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What Is To be Done About Objectivity?

Fed up with journalism that is self-indulgently subjective, Martin Voller’s instincts are for objectivity. But he knows there is no going back inside the inverted pyramid. So what do we build instead?

Journalism has a problem, what to do about objectivity?

It would be career suicide for journalists to abandon it altogether, but on the other hand to go back to the classic version of objectivity is undesirable – even if it were possible.

So what is to be done in the negotiations between objectivity and subjectivity?

In this paper I will consider the extent of this problem and its significance, along with the consequences of it for me embarking on a career in journalism.

First, some definitions. Objectivity is specifically applicable to news writing. It requires journalists to write without judgement, bias or prejudice. Objectivity is commonly associated with three different concepts: truthfulness, neutrality and detachment.

Truthfulness: reporting factually accurate information.

Neutrality: seeking to be impartial and unbiased when reporting, presenting different viewpoints even-handedly.

Detachment:  leaving your emotions out of your reporting so that you don’t give people your personal take on things, thus letting them make their own decisions.

Among other things I have heard objectivity described as a ‘meaningless concept, a ‘myth’, and an ‘unattainable standard’.

The main argument against objectivity is that journalists are all human beings. We do have personal feelings and prejudices and we all make personal judgements all the time. It is extremely difficult not to allow these feelings to creep into our writing.

In 2014 Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow let his personal feelings about the suffering of Gaza’s children be known in a three and a half minute video broadcast.

Many admired his honesty and found it refreshing, but was it good journalism?

The piece was widely criticised, not least by Alan Johnson of The Telegraph who said in response: Snow’s passion about the terrible toll of this conflict is shared by most. But his political illusions in Hamas are pushing him towards the Fox or MSNBC style of news-as-political-editorialising. And that is a huge step in the wrong direction for British broadcasting.

Journalism versus Personalism?

Closer to the University of East London, two examples of the polarities I have encountered came from guest speakers Mick Hume and Mark Frith, who lectured us Journalism students on their visions of the future of journalism.

Journalist and author Hume said: ‘If you’re a journalist who does not aim for objectivity, you may as well pack it in and become a playwright.’

Frith, former editor of Heat magazine, had an entirely different stance. In his Letter to a Young Journalist he encouraged us to find our own style.

‘It is very important when people read your writing that it has the feel of you,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t want you to become obsessive about this but keep thinking about how your style can be unique to you – if you have a quirky take on things or even if you have a certain way of speaking with people, try to reflect that in your writing. Make it you.’

Hume was adamant that journalists must aim for objectivity, whereas Frith encouraged us to incorporate our own subjectivity in the way we write.

The gap between the two is more than just a case of the feature writer versus the hard news journalist. Unlike years gone by, today there is not a cut and dried distinction between the two; instead, there is a lot more interplay between news and feature writing.

But is that necessarily a good thing, or do we need to re-draw some boundaries, and if so, where and how?

Frith is not the first person to have given me this advice. Throughout my time at university many guests encouraged me to find my own style of writing. However, personally I am in favour of Hume’s approach of going back to the classic format of writing – subjectively I am in favour of being objective! But I recognize that even to be having this kind of discussion, there must be something inadequate or insufficient about the classic definitions – maybe the life of journalism is just not so simple anymore.

Looking at this from the point of view of someone who consumes news, I don’t want journalists trying to tell me what to believe. I want to be offered facts in an accurate, objective way which enables me to make my own mind up about an event, rather than being given the journalist’s opinion. I don’t want journalists imposing their opinions on me where it is not appropriate. I have always understood that journalists are there to inform public debate, not to manipulate it. Meanwhile, looking at it from the other end – as a journalist, this kind of straight talking is what I want to be able to offer my readers (and hopefully get paid for doing it!).

However, while I am broadly in agreement with Hume, the truth is that journalists have always had a struggle achieving real objectivity, and many of them were only going through the motions, anyway. Nowadays, there is less pressure to pretend, and, as confirmed by Frith, much more of today’s journalism is unashamedly close to personalism. Even Hume himself, who speaks so highly of objective journalism, is most highly regarded for his highly individual opinion pieces.

It is true that not all reporting requires journalists to be objective. Most news outlets have opinion articles in which journalists are required to be subjective. This is fine. I myself enjoy reading opinion pieces and I find it interesting to see how different people think; but what I object to is the journalism which is really one thing but announces itself as something else, i.e. opinion masquerading as fact; and just as bad is the stuff in the middle where you (the reader) really cannot tell what it is meant to be (and I’m not convinced the journalist who wrote it, is sure, either).

In the light of these complications I will now look briefly at the history of objectivity in order to consider if it has a future.

The Rise and Demise of Objectivity

Before the rise of objectivity a century ago reporters made no attempt to hide their biases. But for most of the twentieth century it served successive generations as the guiding principle of good reporting – until it came under intense questioning in the 1990s.

In order for objectivity to become the norm across a whole industry, it had to acquire a recognisable shape, and this duly arrived in the form of the inverted pyramid format for news reporting. Under the terms of this construction, information is presented in strict order of importance a.k.a. newsworthiness, starting at the top and bottoming out with extra stuff that the reader hardly needs to know – which also means that the sub-editor can easily take it out if space on the page is short.

Now that objectivity is so readily criticised, if not abandoned, the inverted pyramid is often causally dismissed along with it. But as a way of re-considering the history of objectivity, it seems sensible to re-appraise it. I propose to do this by looking first at an admirable example of the pyramid being used in pursuit of the objective. I’m referring to Tom Wicker’s New York Times report from Dallas on the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.

Wicker wrote:

Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.

He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.

Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.

Wicker used the pyramid structure to great effect. He knew what the most newsworthy pieces of information were, and he brought them to prominence in order of descending importance.

But that wasn’t all. Wicker’s attention to detail was immaculate. For example, that Johnson was riding in the third car behind Kennedy’s, and that he was sworn in 99 minutes after Kennedy’s death.

However, while I have often found the inverted pyramid style of writing very useful – and Wicker’s deployment of it, exemplary – it does have its limitations. Let me show you what I mean by asking you to consider the following:

An 18-year-old male was fatally stabbed at a bus stop in the borough of Greenwich, south-east London, late last night.

The victim, who is yet to be named, was found 130 yards away from the bus stop where he was reportedly stabbed by a group of four males. 

The incident occurred at around 22:30pm. The victim was taken to hospital but pronounced dead before arrival.

Police are treating their investigation as a murder inquiry.

I wrote these paragraphs in strict accordance with the inverted pyramid format in order to demonstrate how it can be used to miss out – either intentionally or, more likely, inadvertently – what matters most in a reporter’s write-up of events. It so happens that this is information pertaining to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The information is presented in such a way that the systemic racism of Britain in the 1990s has been factored out, yet it is fully in accordance with the structure of the inverted pyramid.

From this it is clear that you can report on an event and tell the ‘story’ according to the format, but without getting to the most important aspect. This serves to indicate that when it became routine the pyramid could be regularly used to overlook injustice and abuse; and it could even become a form of abuse itself. At the very least we should be concerned that articles have often been cropped too tightly just to fit the formula, and readers have therefore only been getting a small section of the essential information.

Thus the complaint against objectivity is legitimate in that the most established ways of being ‘objective’ have become routinized to the point of potentially losing sight of the truth. But the problem remains, how do you do it better?

One way is to ensure by their education and training that journalists are better equipped not to portray people in a one-dimensional mode – partly because it’s unethical, but also because it’s increasingly un-commercial. Readers are less and less willing to pay for ‘news’ which is not much more than the same template with the names changed every day.

As with any established format, the danger is that it becomes a formula and reporters stop looking for the detail. This is surely what happened to the inverted pyramid when it became like filling out a form, ticking the boxes marked who, what, where and when (and never mind the why).  When this happens, inevitably the story’s distinctive characteristics are not addressed or fully reported because there wasn’t a box to tick. The result is oddly alienating – like reporting on aliens as opposed to human beings.

Frustration with this kind of distortion is what prompted many journalists to knock down the pyramid and objectivity along with it. Towards the end of a long career as a BBC war reporter, Martin Bell suggested giving up on objectivity altogether. On the point of retirement in 1997 he made the case for what he called the ‘journalism of attachment’.

Bell said: ‘You can be fair to everybody, but you can’t stand neutrally between good and evil. You can’t say well, Hitler killed six million Jews, but my word he made the trains run on time, because you are not dealing with moral equivalents.’

I don’t agree with Bell’s flawed logic. In my estimation, it would be entirely objective to point out that six million murdered is not of the same order as punctual trains. Just because there are numbers involved in both, does not mean that ‘objectivity’ treats them as ‘moral equivalents’. But with hindsight, I would say that in his favour at least Bell was being explicit about abandoning objectivity. What’s more objectionable is what came after, i.e. the kind of writing that doesn’t feel the need to be either one thing or the other: comment, news and personal diaries all rolled into one messy, difficult to read, unattractive piece of verbiage.

Where Next?

But these further problems do not in themselves offer a solution to my original quandary. While I would prefer objective journalism, is it really desirable to go back to this machine-like way of writing? Something tells me it can’t be sufficient to go back to what was insufficient in the first place.

Ideally, I would like to see a way of being objective that utilises the subjectivity of the journalist, but in such a way that journalists remain accountable to what they are writing about and answerable to their readers. This is asking a lot, I know. But it may not be as groundless as you think.

On the one hand, it takes the subjectivity of a journalist to capture a story. Without the intelligence of the reporter who uses his or her energy to find out what happened and to construct an account of those findings, there is no story. On the other hand, reporters do not have remain prisoners of their own personal predilections; as reporters, we have been trained to expand on our innate capacity to see beyond the prejudices we came in with, and to acknowledge other versions of events even if we do not happen to agree with them. This capacity has been demonstrated since the days of the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, so it’s hardly without precedent.

I wonder whether it isn’t possible to configure aspects of objectivity and subjectivity in a way that does justice to the outside world, in a way which holds routine at bay – and the cult of personality. Surely we can work out a way of objectivity and subjectivity interacting that does not result in a mish mash of stuff which isn’t news or comment or anything in particular?

Preserving the classical tradition in aspic is perhaps no better than junking it – either way the life of it goes out. Better to reclaim the best of it in the attempt to find new forms for its further realisation.

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