The project of this paper will be to put forth a critique of objectivity as a journalistic value. It will argue that objectivity has crippled the journalist’s ability to ask strong questions and to confront the power structures at work in society head on. What this has resulted in is detrimental for reasons that are twofold. Firstly, it has fostered an inability for public journalism to flourish in educating the public. Secondly, it has stifled the journalist’s role as gate keeper in the public sphere. This paper will endeavor to critically explore each of these problems in turn. It will propose that a reformulation of objectivity, as it has been traditionally understood, is required in order for journalism to progress into its next stage.
Prior to examining each of my criticisms of objectivity in further detail, I would like to clarify exactly what I am denouncing about its traditional definition. It has always appeared obvious to me that the journalistic practice is not operationalized from within a vacuum. It is the specific role of the journalist to select certain events and facts and designate them as newsworthy. This combined with the fact that journalists, along with the subjects of their investigation, are always historically and socially constituted entities, illustrates that journalism never comes from a value-free position. If journalism can be said to have a nature it is evidently a socially imbedded one. Social values permeate the practice of journalism, and directly influence its agenda and content. Yet, objectivism still looms over the journalistic practice like a stubborn spectre, and is presented as a standard that journalists must rigorously strive for. It is a funny contradiction that, as Brent Cunningham has noted, “few would argue that complete objectivity is possible, yet we bristle when someone when someone suggests we aren’t being objective- or fair, or balanced- as if everyone agrees on what they all mean.”1
I want to emphasize that my intent is not to completely dismantle the objective standard. I endorse fairness and accuracy as qualities that exemplify strong journalistic work and should be strived for. My purpose is rather to shine the light on ways in which objectivity has been exploited in order to create false balances. I will argue that objectivity loses its legitimacy when it is utilized for this purpose. Furthermore, I will argue that objectivity must embrace a phenomenological dimension and open itself up to self-critique in order to truly call itself objective. It is important to understand that this does not mean a complete dismissal of empiricism or quantifiable reality, but merely an acknowledgment that there are multiple points of access to, and variables affecting that reality.
The Role of Journalist as Questioner:
On September 17th, 2011, the series of demonstrations known as the Occupy Wall Street movement were born in Zuccotti Park, New York. Shortly after, the movement proliferated to hundreds of other cities across the globe. Thousands of people took to the streets and formed solidarity against a system they believed was working to suppress their interests. They protested high levels of unemployment, as well as the social and economic inequality that had produced a greater gap between the wealthiest and most marginalized citizens than ever before in history.
In my opinion, this movement presented journalists with a fresh opportunity to raise profound questions about whether our current economic system is truly effective, and to acknowledge the transformative power in this solidarity. Instead the reporting they produced on the movement, as well as the images they broadcast about it, only served to reinforce the idea that these protestors were composed mainly of society’s marginals and deviants. Instead, journalists looked at the thousands of people with picket signs in their hands and asked “what’s their message?”
Since I first began my studies in journalism one lesson in particular has stuck with me. It is that journalists should always work towards asking the profound, difficult and even uncomfortable questions. It seems to me that objectivity, intentionally or not, has managed to stifle the curiosity that drives good journalism. When the most interesting question that a journalist can ask these protestors is what their message is, then it appears that the cost of “objectivity” is sacrificing deeper insight and understanding about the core issues at stake. The Occupy movement exemplifies how journalists are failing at one of their most important tasks, because by asking the Occupy protestors what their message is, they have missed the bigger picture of the movement. The “message” of these protestors is precisely that they want to reclaim the freedom to define their message, and that necessarily involves the possibility for open-ended answers. These people are fighting for the freedom to educate themselves, but the media has cheapened their effort by demanding that they provide a list of tenets as justification for their movement. I think what journalists should be asking is how this movement can serve as a catalyst for new ideas about how human beings can live and work together. That said, what I am pointing to is the way in which objectivity has punctured the journalistic discourse and made it reluctant to approach any questions that threaten the opinions reflected by the status quo. Consequentially, this occurrence has allowed for “commonly held opinions (meaning those that are functional for elite interests) to continue to prevail.”2
Once it has appeased the standard of fair and balanced reporting, what more will journalism have to say for itself? There should always be more to solid journalism than dry dissemination of the facts. Facts certainly matter, but if they are not complemented by an enhancement of knowledge about the central concerns within stories, then they lack the contextual framework necessary for impacting people. When journalists fail to ask the powerful questions they play right into the hands of those who do not want a responsible media engaged in educating their society to think more critically.
Public Journalism & The Responsibility to Educate Within the Public Sphere
The role of the journalist as educator is at the heart of the public journalism model. Public journalism is committed to dismantling the false dichotomy that places journalists as experts on one side and the public as mere spectators on the other. It proposes that journalists “accept partial responsibility for the health of public life”3, and work with the public directly so as to raise their consciousness of key issues and help them effectively reach democratic consensus. I will contend that the limits of objectivity must be acknowledged in order for public journalism to realize its pursuit. This is because the standard of objectivity is often in direct tension with the journalist’s ability to shine the light on the power structures at work in societies. If journalists dare to point fingers or depict failures of those in positions of power, they are easily accused of bias, agenda-setting and unfair reporting. I see this as the most significant obstacle facing public journalism, and one that must be overcome in order for this type of journalism to progress. Drawing on the realism of political theorist, Margaret Urban Walker, I propose that journalists have a primary obligation to confront the reality that power structures always have, and always will exist, in order to educate citizens about who has profited and who has been bracketed off from the public sphere. Public journalism depends on the journalist taking up this key role, but the problem with objectivity is that it seeks, a priori, to present every side of a story equally, when in practice all players involved are not treated equally to begin with. It seems problematic to form notions about the public sphere by taking as our starting point the claim that all citizens within it are equal. A clear illustration of this is the Habermasian conception of the public sphere. Upon first glance, Habermas’ theory of reaching democratic consensus through rational discourse appears rather seductive. This is because it is predicated upon the notion that we must first recognize one another as equals in order to authentically debate together within a democracy. This recognition is a fundamental and necessary condition for having the debate in the first place. For Habermas, all ideas, principles, laws and projects are legitimate to the extent that they emerge out of this process, and “public opinion, in terms of its very idea, can be formed only if a public that engages in rational discussion exists.”4
However, the fatal flaw in Habermas’ theory is in his assumption that all citizens are equally capable of rational discourse. Habermas neglects to account for the socio-economic factors that often infringe upon citizen’s access to the public sphere and ability to influence public discourse. This is the criticism that Nancy Fraser raises against his theory. Fraser argues that “the social inequalities among the interlocutors were not eliminated but only bracketed out”5 within Habermas’s version of the public sphere. She proposes that the focus should be shifted from bracketing out inequalities, to exposing them for what they are. Unequal power structures and their effect on issues such as gender, ethnicity and poverty must be included within the debate. The consequence of not doing so is that democracy becomes government for only some of the people, at the expense of the exclusion of others.
In my opinion, if journalists want to educate the public about what “ought” to be the case, they must first acknowledge what actually “is” the case. Journalists must extricate themselves from the idealistic picture that objectivity wants to paint of the world and recognize the injustices present in current power structures in order to successfully inform the public about more democratic ways in which to live amongst one another. In her writings, Walker has stressed the need for what she calls “the moral authority of morality.”6 By this she means that morality has a responsibility to turn on itself and be self-critical of the practices it endorses. I would argue further that good journalism is about ensuring that this practice is carried out, in particular by those in the highest positions of power. Journalists have a responsibility, not to present society as though it were a free and equal place, but to call societal inequalities by their proper names, to mobilize resentment against them, and work with others to collectively form solutions to them. In particular, journalists should focus on the weighty and difficult question of whether we can have power structures without oppression.
A Reclaiming of Journalistic Scepticism Within the Democratic Public Sphere
I would like to draw on the writings of the French political theorist, Claude Lefort, in order to build on the arguments in my previous section and illustrate what I believe to be a necessary re-formulation of the journalist’s role within the democratic sphere.
Claude Lefort studied under the guidance of phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty in France. Lefort wrote extensively on Democracy, which he elegantly characterized as a symbolically empty space, in which various competing claims conflict. Lefort contended that “democracy is sustained by the tension between two principles: on the one hand, power stems from the people; on the other hand, it is the power of nobody.“7 Consequentially, those who exercise authority cannot appropriate it exclusively for their own use. These two principles are equally necessary to the flourishing of democracy, and any attempt to resolve the strain between them would risk jeopardizing it. What Lefort attempted to demonstrate is that there is a thin line between a healthy democracy and a tumble down the slippery slope into totalitarianism. This is because totalitarianism regimes are formed through “actualizing the image of popular sovereignty by means of a party which claims to identify with the people and which, beneath the cover of this identification, seeks to occupy the place of power.“8 Herein lies the double-edged sword of democracy: democratic forms must remain characterized by uncertainty in order to maintain their legitimacy, and yet this opens them up to the possibility of being “eclipsed by a political form which seeks to fuse power and knowledge in a determinate social whole with clearly defined goals.“9 In Lefort’s understanding of a healthy democracy, power must necessarily have no canonical location or eschatological outcome. There is no guarantee that we are ultimately progressing towards either a worse standard of living, or a Marxist utopia. The only certainty is continuous human conflict, but this has positive potential, because it carves out a space for innovation in human agency.
The journalist plays a critical role in the maintaining of this strong democracy. As gatekeepers, they help work to ensure that those in power are continuously held accountable and open to question. In doing this, they prevent power from becoming absolute and incontrovertible. Perhaps the greatest tool journalists possess at their disposal is skepticism- the tendency to hold any claim that presents itself as indisputably true or right as suspect. It is this skepticism that alerts journalist to false claims and false balances. It is this skepticism that allows journalists to recognize unequal power distributions in society. Most importantly, it is skepticism that allows journalists to begin their research from the position of those who have been unjustly marginalized or excluded from the public sphere. On the other hand, if journalism as a practice is guided by a weak definition of objectivity, if the standard of good journalism is equated with mere stenography, then journalism will only amount to a political tool manipulated for the use of suppressing critical discourse and maintaining corrupt power relations.
I have summed up the reasons behind what I consider a weak and limited form of journalistic objectivity. I characterize it as weak because I believe that defining objectivity as an infallible and consummated concept has insidious consequences for the practice of journalism. Rather, objectivity should ratify the standard it wants to maintain by opening itself up to self-reflection. In my opinion, one of the greatest challenges journalism faces in the 21st century is bringing objectivity back down to earth, where it can reflect on and criticize its own standards, in order to potentially improve them.
My observations are not novel, they merely take their place alongside those of political theorists such as Allison Jaggar and Sandra Harding, who both worked to dismantle the myth of dispassionate investigation long before I did. In science and in journalism, observation is always a socially imbedded activity suffused with values. Strong objectivism must necessarily embrace this phenomenological standpoint. Similarly, strong journalism is dependent upon journalists acknowledging their social and historical commitments and being responsible to them in the research they conduct.
By Sophia Trozzo
1Cunningham, Brent. “Re-thinking Objectivity” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course pack). 2011. P. 81.
2Edward S. Herman, Chomsky Noam. “A Propaganda Model” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011. P. 119.
3Compton, James. “Communicative Politics and Public Journalism” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011. P. 396.
4Jurgen, Habermas. “The Public Sphere” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011. P. 42.
5Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011. P. 54.
6Walker Urban, Margaret.. “Seeing Power in Morality: A Proposal for Feminist Naturalism in Ethics” The Feminist Philosophy Reader. 2008. P. 542.
7Lefort, Claude. The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Cambridge; The MIT Press, 1986. P. 21.
9Ibid. P. 22.
Compton, James. “Communicative Politics and Public Journalism” Critical Approaches to
Journalism (Course Pack). 2011.
Cunningham, Brent. “Re-thinking Objectivity” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course
Edward S. Herman, Chomsky Noam. “A Propaganda Model” Critical Approaches to
Journalism (Course Pack). 2011.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually
Existing Democracy” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011.
Jurgen, Habermas. “The Public Sphere” Critical Approaches to Journalism (Course Pack). 2011.
Lefort, Claude. The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Cambridge; The MIT Press, 1986.
Walker Urban, Margaret.. “Seeing Power in Morality: A Proposal for Feminist Naturalism in Ethics” The Feminist Philosophy Reader. 2008.
*Please note that the opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author’s and not The Cafe Phenomenon.