Objectivity (journalism)

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Objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities.


Template:Weasel In the context of journalism (and of this article), objectivity is understood as synonymous with Neutrality (philosophy). This must be distinguished from objectivity in philosophy (see Objectivity (philosophy)), which describes a statement that is not dependent on one's approval.

Not many journalists would make a claim to total neutrality or impartiality, however, some strive toward a certain modicum of detachment from their own personal biases in their news work. In Discovering the News (1978), sociologist Michael Schudson argues that "the belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' a distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation." In the United States, an objective story is typically considered to be one that steers a middle path between two poles of political rhetoric and is factually dependent. The tenets of objectivity are violated to the degree to which the story appears to favor one pole over the other.

According to some, it refers to the prevailing ideology of newsgathering and reporting that emphasizes eyewitness accounts of events, corroboration of facts with multiple sources and "balance." It also implies an institutional role for journalists as a fourth estate, a body that exists apart from government and large interest groups. Template:Fact

It means that reporting without bias ensures quality of reporting and an absence of dramatic overtones as if one just came to Earth from another planet and had no preconceived opinions about our behavior or ways. This form of journalism is rarely practiced, although it results in excellence in reporting. (See, for example, Noam Chomsky, and The Journalist from Mars).

According to qualitative research (www.newschool.edu/mediastudies) consumers of news programs are showing a trend away from hyperbole and opinion masquerading as actual news and with the advent of the 24 hour cable news networks, actual news reporting excluding opinion and entertainment news percentages have decreased in the years between 1995 - 2005 as well as viewer satisfaction of such opinion based.

Professionally, most journalist strive for a neutral point of view, not taking a stand on any issues on which there is some disagreement and simply present "both sides" of an issue. Some even extend this standard to the journalist's personal life, prohibiting them from getting involved in political activities, which necessarily requires taking a stand. For example, Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr. has stated that the Post maintains a code of ethics that forbids reporters and editors from all "political activities" except voting. Downie himself goes even further and "decided to stop voting when [he] became the ultimate gatekeeper for what is published in the newspaper" [1].

Impact of Advertising

Advertising is a primary source of revenue to media companies and as such, presents a conflict of interest to all journalists, both in the print world as well as online worlds. Media companies can be reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. This problem exists as well in the online world and may even be worse on small sites where the same person or people directly oversee editorial content as well advertising.


Advocacy journalists and civic journalists criticize this last understanding of objectivity, arguing that it does a disservice to the public because it fails to attempt to find the truth.Template:Fact They also argue that such objectivity is nearly impossible to apply in practice — newspapers inevitably take a point of view in deciding what stories to cover, which to feature on the front page, and what sources they quote. Media critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) have described a propaganda model that they use to show how in practice such a notion of objectivity ends up heavily favoring the viewpoint of government and powerful corporations.

Another example of an objection to objectivity, according to communication scholar David Mindich (Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism, 1998), was the coverage that the major papers (most notably the New York Times) gave to the lynching of thousands of African Americans during the 1890s. News stories of the period often described with detachment the hanging, immolation and mutilation of men, women and children by mobs. Under the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to balance these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. David Mindich argues that this may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.

On-Line Journalism

New forms of journalism, such as on-line journalism, further alter perceived notions of objectivity and balance due to the advantages of speed and content that can cause journalists to hasten their copy. If journalists are seen as gatekeepers for objective and verifiable information, then that role is surely threatened by a medium where people can access and use virtually any piece of information at will. It has been proposed to certify web based news with a .news domain.[1].

Tim Berners-Lee, credited with the creation of the World Wide Web, has recently stated that he is worried that the Web is being used to spread misinformation:

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable. A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Objectivity in on-line journalism can suffer as a direct result of these 'cults of thinking'. Tim Berners-Lee refers to the false rumours of the harmful effects of the MMR vaccine which spread across the Web in the United Kingdom, which led to many children remaining unvaccinated.

Online journalism has got a great impact on enhancing the speed at which information gets to the targeted people fast enough to let the writer get random responses,however, Objective journalism is blamed frequently for all sorts of journalistic failures and weaknesses, but the critiques typically are flawed because their authors fail to understand objectivity or to define it precisely. This defense of objective journalism defines objectivity and suggests that it is indispensable in a free society, summarizes major critiques of and alternatives to objectivity, and proposes that critics and defenders might serve journalism best by seeking common ground[2]


Some argue that a more appropriate standard should be fairness and accuracy (as enshrined in the names of groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Under this standard, taking sides on an issue would be permitted as long as the side taken was accurate and the other side was given a fair chance to respond. Many professionals believe that true objectivity in journalism is not possible and reporters must seek balance in their stories (giving all sides their respective points of view), which fosters fairness.

Notable departures from objective news work include the muckraking of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, the underground press of the 1960s, and public journalism.


The term objectivity was not applied to journalistic work until the 20th century, but it had fully emerged as a guiding principle by the 1890s. A number of communication scholars and historians agree that the idea of "objectivity" has prevailed as a dominant discourse among journalists in the United States since the appearance of modern newspapers in the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s. The rise of objectivity in journalistic method is also rooted in the scientific positivism of the 19th century, as professional journalism of the late 19th century borrowed parts of its worldview from various scientific disciplines of the day.

Some historians, like Gerald Baldasty, have observed that "objectivity" went hand in hand with the need to make profits in the newspaper business by selling advertising. 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. In a similar vein, the rise of wire services and other cooperative arrangements forced journalists to produce more "middle of the road" stories that would be acceptable to newspapers of a variety of political persuasions.

Ben H. Bagdikian, especially in his book "The Media Monopoly," (1983) writes critically about the consequences of the rise of "objective journalism." (One sample can be found in an online excerpt: "Democracy and the Media" [3].")

Others have proposed a political explanation for the rise of objectivity, which occurred earlier in the United States than most other countries; scholars like Richard Kaplan have argued that political parties needed to lose their hold over the loyalties of voters and the institutions of government before the press could feel free to offer a nonpartisan, "impartial" account of news events. This change occurred following the critical election of 1896 and the subsequent Progressive reform era.

See also



  • Herman, Edward and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.
  • Kaplan, Richard. 2002. Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mindich, David T. Z. 1998. Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism. New York: New York University Press.
  • Schudson, Michael. 1978. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schudson, Michael. 1997. "The Sociology of News Production." In Social Meaning of News: A Text-Reader. Dan Berkowitz, ed. Pp. 7–22. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Parent article: Journalistic standards