Merriam Webster defines objectivity as expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. Objectivity, as defined by the school of media ethics, means standing so far from the community that you see all events and all viewpoints as equally distant and important, or unimportant for that matter. It is employed by giving equal weight to all viewpoints–or, if not, giving all an interesting twist, within taste. The result is a presentation of facts in a true non-partisan manner, and then standing back to “let the reader decide” which view is true.
By going about it this way, we are defining objectivity not by the way we go about gathering and interpreting the news, but by what we actually put in the paper. It can be measured out by allocating so many lines for this group, and so many lines for that group. To be fair, we should spread out our resources as evenly as possible.
The critics get a lot to chew on when that is the definition of objectivity. One form of reaction is to say, “Objectivity is impossible!” No matter how we spread our resources, we’ll never get it right. We might as well be honest, and listen to our subjective inner voices, and write and report from a neutral point of view. Some journalists who think that way will surely rely on public journalism as an excuse to paint with a biased brush.
Of course it is impossible for a journalist to be completely objective because journalists are human and humans are subjective by nature. It is possible, however, for journalists to strive to be objective. A journalist may not like the Ku Klux Klan or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes but must understand the need to report about groups and organizations that have an impact on the community. Journalists have to put personal feelings and beliefs aside when dealing with the news. If the ideal of objectivity is hard to grasp, then perhaps better words are fair, impartial, neutral or balanced. It is the last concept of balance that is in practice each day for journalists. Each story a journalist writes must present the facts accurately and provide a balanced view of both sides of the issue. For example, if a journalist finds accurate information about the mayor stealing funds from the public, the mayor must be given the opportunity to respond and explain the circumstances.
The notion that journalists must maintain “objectivity” is a relatively new concept. The early American publishers were involved in politics and helped bring about the Revolution. Thomas Paine is admired for his words on freedom for the common man, and in motivating the colonies to rebel against the British Redcoats. Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
I love the Internet as a journalistic platform, but I certainly see that it has as many flaws as traditional journalism. When I see the constant barrage of attacks from political partisans on the right and the left accusing journalists of being partial to the other side, If the journalists are getting attacked from both sides, it probably means they are doing a pretty good job of being fair and objective ‘mainstream’ journalists.”
Before the Internet, the non-mainstream wasn’t readily visible; we didn’t have easy access to anything but the mainstream. When the Internet opened us up to a vast world of sidestream opinion and culture, it made us second-guess the mainstream media. The Internet revealed to us that the big mainstream media corporations weren’t really telling us “that’s the way it is” but that’s the way it is in order for certain media corporations to capture a share of the mass market.
From being on the Internet, I’m probably more skeptical of everything I read, both on and off the Net. I am even more skeptical of Internet publications than I am of the mainstream. “Gatekeepers” aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Those lessons I was taught in journalism classes about good writing, good taste, good judgment, fairness, accuracy and “objectivity” are lessons a new generation of “cyber journalists ignore at their own risk.
The goal of public journalism is to create a learning type of community. A community that discusses issues, not just based on emotion, but based on facts about how things work. Switching from a traditional platform of journalistic objectivity to public journalism may not be a bad thing if we can use objectivity in our journalistic methods. It’s a better standard anyway, and it can keep people honest.
So we shouldn’t throw out public journalism as an approach. Investigative reporting and editing has its place. The focus given to us by public journalism can keep the rewards of investigative reporting and editing from being lost in the midst of information overload. Public journalism and investigative journalism need one another, and if we realize that we have a chance of preserving our beloved First Amendment traditions.