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Objectivity and Impartiality Can a reporter ever be totally objective? Is total impartiality a valid goal?

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Presentation on theme: "Objectivity and Impartiality Can a reporter ever be totally objective? Is total impartiality a valid goal?"— Presentation transcript:

1 Objectivity and Impartiality Can a reporter ever be totally objective? Is total impartiality a valid goal?

2 The definition of objective reporting (as described in Harcup, ch 5) Balance and even-handedness in presenting different sides of an issue Accuracy and realism in reporting Presenting all main relevant points Separating facts from opinion but treating opinion as relevant Minimising the influence of the reporter’s own attitude, opinion or involvement Avoiding slant, rancour or devious purposes

3 Facts “To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up – arduously it is true, but still definitely and visibly – by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market. Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve.” – Claud Cockburn, from Time of Trouble (1957) “Nothing, for a start, is in words – nothing is the right shape to be put into words. Nothing has its cause or its result written upon it. Even when you find witnesses who supply you with a testimony already in verbal form, their impressions of the same thing and recollections of the same event are dismayingly various…To describe is to select – and to select only a microscopic sample from this overwhelming profusion.” – Michael Frayn, from Travels with a Typewriter (2009)

4 Schudson’s ‘objectivity norm’ (as defined in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 2001) ‘The objectivity norm guides journalists to separate facts from values and to report only the facts. Objective reporting is supposed to be cool, rather than emotional in tone. Objective reporting takes pains to represent fairly each leading side in a political controversy. According to the objectivity norm, the journalist’s job is to report something called ‘news’ without commenting on it, slanting it, or shaping its formulation in any way.’

5 Ernest Hemingway Article on bootlegging during Prohibition (Hemingway extract 1) If the people who talk about ‘good liquor’ could see a kid drunk – but this isn’t a sermon. It is merely a few facts on the way liquor is coming into the United States from Canada.’ Or is it???

6 But hang on – isn’t the entire justification of journalism that it is, as far as possible, objective reporting? Matthew Kieran, in Media Ethics, 1998: ‘In journalism, as distinct from fiction, there is a truth of the matter and this is what objectivity in journalism aims at…Where reporting turns away from the goal of truth and journalists treat events as open to many interpretations, according to their prejudices, assumptions, news agenda or the commercial drive towards entertainment, the justification and self-confessed rationale of journalism threatens to disappear.’

7 Is it ever possible to be truly objective? How do you know when you have all the facts at your disposal?

8 Some argue that journalism can never be objective Reporters are only human The organisations they work for are fallible Their bosses may have commercial interests that collide with a reporter’s interest What if you are asked to cover a story about the legalisation of cannabis, a cause which you wholeheartedly support? What if you are asked to interview Simon Cowell and you hate him? What if you have to cover a story about nuclear power stations and you are a member of CND? Can you leave your beliefs at the doorstep?

9 So, how can journalists operate in this atmosphere? Work for an organisation or publication that reflects your views? Work for a broadcaster which is at least governed by regulation on impartiality? Freelance? Produce journalism from a different perspective? Charles Clover for example, an award-winning Environment Correspondent was sacked from the Telegraph as he was researching his most important story about over-fishing. He formed a trust, End of the Line, found some funding for it; wrote a book which became a bestseller

10 A few useful lessons Never trust politicians Never trust press officers to give you the full picture Never take someone else’s word for a fact you cannot yourself verify ‘Never believe anything until it has been officially denied’ Claud Cockburn

11 What, even the BBC? News of anti war demonstrations (the main rally was over 2 million strong and the majority of the population was against the war) accounted for 2 per cent of the BBC’s war coverage, according to Bonn-based media monitoring institute Media Tenor On the day of ‘victory’ BBC correspondents said that Tony Blair was right when he had promised victory ‘without a bloodbath’ The death toll in Iraq is now over 50,000 and could be far higher. Is this not a bloodbath? The BBC capitulated before Campbell’s attacks on the Andrew Gilligan affair and, some argue, has never been the same since in terms of courageous reporting.

12 Shouldn’t we at least try to be objective? Schudson (ibid) argues that the reason behind the rising status of reporters and journalism in the Twentieth Century, from 1918 – 1989, was because, in an era of a ‘free press’ journalists could be genuinely critical of Government; after the calamitous reporting of the First World War (See Martin Farrar’s News from the Front for further information), for a while, there was a lengthy, ongoing debate on the relationship between press, propaganda and objectivity, which lasted until the Murdoch era.

13 Impartiality v Objectivity Impartial reporting is normally defined as being neutral Objective reporting is taken to be the reporting of verifiable facts Chris Frost: Media Ethics and Self Regulation (2000): ‘Impartial reporting means that a journalist is aiming at the truth, whereas true objectivity would require giving the whole picture, a task as impossible for the journalist as it is for the cartographer. Like a map a news report is still a selective and mediated representation of reality. Balance and neutrality have themselves been challenged by some journalists who advocate their abandonment in situations where to be impartial would mean standing neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, victim and oppressor. Could - or should - there ever be an impartial report of an event, say, like the Nazi kristallnacht? Or the Liberation of Auschwitz?

14 James Cameron, one of the greatest reporters of the C20 had no time for impartiality or objectivity ‘It never occurred to me, in such a situation, to be anything other than subjective, and as obviously as I could manage to be…I always tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than the truth and that the reporter whose technique was informed by no opinion lacked a very serious dimension.’ Here are some samples of James Cameron’s reporting: (First atom bomb tests, Bikini Atoll): ‘Precisely at zero hour the bowstring line, where the sea meets the sky, trembled and swelled in a vast gleaming dome of sheerest white…it looked for the minutest fraction of a second like a grotesque bubble, then forces inside it strained and burst through in the most enormous fountain ever manufactured…’ Cameron subsequently became the first ‘atom bomb bore’ and went on to be a founding member of CND.

15 Cameron contd He says he was lucky that in those days foreign travel was relatively cheap and the Daily Express coffers enormously deep. But it was a right wing paper and seemed to tolerate his anti-Imperialist, left wing views. This is part of his account of Peron’s Argentina, March 1949: ‘How can you impoverish a country of such unlimited agricultural wealth – a country with twelve feet of solid alluvial topsoil where no fertiliser is ever used or needed, where cattle roam over endless prairies without shelter or need of it…How would you ruin such a place? Well Peron and his Government have nearly managed it.’ From his famous suppressed account of how the UN’s ally, South Korea, treated prisoners: “They have been in jail…long enough to have reduced their frames to skeletons, their sinews to string, their faces to a translucent terrible grey…They are roped and manacled…They clamber, the lowest common denominator of personal degradation, into trucks with the numb air of men going to their death. Many of them are.” In the light of these examples, what do you think he means by ‘objectivity was of less importance than the truth?’

16 Other journalists’ views on objectivity/impartiality George Orwell: ‘The more one is aware of political bias, the more one can be independent of it, and the more one claims to be impartial, the more one is biased.’ He argued that the reader could only be freed of the influence of the journalist’s bias if they were explicitly made aware of it. Michael Nicholson, ITN reporter who adopted a Bosnian child while covering the Bosnian War: ‘No I don’t believe in this so-called objectivity. You can still report the facts. You can still be as close to the truth as any person can be ad still show a commitment, an emotional anguish. I don’t see them to be contradictory.

17 Other views contd Jon Snow, Channel 4 news: I don’t think there is such a thing as a neutral journalist. Human beings are moved by what they see, either against it or for it, admiringly or despairingly, or whatever it is. And I think those qualities are essential, otherwise what the journalist reports becomes an unnatural event…I’m against neutrality. But I’m for fairness at the same time. Complete fairness. You’ve got to recognise what your dispositions are, and balance them by allowing other points of view.’ Christian Amanpour of CNN: ‘I have come to believe that objectivity means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally. Once you treat all sides the same in a case such as Bosnia, you are drawing a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor. And from there it is a short step toward being neutral. And from there it’s an even shorter step to becoming an accessory to all manners of evil; in Bosnia’s case genocide. So objectivity must go hand in hand with morality.’ But what is morally right? Is there an absolute morality we can adhere to? In the case of Nazism, yes. What about the troop surge in Afghanistan? How can we reporters of the west adhere to a morality here? Shouldn’t we cover every civilian Afghani death with the same seriousness and importance as British soldiers’ deaths? After all isn’t it partly Britain’s fault civilians are dying?

18 Censorship by omission: as bad as bias? Coverage of the Miner’s Strike, 1984 Coverage of Liverpool Dockers, 1995 In 2001, after months of hostile press coverage claiming that asylum seekers had brought a wave of crime to parts of Kent, the Association of Chief Police Officers noted: ‘In Dover, continual interest from the media, locally and nationally, has been focused on the apparent increase in crime since asylum seekers have been in the town. In line with general trends in Kent, the local commander was able to report an actual reduction in all aspects of reported crime over a three year period. This generally resulted in the national media not reporting anything, as this was not considered to be a story.

19 ‘Baggage’ In Travels with a Typewriter, Frayn talks about the personal baggage he took with him when a foreign correspondent, and how this affected his journalism: “It was also impossible to give any coherent account…without recourse to officials and experts…Worse, I could not remain as impartial as I had promised myself to be. Everything I saw seemed to be part of some larger picture, to be evidence either for or against the revolution and its results…I should have liked to remove myself…but I couldn’t. There I indissolubly was, with my own shifting feelings. Insignificant ones perhaps…impossible, though, not to be cast down by the bleakness of arriving in dreary hotel rooms in strange cities, missing wife and children as painfully as if one were a child oneself again and nerving oneself to phone strangers with whom one has scraped some tenuous connection…

20 What is your particular baggage? Are you Christian, Muslim, atheist or other? Does your religion affect your world view? Do you believe in the death penalty for murder/child abuse/rape? Do you think sex discrimination still exists in British society? Do you think it’s unfair that women still earn only about two thirds of what men do? Do you accept that carbon emissions are causing climate change? Do you think we should do anything about it? Do you know anyone, apart from a relative, who is over 80? Write down three adjectives to describe the very elderly: Do you think we should legalise cannabis? Other drugs? Do you think people on unemployment benefit are authors of their own downfall/should go and get a job/stop sponging off the state/are unfortunate victims of an unequal society and need all the help they can get? Do you still think there are WMD buried in the sands of Iraq? Do you think people are born evil, or does circumstance, upbringing and environment cause some people to turn to crime? Do you think ME is a physical or mental illness? Men: Do you think girls wearing short skirts and low cut tops are more sexually available than those who don’t? Women: Do you think men are generally useless in keeping homes tidy, helping with the cooking and finding things? Have you ever been the China? Write down three adjectives you would use to describe this country : Do you think there should be a maximum speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas? What did you vote, if at all, at the last election?

21 Rules of engagement to adhere to Look at both sides of the story Assess conflicting claims Assess the credibility of sources Look for evidence to support claims Don’t publish/write/broadcast anything you believe to be untrue Does the story stand up? Do you have the full picture? Where else can you go for information?

22 In the light of these thoughts… Have a read of Martha Gellhorn’s The Bomber Boys and Bombs on Helsinki. Bear in mind, she was an American correspondent with deep humanitarian values, writing for an American audience. Bombs on Helsinki was written before America entered the War The Bomber Boys was written when American opinion at home was against deeper involvement in the European theatre

23 My favourite Gellhorn quote Though I have long lost the innocent faith that journalism is a guiding light, I still believe it is a lot better than total darkness. Somebody has to bring the news as we cannot all see for ourselves.’

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