Columnist Chris Hedges is wrong. He claims that objectivity and balance in journalism was “formulated at the beginning of the 19th century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers,” and goes on to say that such a practice “disarms and cripples the press.”
Hedges is a frustrated journalist. His distinguished career, I hope, is far from over. He has received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer. I respect his work, but I disagree with his assessment.
He goes on to say: “This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices. They function as ‘professionals’ and see themselves as dispassionate and disinterested social scientists. This vaunted lack of bias, enforced by bloodless hierarchies of bureaucrats, is the disease of American journalism.”
He is factually inaccurate. Objectivity began much, much earlier with the birth of journalism in America in the 1700’s. Hedges is also wrong to say that objectivity and balance cripple the press. In fact, the public demand it, and it is what brings trust and respect to the media.
There is no question about it. The job of a journalist is a tough one. Journalists are human. They have feelings. They have perspectives based on their past experiences and personal beliefs. They have weaknesses like all of us.
But in spite of their human failings, society expects journalists to be objective. To be impersonal, fair, impartial, balanced, and factually accurate in their reporting. No one said that would be easy. Journalists use their insight, experience, and personal feelings to drive them to pursue a story and dig for all the facts and details to shine a bright light and bring the truth to the public.
The method of distribution is irrelevant. Journalists are to gather the facts and report them as an impartial observer, through whatever media they may use. It makes no difference whether the journalist works for a traditional hard-copy newspaper, broadcast media, or an online journal.
Journalists have always been frustrated by their role. They were taught well in whatever journalism school they went to, but then they entered the real world and their idealism and classroom training began to fade in the face of daily reporting on man’s inhumanity to man.
Young journalists quickly learn that the editor and publisher have all the power, and freedom of the press belongs to the owner, not to the journalist. A journalist is hired to do a job, and if the job does not meet the approval of the editor, publisher, or owner (gatekeepers) their job may not last. And so journalists do all they can to please the gatekeepers and aspire to one day become an editor, publisher, or even owner because they want freedom, and power. Until then, they settle into a job working for a gatekeeper who has views similar to their own, or they get frustrated and quit and become a public relations consultant.
So journalists learn that they must cover the stories the gatekeepers want covered, and they must present those stories the way the boss wants them presented if they want to keep their job. It is a basic fact of life.
Most news organizations maintain high standards of professionalism and objectivity. Journalists can either give in to the pressures of gatekeepers who are caught up in their position of power, or they can find a better job working for people who understand the honorable role of a journalist. The public want journalists to be watchdogs of government and the eyes and ears of the people. They want journalists to be objective and honest in their reporting, and many news organizations strive to give the public the quality they seek.
But journalists still get frustrated because they are human, and they want to include their own feelings and opinions when they write. It is no wonder that professional journalists by day often become private bloggers by night.
A reporter may write an excellent news story that is published in a traditional format, then add their personal slant to the story in a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or some other online media. The journalist often sees this as a way to vent emotions that build up on the job. News organizations often recognize that the public do not separate one from the other. They see the journalist and tie his or her writing together and match it to the news organization. The role of the journalist becomes cloudy in the mind of the public who may also believe the private work of the journalist reflects on the news organization the journalist works for during the day.
Many news organizations are trying to reign in their journalists with restrictions and controls on what a journalist can do outside their job. Journalists face the difficult fact that they are tied to their company both when they are on-duty and off-duty, in the eyes of the public. In other words, they have the same audience regardless of where they write.
Which comes down to a basic fact, even news organizations have to have their own public relations policy and program, and journalists need to have their own personal public relations as well.
Responsible journalism goes hand in hand with professional, ethics-driven, objective reporting. It is what the public want from reporters and from news organizations.
My first bureau chief, Paul MacNamara, once told me: “Give the public the facts. Educate them with the facts. Let them make up their own mind. Don’t tell them what to think, just help them to see the truth for what it is. If they can’t figure it out, it’s their own damn fault.”