Journalism, Competition and Objectivity


Whenever a controversy breaks, some will argue that too many journalists fail to be objective and let their partisan loyalties color their reporting. When the topic has international significance, the issue of objectivity even overshadows certain newsworthy topics. Many journalists become defensive and start focusing not on what they are supposed to be covering but on whether their coverage is professionally competent, which they usually dub as objective.

A recent broadcast on CNN Headline News included an interview of the producers of a movie about reporting on the Iraqi war and a clip with a reporter who claimed that 'Objectivity [in news reporting] is nearly a mirage.' She meant that evenhandedness, balance, non-partisanship and such are very nearly impossible where journalism is concerned, especially when the reports involve a war in which the government of the reporting journalist is a major player. To wit, you wouldn't expect that FOX-TV News would be fair and balanced when it comes to reporting on the views of insurgent Iraqis; while the folks producing news at the radio and TV stations operated by the insurgents and those sympathetic to their cause aren't likely to paint an unbiased picture of how the coalition forces, so called, are doing.

Is objectivity, however, really about balance? No. That would be fairness, not objectivity. Objectivity is about accuracy, truth, sticking to the facts one can prove, and presenting all this in terms of a ranking that is sound. As to this last, most problematic aspect of objectivity, consider that we could see a report on the number of dogs killed in the Iraqi war that could well be accurate, yet given the level of importance of it, it would not be objective. It would be distorting what matters in the war. And that is probably the advances and retreats of the coalition forces and at what price these have occurred, although for my purposes it could be something else entirely. (The point here is to check out journalistic objectivity and distinguish it from some other imperatives that might guide the conduct of the media.)

Disagreements about objectivity are very likely when people with very different ideas and values get involved in discussing various issues. The very question of what is vital to report will divide people. But this doesn't need to thwart objectivity'after all, some of those who chime in on the various topics are plainly wrong, or their frame of reference is warped, or their values are perverse. The mere existence of varied views does not mean that objectivity is impossible, even unlikely, at least from some sources.

Of course, whether such objectivity is forthcoming from any source is to be discovered'there is no guarantee of it at all. It is here that the importance of a free press arises most clearly. For however much journalists might be willing to commit malpractice, when they compete with one another for readers, listeners, or viewers, they cannot afford to be sloppy for very long. Competition is a kind of quality management device. At the least it presents the consumer of news reports and news analyses with a wide variety of sources and that is itself a means by which these consumers may well obtain a nearly objective understanding of some situation that is the focus of interest in the media. It isn't necessary that every reporter practice objective reporting'it could emerge from competing reportage alone. This is precluded by a managed, non-competitive press.

Oddly, balance, fairness, and such are questionable values in journalism'often the effort to practice these leads to distortions. Imagine if the Nazis, Communists and terrorists got as fair a shake about their atrocities as do those who are attempting to stop them! Imagine if the convicted murderer got a fair hearing about the case, comparable to what the victim's family receives. The excessive stress on balance is, in fact, the result of the wrongheaded idea that all points of view have equal validity, that there really is no objective truth about reality at all.

Another reason for the misunderstanding about the issue of objectivity is the view that any issue involving value judgments must involve nothing but bias'none of us can know what is good and bad, right and wrong, so when it comes to such matters objectivity is impossible. So the next best thing is fairness and balance. While sometimes fairness and balance do help consumers, the not so hidden message of this idea is that no one can be right, no one wrong, about anything. Of course, this is silly'it, first of all, undercuts itself, since the idea purports to be right about something. But believing such a silly thing can undermine our confidence that at least sometimes we can be dead right about a thing or two, including about the importance of journalistic objectivity.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.