Environment in Crisis

The Media
The Media

Sources of News
Framing the News


Back to Main Menu..

Sphere of Objectivity

Journalists often claim that their own biases and the pressures from advertisers and media owners do not affect their work because of their professional norm of 'objectivity'. Journalistic objectivity has two components. The first is 'depersonalisation' which means that journalists should not overtly express their own views, evaluations, or beliefs. The second is 'balance' which involves presenting the views of representatives of both sides of a controversy without favouring one side.(Entman 1989, p. 30; Nelkin 1987, p. 91) Associated conventions include:

authoritative sources, such as politicians must be quoted (in this way the journalist is seen to distance him- or herself from the views reported, by establishing that they are someone else's opinions); 'fact' must be separated from 'opinion', and 'hard news' from 'editorial comment'; and the presentation of information must be structured pyramidically, with the most important bits coming first, at the 'top' of the story. (McNair 1994, p. 47)

Any journalistic comment comes from 'specialist' correspondents who are quoted as experts by the reporter in the same way that a scientist might be. The news reporter refrains from such comment. These conventions perpetuate the impression that reporters are simply conveying the 'facts' and not trying to influence how people interpret them. The ideal of objectivity gives journalists legitimacy as independent and credible sources of information.

The rhetoric of journalistic objectivity supplies a mask for the inevitable subjectivity that is involved in news reporting and reassures audiences who might otherwise be wary of the power of the media. It also ensures a certain degree of autonomy to journalists and freedom from regulation to media corporations. However, news reporting involves judgements about what is a good story, who will be interviewed for it, what questions will be asked, which parts of those interviews will be printed or broadcast, what facts are relevant and how the story is written.

value judgements infuse everything in the news media... Which of the infinite observations confronting the reporter will be ignored? Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will become the first paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried inside or discarded? ...Mass media not only report the news—they also literally make the news. (Lee and Solomon 1990, p. 16)

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether. FAIR's survey of environmental reporting found that it tended to be "limited to discussion of clashing opinions, rather than facts gathered by the reporters themselves." (Spencer 1992, p. 13)

...back to top

Additional Material

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, How To Detect Bias In News Media, FAIR, 2000.

Press Wise, Ethical Topics: Objectivity

Press Wise, Ethical Topics: Accuracy

Press Wise, Ethical Topics: Comment

Press Wise, Ethical Topics: Conjecture

Press Wise, Ethical Topics: Fairness

Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press: Boston, 1983).

Cohen, Jeff, 1989, Propaganda from the Middle of the Road: The Centrist Ideology of the News Media, Extra! October/November.

Dowie, Mark, 1998, What's wrong with the New York Times's science reporting? (science reporter Gina Kolata's methods questionable), The Nation, v267 n1 July 6, pp. 13-18 .

Entman, Robert M. 1989, Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press).

Gauthier, Gilles, 1993, In Defence of a Supposedly Outdated Notion: The Range of Application of Journalistic Objectivity, Canadian Journal of Communication, Volume 18, Number 4.

Grossman, Karl, 1992, 'Survey Says: Newspapers Boost Nukes', Extra! March.

Kellner, Douglas, 1990, Television and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press).

Kurtz, Howard, 1993, Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers (New York: Times Books).

Lazare, Daniel, 1991, 'Press Ignores the Obvious in U.S. Energy Policy', Extra! May/June, p 4.

Lee, Martin A. and Norman Solomon, 1990, Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (New York: Carol Publishing Group).

Lyman, Francesca, 1994, Mudslinging on the Earth-beat, The Amicus Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4.

McNair, Brian, 1994, News and Journalism in the UK (London and New York: Routledge).

Nelkin, Dorothy, 1987, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (New York: W.H.Freeman & Co).

Nelson, Joyce, 1989, Sultans of Sleeze: Public Relations and the Media (Toronto: Between the Lines).

Parenti, Michael, 1986, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media (New York: St Martin's Press).

Rauber, Paul, 1996, The uncertainty principle, Sierra, Vol. 81, No. Sept-Oct.

Ryan, Charlotte, 1991, Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing (Boston, MA: South End Press).

Shabecoff, Phil, 1994, Mudslinging on the Earth-beat, The Amicus Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4.

Spencer, Miranda, 1992, 'U. S. Environmental Reporting: The Big Fizzle:', Extra! April/May.

...back to top

© 2003 Sharon Beder