Objectivity and Bias in Journalism
- Stephen J. A. WardStephen J. A. WardDistinguished Lecturer in Ethics, University of British Columbia
Journalism objectivity or news objectivity had its origins in Western media cultures, especially in the United States, in the early 20th century. The principle, however, has found its way into codes of ethics and journalism education in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In 2018, objectivity is a controversial norm. Within the field of journalism ethics, the issue is whether objectivity as traditionally understood—a neutral reporting of “just the facts”—remains a valid ideal. In society, the debate swirls around the future of democratic public spheres and the need for reliable news sources. Misinformation and partisan voices threaten to swamp public channels of information. How can citizens distinguish truth from falsity in journalism? Objective from subjective reports? Informed analysis from biased opinion?
The prehistory of objectivity is, in large part, the history of objectivity, truth, and fact in the culture. This is because journalists defined their notion of objectivity by adapting notions from philosophy, science, and the ambient culture.
The central notion of news objectivity is that reporters should be neutral stenographers of fact, eliminating their opinions and interpretations from their reports. By the middle of the 1900s onward, this idea of objectivity as just the facts was subjected to a withering critique by journalists who sought a more engaged journalism and academics who rejected the idea of neutral facts. Also, the early 21st-century digital revolution created online communication that favored an interpretive journalism skeptical of neutrality and objectivity.
The study and advancement of truth and objectivity in journalism is thus left in a difficult position. Should journalists go back to a 19th-century libertarian view of truth and democracy as requiring only a free clash of opinion? Should they revive or redefine news objectivity? Or should they rethink journalism ethics from the ground up, leaving news objectivity behind?