The great myth in journalism

As a writer, I am reluctant to think of myself as a journalist. The word journalist is defined as someone who collects, writes and distributes news and other information. By this definition, many people can be defined as a journalist, including myself. Perhaps the reason for not being comfortable calling myself a journalist is that it creates the impression that I am part of a professional class. Perhaps it is also the negative connotation that the word journalist has when thinking about all the myths that the news institution still attempts to uphold. The biggest myth of all that is still floating around, especially within the media, is that of objectivity.

newspaper1I first encountered the word objectivity when I entered journalism school and readily absorbed that knowledge without being critical.

Objectivity seemed to have this romantic shine around it and I thought it was possible to achieve it in practice. Down the road, it was clear to me that the very word — objectivity — ironically has a subjective meaning, which makes it difficult to define because every person has a different interpretation.

Without a universal formal definition of what objectivity means, it instead is filled with meaning based on social, cultural and historical contexts.

To be objective as a person means to not be influenced by feelings or personal bias. The dictionary definition of writing objectively means to be concerned with outward things or events; dealing with or laying stress on what is external to the mind. Other pillars of objectivity are balance, neutrality and truthfulness.

In Europe, it has meant impartiality where in the U.S it means fact-checking with a detached-watchdog approach.

In general, it has become a common sense value that, for the most part, goes unchallenged.

Journalists have been made to believe that neutrality is the only way to be fair. The Canadian University Press (CUP) writes that even in reality, mainstream media suffers from economic, political and industry pressures that often prevent it from performing its ideal role of providing a wide variety of views.

“As a group, media tends to, by their neutrality, serve economic and political power holders, especially when these groups organize to use media to their advantage. In other words, media often allow current repressive forces to maintain and increase their influence,” as stated in the CUP manual.

This takes the form in over representing elites and under representing those who struggle to amplify their voices.

History of objectivity

As a guiding principle, news media that began in the 20th century adopted a nonpartisan (lack of affiliation with a political party) reporting style. This required neutrality in order to guarantee advertising revenue. The logic behind it was that if the newspaper content did not take a firm stance on any political or cultural topic, it was more likely to draw in different demographics of readers and therefore advertisers.

This is still going on today, where, for example, local media in Niagara that receives advertising from Marineland has been criticized on not covering any of the issues that the Toronto Star has uncovered. This has given the impression that certain publications would rather fail to accurately report than lose the advertising revenue.

Historian Gerald Baldasty has noted that publishers did not want to offend any potential advertising customers and therefore encouraged news editors and reporters to strive to present all sides of an issue.

micsIn Canada the popularization of the press allowed for more and more newspapers to be printed, but machinery and labour costs were rising and finding additional revenue led to seeking advertisers on board. In order to survive, urban newspapers had to increase circulation and compete with other outlets.

Advertisers have been determining the content of the media, and it is rarely acknowledged; although the public on average now distrusts most mainstream media outlets.

Scholars like Richard Kaplan have argued that the values of disseminating information in the US goes hand in hand with the tradition liberal values of individual prosperity and property.

Journalism evolved to be thought of as a professional occupation which did not give labourers much economic capital but cultural capital (social status). Instead of a literary genre that was able to be molded by each practitioner, the content became more and more standardized.

Out of the dissatisfactions with the ability for mainstream journalism to speak to the lives of those they were claiming to represent, different branches formed like New Journalism and Public Journalism, and continues to display true democratic aspects.

Philosophy behind value-free knowledge

How does one become detached and separate themselves from what is going on in the world?

Descartes philosophy, also known as Cartesianism can still be seen in the way the common sense objectivity works.

In the 16th century, Western Europe was characterized by the Protestant Reformation and the rise of mercantile bourgeoisie (pre-capitalism). The political and philosophical areas of thought were going through major changes, especially how the concept of a person was viewed.

A conflict was constructed between Reason and the Passions of the Body. A binary was constructed that required the body to be disciplined, which helped remold those without power to conform to the needs of the developing capitalist economy.

The idea of the separation between mind and body was threatened by alternative ideologies of the time. There is no doubt that people believed that genocide was justified because it was believed that heretics and witches were dangerous. Those in power, however, knew that it was more of what they believed that threatened their own power. Magic, for example, was an animalistic understanding of nature which did not reinforce the separation between mind and body – everything was connected.

The scientific revolution was then also connected to the disciplining of the body. Most discourses that were considered science homogenized social behaviour and valued compartmentalize thinking between the separation of mind and body.

For example, this separation is thought to occur when someone who says they love animals but hunt or eat them or someone who is working on the oil pipeline but understands that the project is fundamentally wrong.

newspaper2In journalism, this split can be seen in the example if a writer attempts a balanced story about the pipeline project, giving the same amount of space to Keystone-XL comments as to government officials, non-profits who have a stake, as well as people who have experienced the land and water being destroyed because of this. The journalist finishes their story and either is on a board of directors for the non-profit, their partner is working on the project, or they are an activist who decides to join the blockade. The point is that it is not realistic to claim neutrality when we are affected and involved with the world.

Descartes’ major contribution was to cut the connection between mind and body but also humans and nature. Cartesian was able to detach humanity from the natural world by putting humans into a superior intellectual category where animals and nature were machines to be used for human gain.

Domination of nature did not end with Descartes. The modern age was characterized by this understanding of the world with scientists, technocrats and media merely building off it.

This “conquest of nature” as Jim Mason writes in An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other is the guiding principle of the business world. The business world extends into media, and so it is important to realize that those who claim neutrality often perpetuate violence and current injustices by ignoring their role in shaping history.

Ericson, Baranek and Chan in News Narratives and News Framing: Constructing Political Reality write that “as long as objective journalism is undertaken within a system devoted to offending as few people as possible, as long as fairness and accuracy are equated with the uncritical reporting of two sides of every issue, then objective journalism will serve to protect the dominant interests in society.”

Cracking the myth

If we reject this binary between mind and body, should we also reject the binary between objectivity and subjectivity?

It is often assumed that the opposite of objectivity is subjectivity. With the meaning of objectivity in journalism contested, it still can be considered important. The desire to be fair and accurate are obviously good values to uphold, but it all too often is at the expense of criticizing subjective experiences for being unfair and sloppy. The two can coexist, although much work is needed for those in media to state their bias instead of avoiding it or covering it up.

With this understanding, it seems that objectivity is not an enemy if it does not reject subjectivity.

Subjectivity contributes to building up narratives designed to engender emotional resonance with the audience and to illustrate, in concrete ways, the larger social, political and economic trends.

Therefore, any binary oppositions between objectivity and subjectivity — and relatedly, emotionality and rationality, mind and body, and so on — may be overly simplistic and obscure the complexities of journalistic story-telling.

The down playing of subjectivity has left a gaping hole on what are common journalistic practices, and should be addressed.

Changes in media

`Subjective stories now dominate the internet, preventing journalists to still be the gatekeepers or uphold the traditional value of objectivity. It is no longer feasible. The procedures, practices, rules and norms within the media are changing, especially when the pillars of truth and objectivity show serious wear and tear. Other problems which are forcing media to renegotiate its purpose are the scarcity of funding and the breakdown of trust of the media.

Those who identify as part of the media should then ask themselves if they are adding another brick of misinformation to the wall or if they should abandon the myth of objectivity and create alternatives.

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