’s real picture, but it also protects journalists from fatal consequences of emotionalism.
Objectivity is dependent on human interaction, which renders journalistic work subjective. It is, therefore, true that objectivity in journalism is impossible. Reporters cannot leave their moral inclinations behind and then dwell on their jobs dispassionately; this is simply contrary to human nature.
Nonetheless, the virtues of objectivity cannot be ignored. Journalists who comprehend the influence of subjective views would double check their work for glaring biases and prejudices. Such enlightened individuals would also be aware of other people’s worldviews and will encompass them in their reports.
Objectivity should be a goal to be sought even though journalists can never attain it fully. Focus ought to be on the process and not the journalist.
Journalists have their own opinions, but the process that they use to present information should encapsulate notions of objectivity. Journalists should also refrain from excesses of emotion; otherwise they may lose sight of reality or may also become targets in conflict zones.
Brooks, D 2006, Objectivity in journalism, Imprimis, Michigan.
Holber, L & Zubric, S 2000, ‘A comparative analysis: objective and public journalism techniques’, Newspaper Research Journal, vol. 21 no. 4, pp 50-67.
Gallichio, M 2007, The unpredictability of the past, Preiger Publishers, London.
Jones, A 2009, Losing the News: The future of the news that feeds democracy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
O’Neill, B 2012, ‘Dangers of the journalism of attachment’, Spiked, 4 February, p. 14.