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Just the facts please: the debate on objective journalism

September 22: Journalism has a long history of bias and subjectivity, from its founding fathers to the age of yellow journalism, when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled it out in the 1890s during the circulation wars. But by the 20th century, the idea of objectivity, fairness and accuracy were highly valued principles and a journalism standard.

Today however, the question of whether complete objectivity is even possible has often been debated. There are some, like TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, who believe that to deny journalists an opinion and a voice in the news is to deny the reading public transparency. “I think journalists should have the right to express their opinions on the topics they cover,” Arrington wrote in a July TechCrunch article. “More importantly, I think readers have a right to know what those opinions are … To stop them from giving me that information is just another way to lie to me.”

Arrington isn’t the only one to argue for an opinionated voice. In an article called The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News, Chris Hedges from TruthDig wrote that he believes taking a journalist’s subjective voice away “banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice.”

Even in their off-time, journalists are expected to keep their ideologies and political leanings to themselves so as not to damage their credibility. Proving that expressing an opinion can damage a career is storied journalist Helen Thomas, who retired after negative reactions to comments she made about Israel. A similar episode happened in July when CNN senior editor of Mideast affairs Octavia Nasr tweeted her sadness over the passing of a Hezbollah leader.

“The environment I grew up in, you are a journalist first and foremost and you have to conduct your personal life in a fashion and matter that does not jeopardize your credibility as journalists,” said Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. A traditionalist, Smith believes journalism should be just the facts. Although the state of journalism isn’t as bad as it was during the colonial era, he believes its ethical decline is the worst he has ever seen in his lifetime. “I’ve been doing this for 32 years and it’s growing worse than it’s ever been. It’s reached a point for some of us who have been in the business for some time, that we are worried, we are worried about where journalism is headed,” he said.

The change came with the advent of the Internet, when citizen journalists joined the news cycle, Smith noted. These self-proclaimed journalists with no formal training in the art of objectivity started writing blogs and launching online news sources. “I’m not disparaging citizen journalists, but I am saying I think their approach to news is different,” Smith said. “I think what has happened is journalists have allowed themselves to be sucked into that sort of opinionated vortex; if you want to be flashy, if you want to get hits on your website you have to be edgy, which is not simply about presenting the facts.” Meanwhile, many journalists are expected to cover a story objectively and then blog their opinion about it later, which continues to blur traditional journalism standards.

Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander admitted in a July article that the paper’s reporters are encouraged to “blog with attitude and ‘voice,’” despite internal guidelines that say reporters should write a blog as objectively as they would an article in the paper. He went on to note that although the same guidelines say Post reporters should abstain from making any opinionated remarks during public appearances, in a typical week reporters do just that on TV and radio interviews. “Increasingly, they [journalists] are being asked to expand the Post’s brand on new media platforms that don’t strictly adhere to the time-honored just-the-facts approach,” he wrote.

For some, a point of view in the news is a positive step. In a previous interview with inVocus, Cal Watchdog editor Steven Greenhut said as a longtime California opinion writer, he doesn’t hide his opinion. Although fair, he noted, “I won’t hide the fact that I think government is wasteful – newspapers used to pretend to believe we don’t have viewpoints, but I think nowadays the story does the talking,” he said. “The key is doing a fair story. A lot of the basis in newspapers is they do perfectly fair stories, but the premise is loaded. I like to see different premises; I think we’re seeing that more.”

Smith is inclined to agree. Opinionated journalism is becoming more acceptable, he just doesn’t believe it’s a move in the right direction. “I think we need to step back, we as a collective group in this industry, and take a look at where we’re headed. I keep hearing people complain about it, but what we’re seeing is it’s getting worse,” he said. “I have opinions, I have beliefs. But I have always prided myself that in 20 years of newspapers, you could never tell what my personal viewpoints were in any stories.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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