Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is objective journalism possible?

Objective journalism is defined as the presentation of information that is not skewed by personal opinions, perceptions or beliefs. The information does not favour any particular party involved. But is objective journalism possible in today’s world? I am of the opinion that it is not possible to be objective in journalism because of external and internal factors- particularly the external pressures of business and politics, and the intrinsic factor of fact perception.

In today’s economy, all firms have a common goal, that of maximizing private profits. Media firms are no different. They are businesses that are primarily concerned with making money. This economic goal conflicts with the principles of objective journalism. Various news firms vie with each other for the attention of news consuming public. The more sensational and attention grabbing the news, the more attention it receives- resulting in more revenues for the media firms. Consequently, objectivity in journalism is compromised. For example, in Singapore’s New Paper, the headlines often scream scandals and sensationalism. Tabloids count on catching the public’s attention through scandalous and sensational news items, which may not be true or may be unnecessarily exaggerated and, therefore, not objective. Another example of how business pressures impact the behaviour of media firms is the recent incident with Channel News Asia. Channel News Asia sent out an email to sponsors, persuading them to advertise on the news coverage of the Japan Earthquake. The message reeked of commercialism and disregarded the gravity of the calamity. This just goes to show how the pressure to make money can make one insensitive and cause one to ignore the truth. 

In all countries, even in the ones which claim free press, there is a tight connection between the media and the government. The government places political pressure on the media to report news that is of political interest. As a result of this, news very often loses its objectivity. This is very evident in Singapore. The headline news of Straits Times very often highlights the mistakes of opposition parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party. The opposition parties’ responses to these allegations do not get reported, or if they do, they are hidden in an unimportant corner in the newspaper. This political pressure is also evident in the wake of the recent Japan earthquake and nuclear disaster. Depending on whether newspaper is influenced by the anti nuclear lobby or not, the reports either exaggerate the condition in Japan or downplay it. This political pressure is another reason why objective journalism is impossible in today’s world.

I have talked about how it is impossible to report objectively in today’s world because of external pressures of business and politics. However, even if there were no business and political pressures, it would still be impossible to be objective because by nature, when we observe facts, we also interpret them. This action of interpretation or perception is influenced by various factors, such as our experiences, our beliefs and our values. We are influenced by our own culture and upbringing. Walter Lippman, reputed American columnist, postulated this very elegantly in his statement that there is an "asymmetrical relationship of fact and the presentation of fact". Journalists, likewise, would also be influenced by their culture and, therefore, their reporting cannot be totally objective. For example, when hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, initial reports exaggerated the crime situation in the predominantly African American neighbourhoods. There was reporting of widespread looting, rape and even consumption of corpses. It was later realized that these reports were exaggerated. The journalists who reported the news about New Orleans were obviously prejudiced towards the African American community. 

In conclusion, in today’s environment of economic and political influence on media, and with the inherent psychosocial factor of the difficulty in separating fact from the way it is presented to the public, it is impossible to demonstrate objectivity in journalism. Even if there was a one page newspaper containing nothing but facts, who would buy it? 

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  1. well written and organised. nice conclusion. only thing i feel was that the CNA example didnt fit in with your point.

  2. Thanks buddy! Honestly I don't see how it fits either but I'm too lazy to remove it :P

  3. It fits because it shows the commercial pressures faced by media. Although it doesn't show that these pressures make them un-objective, it highlights the commercial concerns. Puja

  4. I appreciate you and I would like to read your next post.
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