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Defending Journalism = Reclaiming Objectivity

Tessa Mayes

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism

Introduction: Deepening Confusion

News journalism has been in flux and its values imploding long before the ‘death of journalism’ heralded by media commentators in the last few years. Accordingly, the problems are more ingrained, and the defence of professional reporting is tougher than sometimes imagined.

Andrew Calcutt is right to present the commercial case for news reporting alongside the social role of news. Correct, also, to show that these are closely related. But there is another job to be done, namely, defending the values of news journalism after 15 years of confused debate about what news is and what it is for. During the course of the past decade-and-a-half, arguments which are implicitly against news journalism have become second nature not only to a wider, celebrity-oriented culture; but also within news journalism itself.

Nobody thinks news reporters are objective. News reporters don’t think they can ever attain objectivity. But the struggle to defend professional reporting cannot be won without a battle to re-take objectivity and reinstate it as the defining characteristic of the professional news reporter.

Corrosion of News Values

Since the mid-1990s, long before the current recession, new kinds of news values have been championed to arrest decline in the number of ‘news consumers’. One example was ‘news you can use’, i.e. news focussed on what consumers need to know – topics such as consumer law and domestic gadgets. This is a functional view of news journalism instead of the essentially democratic idea that news journalism has a value in itself.

Interestingly, the laws on freedom of expression still allow for journalists to defend their stories on the basis of a public interest. Inherent in this legal practice is the idea that journalists work to standards derived from the value which society as a whole places upon journalism. But elsewhere in our culture, particularly within the media industry itself, it’s been a long time since these were the dominant expectations of journalism.

Another idea that has corroded the values of news journalism, is that war reporters cannot be impartial but must take sides. Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent, advanced this view in his book In Harm’s Way (1996). Bell argued that a reporter could not ‘stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor.’ Famously, hecalled for a ‘journalism of attachment’. Ironically, in 2008 Bell went on to criticise the BBC for wasting money and contributing to the ‘death of news’, after it sent a news anchorman to Portugal to cover the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann, and paid for a helicopter to chart her parents’ movements in the UK. No mention then of the ‘death of news’ arising partly from Bell’s own attack on the tradition of objectivity in news reporting.

Rhetorical Balance

The corrosion of news values is not peculiar to Western countries. Originating from Qatar, Al Jazeera flagged up the emotional side of its news coverage of the 2003 Iraq War. Nor is emotional news reporting confined to wars. Nearly 10 years ago, in an article for the British Journalism Review, I chronicled the new readiness to focus on the emotions of the reporter and of those caught up in domestic news stories – a trend which I dubbed the ‘rise of therapy news’.

Since then, there has been considerable debate within news media about getting the balance right between facts, emotions and analysis. ‘Have emotions gone too far in news reporting?’, is an oft-aired question. Within these debates, objectivity remains an unfashionable concept and arguments in favour of it continue to be sidelined. But until such time as objectivity is taken seriously, such debates can only be rhetorical, and their conclusions will remain insubstantial.

It is not enough to consider the demise of news journalism within the industry’s own terms. Caught up in increasingly desperate attempts to arrest declining profits, and lacking the confidence to put forward objective news values, the industry has indeed lost its nerve. But so too has society. For decades the attack on objectivity has been waged by philosophers and sociologists, not just journalists.

Now, at long last, the relativist school is coming under counter-attack. In Truth (2005), Cambridge philosophy don Simon Blackburn has sought to rally anti-relativist forces, pointing out that: ‘There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to hell in a handbasket.

And in journalism, too, there are real standards of objectivity to be fought for.

News Sells

Within the news business all is not lost. Rupert Murdoch recently announced that News Corporation is to charge readers for online content: he does not buy the idea of free content or the cheapening of journalism that often goes with it. The Sunday Times website has noticeably fewer UCG and social connection portals than most other British newspapers, and it is significantly more successful than many of them. In Spring 2009 the Daily Telegraph paid for information about MPs’ expenses, deployed professional journalists to turn this information into a series of agenda-setting stories, and thus raised its paid-for circulation by a million (publisher’s figures). Who says the public won’t pay for real news?

Media magnates are realising that what sells is original, professionally assembled, news journalism. But it is not enough to rediscover that news can be commercially viable. We still need to argue that news journalism is about telling the truth through fact-checked stories and objective analysis. Without these, news journalism could even be resurrected, only to materialise in the degraded form of journalism-lite.

Society needs better news than that.

Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist, media commentator and author.




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