Does journalism need objectivity?

By Tabu Butagira

The African Centre for Media Excellence, or ACME, hosted a talk on 2 July 2015 at which former Wall Street Journal news editor Christopher Conte discounted objectivity and journalists’ detachment from subject(s) they cover as overrated virtues of good journalism.

“There is a place for softer, more subjective journalism where the community has a chance to tell its story,” he said.

Objectivity, fairness, accuracy and balance are principal journalistic principles — and adorn most newsroom notice boards — that inform decisions on whether to publish a story. They also are ingredients of the contract regulating trust between news providers and consumers.

Mr Bernard Tabaire, ACME’s director of programmes and the talk’s moderator, ambushed me to contribute. Using local examples, I spoke about the claw-back effect of commercial interests on news coverage and how newsrooms conceal occasional costly sanctions for internal dissent. I said that a reporter’s and an editor’s appreciation of objectivity might differ up to a point because of varying responsibilities and interests that each shoulders/balances.

My understanding is that real life experiences are more effective to convey the limitations of objectivity, something academic grounding rarely prepares journalism students for.

Some journalism scholars and practitioners have discounted objectivity and balance because the media must stand for something — and, therefore, can’t afford to be neutral.

America’s Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, revised its code of ethics in 1996 and deleted all reference to “objectivity”. According to the Media Ethics magazine, the emergence in mid-1990s of “public” or “civic” journalism was “a proactive response to the public’s opinion that, rather than help society solve its problems, the media [by keeping objective or neutral] were getting in the way of solutions”.

This has made advocacy journalism attractive. After extensively reporting on the leaked National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programme, constitutional lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald founded the First Look Media digital news site as a crusading platform.

Legacy media, with its strict enforcement of objectivity, failed to disclose the NSA programme. Edward Snowden did. In 2005, The New York Times admitted that at the behest of President George W. Bush (who was seeking re-election) it concealed for a year its investigative reporter James Risen’s exposé on the US government’s warrantless wiretapping programme.

In Uganda in mid-2012, and thanks to a sudden advertising largesse by the Office of the Prime Minister, the local media initially turned a blind eye — and in some instances defended — an accounting officer in what a forensic audit confirmed was a thieving scheme in which bureaucrats stole in excess of Shs60 billion.

Evidently, journalism’s fealty to the scruples of objectivity and impartiality came to the fore. No conversation among journalism practitioners in modern times about this issue has been as combative and contrasting as the October 2013 exchanges between Mr Greenwald and Mr Bill Keller, a former New York Times’ executive editor and later Op-ed columnist until 2014.

Mr Keller argues that good journalism is that which presents vigorously checked facts and allows a reader/viewer to make own judgement, without a reporter inserting individual opinion, which rather than inform, biases the news consumer. Put another way, it’s the traditional emphasis on dispassionate but accurate reporting.

That is what Mr Greenwald and, in the context of the ACME talk, Mr Conte object to. “All journalism,” Mr Greenwald contends, “has a point of view and a set of interests it advances, even if efforts are made to conceal it.”

There is a school of thought that holds that objectivity, put simply, is that viewpoint that validates one’s own bias. This conflates subjectivity as objectivity and vice versa.

With legacy media struggling, full disclosure should benchmark responsible journalism: an explanation/accountability to inform the public of a media outlet’s position on a story (published or not).

Just like road signs are critical to regulate traffic, rules too are an essential girdle to media operations, including quality control. Thus I find then Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer’s seven principles, issued in 1935, timeless: Telling the truth as nearly as it may be ascertained; telling all the truth so far as the newspaper can learn it, concerning the important affairs of [society]; observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman; and, [ensure] what it prints [or publishes] shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.

Others are that the media’s “duty is to its readers [or viewers] and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner; that in the pursuit of truth, [it] shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good; and, it shall not be an ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.”

I argue that the enduring principle is to uphold personal and professional integrity, and be pragmatic, including through full disclosure.

Tabu Butagira

The author is a Ugandan journalist and a Fulbright (Humphrey) fellowship alumnus.


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