The lost meaning of objectivity

Over the past decade, I have addressed many questions about the building blocks of journalism: impartiality, balance, fairness, accuracy and commitment to truth. While readers tend to agree with most of my readings, one area where I fail to convince many of them is the vexatious question of bias. A group of readers feels that the Office of the Readers’ Editor has a way of finding theoretical explanations for their examples of bias in the newspaper.

The notion of bias

For instance, V.N. Mukundarajan, a regular writer to The Hindu, wanted to know whether it is possible for The Hindu to announce, like The New York Times did, that “its editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom”. He wrote: “The Hindu’s editorials remain an island of balance and fairness in a vast sea of ideologically tilted news, headlines, cartoons, and opinion pieces [so much so] that readers have almost given up talking about The Hindu’s unbalanced political reporting.” He further contented that protests and objections are not going to make any difference. He wrote: “I have not seen a single case where the Readers’ Editor has admitted that the paper was biased in its reporting. We, long-time loyal readers, will, however, not shy away from taking up instances of egregious bias. I think it may reassure many readers if there is an explicit message that the editorial board has a ‘mind of its own’, unlike the opinion writers who proffer one-sided views, mostly intending to show the government in poor light.”

It is not only loyal readers like Mr. Mukundarajan but also a section of social media commentators who see the entire news ecology as a monolithic whole. They tend to lump the good, the bad and the indifferent within a single category called ‘mainstream media’. There is a method in this attack, where some words are given a new spin. One word that is often subjected to over-interpretation is ‘objectivity’. Its natural corollary, the notion of bias, gets entrenched in the minds of some readers who receive much of their trusted information from social media.

While it is easy to explain the difference between news and views to an engaged reader, it is nearly impossible to do so to an enraged social media follower. As a news ombudsman, dealing with this issue has been both a challenge and a learning experience. The charge of bias is not restricted to India; it is prevalent across democracies. It has become shrill especially in the last decade.

The question of ‘impartiality’

On October 8, members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors held an internal shop talk on the question of ‘impartiality’. It was led by Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute. Mr. Rosenstiel explained that in journalism we expect the method, and not the individual journalist, to remain objective. He said of the implications of this: “One is that the impartial voice employed by many news organisations, that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting, is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Rather, it is an often helpful device news organisations use to highlight that they are trying to produce something obtained by objective methods.” He pointed out that objectivity as practised by journalists is to have a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence. Expanding on this idea, Mr. Rosenstiel said: “The practice began as a way of injecting more scientific rigour into the practice of journalism, but instead it has turned into a devotion to false balance and other elements of what journalism professor Jay Rosen called ‘the view from nowhere’.”

Substantial charges of bias come from those who support governments and strong leaders. It would be unethical, lazy and unfair to readers if a news organisation is reduced to be an amplifier for those in power. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford, has an interesting twitter thread, “Misinformation often comes from the top, exhibit no. infinity”, documenting how people in power play a big role in vitiating our news environment. Once the pandemic subsides, I hope to host an open house on this question of impartiality in journalism.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 8:00:55 AM |

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