Defining “Objectivity

by Prof. Luis V. Teodoro
EVERY STUDENT of journalism in the dozens of schools all over the country that offer courses on the subject has heard it before:  “Objectivity” is the primary responsibility of the journalist.  The supposed need for “objectivity” is a mantra that has been drummed into the heads of generations of journalists, despite the fact that every form of writing involves selection, the personal determination of what details to include in describing an object or a scene, or in reporting an event — and journalism is no exception. As University of London Professor of Semiotics Gunther Kress points out, in trying to explain the world to others, journalists exclude as much as they include details in their reports, and in that sense do not simply record reality but instead interpret it. (Multimodal Discourse Analysis, 2011) The online platform for the criticism of media content, practice and structure Critical Media Review notes that“News is not an exact representation of reality but rather a reconstruction from various angles of a small section of reality. “This is not to say that journalists necessarily lie or consciously distort the truth, but that journalists, by covering particular stories, using particular sources from a particular news angle, are constructing reality through a selective process.  Moreover, they are constrained both by the work practices, constraints of resources and their relationship to shareholders and/or managers.”


In practice, the selective process enables journalists to choose what to emphasize and what to omit through the lead of a news story. The lead controls how a report is “framed”—meaning its focus on what the journalist thinks is the core of the event or issue being reported. The way a report is presented to the media audience helps shape the way viewers, listeners or readers perceive events and issues, and how they will interpret them, and perhaps do something about it. “Framing” is also part of the agenda-setting function of the news media — their capacity to influence audience perception of events and issues in the news in terms of what is important. A statement by the President of the Republic critical of the United States human rights record in the Philippines in the course of a speech on foreign affairs policy, in which he also announces a pledge of additional aid from China despite its incursions into the West Philippine Sea, for example, can be “framed” as either a break from the US, or as an opening to the country’s next door neighbor. How that event is framed helps set the agenda of public discourse and will determine what the media audience will regard as important. Will it be the future of Philippine-US relations, and its implications on the economy and national defense and security, or the administration’s claim that it is pursuing an independent foreign policy? Subjective judgment is in fact at work at every step of the news process rather than objectivity as it is commonly understood: as the absence of interpretation. It is nevertheless a standard to which editors claim to subscribe, and which therefore leads them to demand it of their reporters’ work.


But the same editors insist and swear fealty to the idea that the essential relationship between media and government is “adversarial.” In practice, “objectivity” is assumed to consist of diligently reporting what this or that source said without any comment or sign of partisanship, and with enough care in one’s choice of words and emphasis, to ensure that “only the facts” are being presented.  It is a stance that flies in the face of the claim that the media, in furtherance of the adversarial relationship, has to presume that government is always a foe. Even that conventional idea is flawed, as Edmund Lambeth of the Missouri School of Journalism points out in his book Committed Journalism (1992). If that were indeed the case, every report would proceed from the assumption that a government source can never be trusted, that what he or she is saying is likely to be false, and that it is the journalist’s responsibility to point it out.  It would compel practitioners to go beyond the skepticism with which he or she must subject anyone’s claims and statements pending verification from documentary evidence and other sources, and what’s more, would be far from “objective.
The only time that the adversarial assumption will hold is when a government or regime demonstrates, both through its policies, acts and declarations its antagonism to the news media (such as US President Donald Trump’s describing the press as “the enemy of the people” and President Rodrigo Duterte’s vow to block the renewal of the franchise of television and radio network ABS-CBN and other attacks on the press).  Absent such evidence, by demanding that the press regard the government as the enemy, that common assumption opens the press to accusations of being inherently biased.  But the reality is that the relationship between government and media is seldom adversarial. The corporate press is most often neutral towards government, or even supportive of it for quite obvious reasons, reportorial and editorial laziness being only one of them. The protection of the political and economic interests of the media organization is an even more compelling reason. Neither being supportive nor being neutral can be described as being “objective.” Like being supportive, “neutrality” in the form of simply quoting what was said by this or that source is itself a position that in journalism leads readers, viewers and listeners to approve of the issue, policy or act the report is being “neutral” about. “Objectivity” can come close to public relations, since reports without analysis of what this or that source said tend to convince the media audience that what he or she said is accurate and reasonable because uncontested. US journalist Walter Pincus of the Washington Post,  in his 2008 essay “A Call For Journalistic Courage,” pointed out that “Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players – the government and its opponents – can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy. The disturbing trend is that more and more of these informational offerings are nothing but PR peddled as real ‘news’.” Objectivity in the sense that Pincus describes it is the main argument Filipino journalists raise against suggestions that they be more discerning and critical in their work rather than merely recording for public consumption every declaration, allegation or claim that a public personality, specially a government official, makes, and that they provide context and subject what they do report to some analysis. The result of such press “neutrality,” like that of support, is often reporting based on official sources, which by being one-sided, also challenges the validity of claims to objectivity. But even if a number of sources are cited, reporting without analysis limits what the public gets from the press to the alleged facts without getting any sense of their meaning.


In his “Independence of Journalism”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and media critic Noam Chomsky observed that “(During the 2016 US Presidential elections), coverage was massive, and instructive. Issues were almost entirely avoided by the candidates, and virtually ignored in commentary, in accord with the journalistic principle that ‘objectivity’ means reporting accurately what the powerful do and say, not what they ignore. The principle holds even if the fate of the species is at stake – as it is: both the rising danger of nuclear war and the dire threat of environmental catastrophe.” In Philippine practice,  even the most outrageous claims of the powerful are routinely quoted by the press without any analysis of the implications of, say, President Duterte’s encouragement of rape, or of his verbal attacks on human rights defenders.  “Objectivity” thus becomes both a hindrance to discharging the journalistic responsibility of explaining what the facts mean, as well as the excuse for, and the avenue through which everything regardless of significance is merely reported for their own sake.  In the Philippine experience, the claim to press adherence to objectivity has not prevented the most egregious forms of partisanship, as a cursory review of the news sections of the Manila Bulletin and the Daily Tribune will reveal, these broadsheets being habitually inclined to comment in their news columns on the events and issues they’re reporting. Meanwhile, the insistence by many journalists that whatever public figures do or say has to be reported because these figures are “news material” often conceals the media organization or the reporter’s preferences, for whatever reason,  for certain sources. By focusing attention on them, it is the press that enshrines these sources as “news material,” among the powers of the media being their capacity to endow anyone and anything with “status and legitimacy.” (Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory, 2010)


The perils of being “objective” in this sense are evident.  It prevents discernment and deters critical judgment and limits reporting to “just the facts.” It assumes that someone or something’s being news material, rather than media’s doing, is an inherent characteristic of the source the journalist chooses to consult.   What is arguably even worse, the news media’s supposed adherence to it makes it appear that how an event or issue is reported is completely free of interpretation; regardless of the fact that the reporter chooses what to emphasize in the lead of his story which determines the importance that the media audience will give to this aspect of the subject. Is there still room for objectivity in journalism? Yes, but only if it is defined as the principle that should govern the process of getting as much of the facts needed in news reporting — regardless of the journalist’s own preferences, biases or opinions;  rather than as a prohibition against the interpretation of issues and events. Objectivity should not be regarded as a prohibition against analysis, which in both normal as well as extraordinary times is a service the news media have to provide in furtherance of the making of the informed and politically-engaged public that democratic discourse needs. As the Society of Professional Journalists puts it: In addition to being ethical and taking responsibility for their work “Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”