Objectivity in journalism faces more questions in the age of new media

Journalists covering an event

Objectivity in journalism faces more questions in the age of new media

Objectivity is one of those cardinal principles of journalism which denotes that journalists and media houses should be impartial in their reporting and coverage. There has been a long standing debate on whether journalists and media houses are indeed or can be objective.

Many media houses will insist and market themselves as the most of objective newspaper, radio or television station. The New Vision and Daily Monitor recently were tousling using statistics from the same report each saying it is the most objective and trusted newspaper in Uganda. Many media houses always advertise themselves as objective and thus what they report or say should be trusted.

Journalists covering an event

But is any media house or journalist really objective or can they be? I have tended to always ignore this debate and focus on the fact that objectivity (impartiality in our work as journalists) is a good goal all media houses and journalists should work towards. I thought that it is not more important whether journalists and media houses are objective now or not, but that they work hard to fulfill it. Just like Christians (and others who may) believe in avoiding sin, and not necessarily that you don’t sin.

This was until my professor Allan Mutter recently added a candid view that objectivity is long gone, especially in the era of new media where almost everyone can report, but also he emphasizes that no journalist or media house has ever or can be objective. Mutter argues that the standard of objectivity (impartiality) is too high for anyone to measure up to and should instead be replaced with a more practical standard of Transparency.

This got me thinking whether anyone journalist or media house can genuinely claim to be impartial in reporting on any issue, institution or person. Is either of the New Vision or Daily Monitor really objective, or have I in my 10 years of journalism practice been objective? The answer was not that straight but it certainly isn’t a yes as many reports are almost unavoidably laced with personal views or norms (learned over time) and selective interviewing and quoting.

What got me thinking about this more was Mutter’s argument that instead of promising or assuming to be objective (thus impartial), every journalist should make a statement about him/herself declaring major details about themselves, including political and religious views, group affiliations etc.

He said Full disclosure of one’s leanings is much more important for the audience that claiming to be impartial. I remembered a time in 2002 and 2003 while I was still a Features Writer at The New Vision when I asked my editor to stop assigning me stories related to Banyoro-Bakiga conflicts in Kibaale. I didn’t feel I could continue reporting about the issues objectively (impartially) and I told my editor as much. Reflecting on this, my concern was not so much about fulfilling my job as a journalist who wanted to keep impartial, but more to do with the fact that both sides never told the truth and there wasn’t one truth. I reasoned that the audience would benefit more from my personal opinion on issues in the conflict I had covered for years, than me trying to interview people whose answers were almost certain-blaming the other party and selectively telling events of confrontation in the localities.

I guess without knowing I was thinking like Mutter wanting to report with more disclosure and push my views, findings and conclusions that depending on trying to balance what mostly turned out to be untruths. But what is better. Does the public benefit better from “impartial reporting” or from those who declare their leanings and hammer their key points with more conviction?

The principle of balance which requires giving both sides of the story has also been criticized as a false equilibrium when many journalists are reluctant to call out lies when we know they are lies.

The people reacting to Mutter’s transparency Vs impartiality debate are also divided. Some say the biggest problem isn’t the lack of disclosure as Mutter’s proposes, but the lack of meaningful journalism,” said one Tom Hood.

“I have found that I learn more about the facts of an issue by reading op-eds (editorial opinions) than by reading “objective” stories where I am left wondering whose talking points are valid,” he reasoned. There for long have been support for civic journalism which emphasizes a particular point of view.

“The biggest problem is lazy journalism, and bias shows up most in the choices of what not to report. Presenting “all sides” doesn’t mean anything when it’s just a clash of quotes from axe-grinders. There are things such as facts, and it is the reporter and editor’s job to bring them to light. The Internet will allow readers to confirm them, and build confidence in the journalists’ work,” a lady argued.

There are many who believe that most media houses have a given point of view on most issues, and this is evident in their editorial policies, what they chose to report, how they report it and the prominence they give to an issue or personality. To such people, claiming impartiality is not necessary as we always have a point of view, norms or favour for some issues of ways.

Yet other people insist that journalists and indeed media houses can be objective. To such people being Objective means not lacking an opinion or point of view on something but dealing with facts without regard to personal opinion, subjective values or tastes.

“Objective reporting consists of empirical facts presented in a way that each participant in a news event gets their side told and, in a perfect story, told in such a way that each side feels their position was described as well as everyone else’s. Space, time and human frailty come between the perfect and the published,” Allison Wells argued.

But people from both viewpoints expressed concern at the need to improve journalism beyond regurgitating what politicians, businesses and celebrities say (the biggest content of our newspapers, radios and television stations), the loss of skepticism and questioning what journalists, business and celebrities say, as well what some say is a growing problem of reporters (and editors) who write about things with no understanding of the issues they are reporting about. Not every journalist for example can write a good story about the court system, mining or HIV/AIDS.

With new media emphasis on getting out the news as fast as possible and on the least cost possible, these anomalies are expected to get worse, just as the possibility of interviewing all sides in a story, ensuring competing view points  are reflected is waning in most reports we see today. After all what do you expect a financially challenged media house or journalist with no operating budget for news collection to do?

So if a politician announces that 50 Forum for Democratic Change supporters have cross to the National Resistance Movement, or that a government minister has swindled billion of tax payers’ money, it is becoming normal these days for every media house to reports this as the truth, just as few (if any) journalists or media houses will question MTN Uganda when the telecommunications giant announces that its subscribers can now call for two shillings per second or give the implications of what has been announced.

Where does objectivity apply in all this? How much of our work as journalists and media houses embody fairness, responsibility, accuracy and thorough research as required? With the new media trends providing room for members of the public to analyze and comment on our work, are journalists and news media houses ready to keep holding up claim to these principles like objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy, verification? I’m still wondering whether I’m for impartiality or full disclosure (transparency).

Gerald Businge

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Comments (3)

  1. John Baptist Wasswa :

    Gerald, you raise intersting issues here. I have followed journalism trends in Uganda for sometime and I agree that objectivity is on its death bed. Market forces, political dynamics and an unquestioning press are gradually killing good journalism.
    Transprency declaration might not work where journalists are often compromised especially, as you put it, when newsrooms have lean budgets and advertisers and politicians call the shots.

    There is also a misconception that straight news stories are objective as opposed to commentaries and opinions. In the new media age where newspapers especially no longer break stories, journalists should become more interpretative to give meaning, context and depth to events and happenings. This gives more value to the audience especially when journalists help the audience to understand issues behind the news.

    What is important is for journalists to be fair,and give competing views. it is better for a journalist to state an informed opinion than reproduce without interrogation corporate or political claims.

    Newspapers in Uganda have reported three opinion polls on voter trends ahead of elections. That can be called objective reporting of the opinion polls. But there has been no interrogation of the dynamics of the polling. Did they ask the right questions to the right people? Did the conduct of the interviews skew the results?

    What is important is not really writers’ disclosures although that is not a bad idea. Rather writers should add value to stories by giving arguments based on reason and research; arguements that help the audience to get new perspectives and insights into an issue.

    Consider the case of Cross Fire in the Sunday Vision where Wafula Ogutu of FDC and Ofwono Opondo of the NRM exchange fire on a given issue. Does Mutter’s transprency paradigm help the reader in anyway to appreciate their output? It can have the reverse effect of biasing the reader into the “What else could he have said” attitude.

    I wonder whether it still necessary to rediscover the concept of objectivity is Uganda journalism. In the current media environment journalist would rather play it safe by merely reproducing content without context, without comment, however skewed it may be to avoid annoying big business or political patrons.
    For now, objectivity is simply an exercise in intellectualism.

    • businge :

      Very insightful analysis JB. Grateful.

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