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For the week of July 23 - 29, 2003

Opinion Columns

The myth of objectivity in journalism

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


Journalists are often denounced for lacking "objectivity" in their work. Such accusations, in my opinion, are more often than not without merit, even though they are true. As a journalism student at the University of Nevada in the 1950s I donít remember "objectivity" being discussed specifically as a tool of the second oldest profession, though the concept was understood to be a sacred tenet of the trade. How could one not be objective about who, what, where, when, why and how? Objectivity was never actually defined (how could it be?), but it seemed to encompass such concepts as fairness, truth, balance, presenting all sides of an issue, checking facts with a critical and skeptical mind and to never, ever accept without question and independent research the Ďofficialí (usually press release) version of anything given out by the political, corporate, military, bureaucratic and even personal front men we referred to as flacks but which now have other titles, both pretentious and colloquial, including press secretary, public relations officer, spokesman and spin doctor. In my opinion, it is on this latter point that American journalists deserve bountiful criticism, not for lacking objectivity.

This was useful information, objectivity as a reliable ideal, a goal. Fortunately, our journalism professors, A.L. Higginbotham and Keiste Janulis, were men of the real world of gradation and doubt and organic, unending questioning, not fundamentalists with obdurate answers to limited questions, though "Higgie" could be evangelical when it came to the importance and value of good journalism and a free press to a free society. In every class (especially Janulisí), without making it an issue, it was made clear that pure journalistic objectivity was as unreal as such imaginative concepts as virgin birth, Santa Claus and the more recent phantasm of compassionate conservatism. Journalism, like everything it reported, was not black or white, good or evil, with us or against us, but, rather, an on going dialogue, discovery and evolving perspective as reported by flesh and blood and all too subjective human beings. Objectivity, it seemed, was all too subjective. How could it not be? A hundred journalists will have a hundred different definitions of objectivity. In recognition of this dilemma, the Society of Professional Journalists dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code in 1996.

Janulis had worked as an AP reporter and traveled the world and viewed the affairs and machinations of man with a bemused skepticism befitting a professional journalist. He was Lithuanian, and had been news editor of the Baltic Times in Estonia, covered World War II for the Chicago Tribune, earned a masterís degree in journalism from Columbia University, and had studied German and Russian propaganda at the University of Lithuania. He knew that the world was filled with nuance and danger and that neither safety nor truth could be found in absolutes. Janulisí perspective appealed to me in part because it was so human. That is, ethically he was a professional, not a proselytizer. Journalism was a profession practiced by humans, and anyone who expects objectivity from humans is being neither objective nor attentive.

I have always been thankful that Higgie and Jan were my teachers in that formative time.

In one course our textbook was a well known national weekly news magazine. We were primarily print media students and we read the magazine cover to cover each week, examining every photo, advertisement, story, review, editorial and letter to the editor. It was considered the standard of good journalism at that time, but we learned that pure objectivity about even who, what, where, when, why, and how was easier said than done. We learned to look for what was left out of a story and we talked about how the story could be written differently with the same set of facts. We compared letters to the editor with the previous stories that inspired them, and discussed letters we might write concerning the same stories. We looked for the particular bias and perspective (the angle) that produced the story. Years later a friend who wrote for this magazine told me about quitting after covering the story of the sinking of the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher in 1963. He interviewed dozens of family members of the 129 men who died in the accident 200 miles off Cape Cod. Many of them reported that their dead loved ones had anticipated such a failure on what was reputed to be the most advanced submarine ever built and had complained their safety was compromised. The magazine refused to include these pertinent remarks in the article because they reflected badly on the U.S. military, not a popular perspective in those Cold War days. While there may be some national security justifications for such editing, it is neither complete nor objective (whatever that means) journalism, but it was an insiderís illustration of the particular biases and perspectives we studied in school.

And, of course, even then, in those days of the decent if bland, squeaky clean Eisenhower and 99.9 percent pure Ivory soap and calling for Philip Morris, we noted and looked for correlations between advertising and the editorial and news content of a publication. Then, as now, they were easy to find.

In addition to the purely human obstacles to objectivity in journalism, there are economic ones. Journalism, too, is a business. This is not to condone or excoriate the excesses and limitations of journalism, but only to recognize them for what they are and what they are not.

The only objectivity is outside the purview of journalism as we know it, that which includes everyone and everything. Jim Harrison said it best: "Ö reality is an aggregate of the perceptions of all creatures, not just ourselves."

 

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