Is Objectivity a Myth?

The source selection and identification, coverage of minorities, privacy, and conflict of interest are some of the issues of ethical practice in Journalism. Objectivity is another one of these issues, which is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Basically, it is the efforts to avoid actual or perceived bias.

It is pertinent here to look at the definition of news in order to understand the nature of objectivity. As claimed by Beer and Merril, it is doubted whether there can be a definition of what constitutes news which will be acceptable to all. He sees this concept as intangible, simply because, the term ‘news’ is difficult to define.

According to Walter Lipmann, part of the problem of finding a generally accepted version of what is ‘news’. It has been the trend in journalist circles for the past few decades to regard the practice of journalistic skills as more important and relevant than the development of sound conceptual and theoretical foundations of what actually constitutes news.

As Beer notes, objectivity in journalism has not necessarily established itself as a professional standard, but rather has developed as a kind of organizational imperative or belief by which journalists are required to perform their duty. He raises two important questions- firstly how do journalists evaluate news within reality? And what are the impact and the degrees of influence with reality that impinge on such evaluations?

Referring to some scholars he comes to a conclusion that journalists essentially decide what should and should not be perceived as news, but always within the news policy of the media they work for and the circumstances surrounding the story.

For me, this suggests that objectivity has no value in practical journalism. When people have divided thoughts and values, and discussing the various different issues, disagreements with objectivity is encountered. The question of what is vital to report will differ among people. But, it does not mean that the element of objectivity should be hindered.

But, for Merrill, “the selectivity introduces an element of subjectivity into reporting. At any rate, the reporter selects and the selection of what to put in a story automatically subjectivizes it, in a sense biasing and distorting the reality that the reporter is claiming to objectify the report.” What he further argues is that, the notion of objectivity could be called the argument of the whole truth. As Merrill perceives, the objectivity implies integral reproduction or representation of reality, an impossible goal. He describes it with irony.

Chris Paterson claims that, the culture of journalistic objectivity is deeply rooted in television agencies. He gives an example from ‘Visnews’. The motto of their photographers is “We do not take sides. We just take pictures”. In Sri Lanka too, the marketing slogan of the popular music channel, MTV says “we report you decide”. This clearly express the image of ‘objective journalism’ that the media wishes to portray. That is, the purpose behind this slogan is that they want to show that this TV channel is the actual, objective, reality provided in its truth for the viewer to decide. But, the reality is that this TV channel is backed by a mainstream political party.

In Sri Lanka, we see that the journalists not only provide information and thereby create public opinion, but also function to suit their ethnic identity and the ownership of the establishment. If we think in terms of ‘objectivity’, we see no national media in Sri Lanka. Anyone who has read an editorial of a newspaper in Sri Lanka will be aware of the ownership and the ethnicity which the newspaper favors.

Therefore, in general it seems that the concept of objectivity is indeed a ‘myth’, and is ridiculous. But still the question that has risen time and again is that, if objectivity is myth, and if there is no such thing, then why do people still care about it? Why are scholars so concerned about this?