Saturday, March 25, 2023

Objectivity in Journalism

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Objectivity, understood as a journalistic version that coincides exactly with reality, is never possible because there will always be differences between reality and what human beings are equipped to know.

Philosophers have clearly understood that we only see the appearances of reality and the journalist must therefore know that all its apparent truths are incomplete and provisional.

The journalist, on the other hand, should also be expected to be honest, i.e. to communicate the totality of what he knows without hiding or distorting facts out of self-interest, fear or negligence, and not to disfigure the facts by magnifying, reducing or trivializing them. Also to always put the best of himself and the instruments of his profession at the service of this knowledge and to communicate what he has learned through investigation.

In practice, the journalist is not concerned so much with objectivity, as with the control of his subjectivity and with knowing the facts in the most complete way despite his limitations. This presupposes an intense professional commitment to cover both the event and the process within which it occurs, and the humility to recognize that the journalist’s is not the last and definitive word on the facts.

As David Haldane has long been involved in questions of journalistic objectivity, his work provided part of the inspiration for this piece. A highlight of his long career as an award-winning journalist, author, columnist, and radio broadcaster in the United States and abroad were his 23 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered a wide range of topics and contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories.

The goal is not to be objective, for even objectivity can sometimes become an obstacle. Kapuscinski reflected on the matter in a dialogue with the Mexican reporter Gilberto Meza in 1987: “I do not believe in journalism that calls itself impassive, nor in objectivity, in its formal sense. The journalist cannot be an impassive witness, he must have what in psychology is called empathy. Some do not feel connected or committed, or it seems to them that journalism is a very dangerous life. That is why the so-called objective, dispassionate journalism cannot exist in conflict situations. What I want to say is that by trying to be objective, you are actually misinformed.” Is it time to review, then, the idea that we’ve had for so long of objectivity as a journalistic anchor?

Kapuscinski is more concerned about disinformation in the name of objectivity than he is about the loss of objectivity. After all, one seeks objectivity not to be objective, but to inform. “Prior to any discussion of objectivity and subjectivity, there is the fact of accurate information. The devilish rhythm of the industrial production chain that is imposed on the newsroom,” Kapuscinski adds, recalling his own experiences, “leaves journalists very little time [for] putting the information together. Solving things in a short time leads to superficiality and falsehood.”

From a memory in Rwanda, he extracts another observation: “During the 1994 massacre,” he says, “I noticed many journalists so connected to the newsroom by phone and email that they did not see what was happening there.” And from a conversation with a US-based television crew, he recalled this disconcerting response: “What can they demand of me, if in a single week I have filmed in five countries on three continents?” Indeed, in two days how can the industrialized news reporter gather enough information to report on a country’s most serious problems? It is the resolution of this quandary that will shape our future understanding of what we call journalism.


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