Reflection C: Objectivity


Objectivity is one of the main values every journalist should have. Especially nowadays a journalist needs to be careful that he is not just a puppet of PR or gets too emotionally involved in his own opinion so he can’t be objective anymore. This may have happened when the American journalist Glenn Greenwald – who revealed the NSA scandal in 2013 – held a speech towards the audience at a congress of the Chaos Computer Club in 2013 and said “we” instead of “they”. This indicated that he as a journalist identified himself with the issue of the hacker and activists against surveillance and took a side. This caused an outrage for some German journalists claiming a journalist should stay objective and present a balanced view and Greenwald violated this basic value. From this example we can see that the discussion about objectivity is still a current topic.

What is objectivity?  

One of the significant principles of journalistic professionalism is journalistic objectivity. It requires that a journalist is not on either side of an argument. It means not having prejudice or bias, the presence of full understanding, honest, just and free from improper influence. Only the facts should be reported by the journalist and there should not be a personal attitude toward the facts. For a journalist to be as objective as he can is essential since it’s one of the things that make a journalist a journalist (according to MEAA):

  • Fairness
  • Balance <- including objectivity!
  • Accuracy
  • Truth-telling
  • Eye-witnessing
  • Independence
  • Respect for Rights of others (“Do no harm”)
  • Transparency
  • Full disclosure

So it’s one of the duties of a journalist to report news without being biased in order to assure that the public can form an own, independent opinion. That said communication and media scientists argue if it is even possible for a journalist to be objective. One of them is from the German journalistic professor Siegfried Weischenberg who is the inventor of the “Zwiebel-Model” (Onion model) from 1992. The model says that it is impossible to be 100 percent objective because every journalist is subject to restrictions. Weischenberg includes:

1. Social surrounding conditions, historical and judicial fundamental, ethical standards of the journalist (“Normenkontext”)
2. Economical, political, organisational or technological terms (“Strukturkontext”)
3. Sources, choice of display format, news values (“Funktionskontext”)
4. The own experience, values of the journalist (“Rollenkontext”)

Enlightenment and ethical dilemmas as a journalist

Some say that the ideas that formed the beginnings of journalism as we know it today was born from the Enlightenment (others believe journalism was the basis for Enlightenment). The theory of Enlightenment says that humankind is inherently “good” and reasonable and can be trusted to make appropriate decisions about who holds power. Enlightenment allows freedom of choice, opinion and speech. Also it rules for the people, by the people meaning no group can oppress any other and those in authority can be revoked peaceably by the people.
In some cases there can be a dilemma in journalism how to be transparent, truth-telling, accurate, full disclosed, freedom of public sphere versus “do no harm”, sensitivity and public good. One example where this can cause problems is to protect victims. If there was a suicide on the one hand a reporter is supposed to be accurate and not to leave out any detail in order to the value of full disclosure. On the other hand if he does this he might do harm, for the relatives of the person who killed himself as well as to people who might copy the suicide. In cases like this a journalist would have to reconsider his ethics and decide what weighs more: privacy of the people involved in the news (especially in such a sensitive situation) or the public interest. It’s hard to satisfy both.
An example in hard news where objectivity was not given can be found at recent news coverage of “The Sun”. As Media Watch reported on 11th May 2015, the Sun newspaper was not objective when reporting about the upcoming election in the UK. While “The Sun” praised David Cameron’s win of the election, it also disgraced the competitor Ed Miliband from the Labour Party before the election took place (Bacon Title page). “The Guardian” wrote “The Sun” published 102 leader articles deemed to be anti-Labour compared with just four that were critical of the Conservatives. As Media Watch host Paul Barry said it’s not new for “The Sun” to take sides, but in the 2015 election it went further than ever. By taking sides so obvious “The Sun” has breached several ethical values of journalism and caused not just harm to the Labour Party, but also harms the audience that reads the articles. It’s not full disclosure and not balanced news reporting and for that the harm is done because the audience can’t form a proper opinion about the political topic anymore.

Case Studies

1. John Pilger

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. He was a correspondent in the Vietnam War and has been a strong critic of American and British foreign policy, which he considers to be driven by an imperialist agenda. Another topic of his work is the practices of the mainstream media.
He started his career as a documentary film maker with “The Quiet Mutiny (1970)” which he made during one of his visits to Vietnam. After that he filmed over fifty documentaries including “Year Zero (1979)” about the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and “Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy (1993)”. Another major area of John Pilger’s criticism is his native country’s treatment of indigenous Australians which is reflected in many documentary films on this subject including “The Secret Country (1985)” and “Utopia (2013)”. About “Utopia” the Sydney Morning Herald wrote John Pilger “wrings the heart but objectivity is not his forte”.
The American novelist, journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn said that „[John Pilger] has taken on the great theme of justice and injustice… He documents and proclaims the official lies that we are told and that most people accept or don’t bother to think about“. In an interview with David Barsamian for “The Progressive” in 2007 John Pilger said “It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as functionaries, not journalists”.

2. Neil Davis

Neil Davis was one of Australia’s most respected combat cameramen who worked as a photojournalist during the Vietnam War and other conflicts in the region. He was killed in Bangkok on 9th September 1985, while filming a minor Thai coup attempt. Neil Davis chose to film the war from the South Vietnamese perspective which was unusual among foreign correspondents. He was well known for his neutrality, crossing, on one occasion, to film from the Viet Cong side. His neutrality not with-standing, Davis earned the ire of United States military authorities.

3. Wilfred Burchett

Wilfred Burchett was a journalist from the last century who supported communism especially during Korean and Vietnam War. While most of the Australian journalists covered stories supporting the idea of capitalism, Burchett took the other side. Although it’s clear that Wilfred Burchett was in fact a journalist (he fulfilled all the other criteria of a journalist e.g. fairness, accuracy, truth-telling, eye-witnessing), he was not objective since he sympathised with communism, but why did he take this unusual position?
He was born in Australia in 1911, he lived  during the depression of 1929 and therefore he had lost his faith in capitalism. He also was the first western journalist who saw Hiroshima with his own eyes after the atomic bomb dropped (and wrote the famous story “The atomic plague”). He believed Hiroshima happened as a result of capitalism and he also believed that capitalism is a democratic ideal. Because of these two major events in his life he truly assumed that communism would generate peace in the world which caused him to be not objective by taking the side of communists  but he also claimed that he has never been a member in any communist party.

Conclusion: Can a journalist also be an activist?

The German journalist and journalism professor Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer from Hochschule Darmstadt held a speech at the conference “re:publica” in 2014 about how close a journalist can be to activists. Lorenz-Meyer starts his speech with the famous quote of the German journalist Hans-Joachim Friedrich who once said “a good journalist doesn’t make common cause with anything, not even with a good cause” (“Ein guter Journalist macht sich nicht mit einer Sache gemein, auch nicht mit einer guten”). In the end of his talk Lorenz-Meyer comes to the conclusion that as long as the journalist has an independent opinion (meaning he is open to other opinions and willing to change his own opinion) and has clear values and dedication there is nothing wrong with alliances with activists. He also says the journalist with a clear point of view should make it transparent so the audience is well informed and can make their own judgement.
In my opinion there is nothing wrong with journalists having a position on a certain topic. There is room for their beliefs, not in hard news, but in other journalistic forms like commentaries.

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