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Fairness, bias and judgement - does journalism need to rethink its fundamental canon: objectivity?

JAY ROSEN, a journalism professor and director of the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University, is a press critic who often draws criticism from reporters and editors by saying journalism needs to rethink its fundamental canon: objectivity. Mr. Rosen sat down for a
conversation about the way the press uses, or abuses, the claim to objectivity. Here are some excerpts from a report in The New York Times December 12, 1994. If anything, it is more relevant today than ever: 

Q.  What is journalistic objectivity? 

A.  It is the value of fairness, which is extremely important. It's the ethic of restraining your own biases, which is also important.  . . . It's the idea that journalism can't be the voice of any particular party or sect, which is also important. All those things are very honorable, very important. What
is insidious and crippling about objectivity is when journalists say: "We just present you with facts. We don't make judgments. We don't have any values ourselves." That is dangerous and wrongheaded. 

Q.  Do you think we make judgments? 

A.  Of course. And I think you think you make judgments all the time. . . . I don't think the kind of bias journalists are usually accused of -- ideological bias, personal animus -- is generally worrisome. Far more subtle and more dangerous are the conventions of journalism: the ways in which
journalists go about dividing the world, framing public life for us, picturing the world of politics. There are values and assumptions hidden in those decisions that are extremely important to name and to debate, and I think, at this point, to change. 

Q.  What is behind that framing? 

A.  In every area of coverage, from politics to sports, there are these kinds of lenses. When we talk about politics and public life, the frames journalists employ are very identifiable and narrow. There is, for example, the strategy lens: seeing everything through the eyes of the tactician. There is the emphasis on winning and the game aspects of politics. 

Q.  And what does that have to do with objectivity? 
 
A.  Objectivity officially declares that none of this goes on because, officially, the description of what journalists do and what they ought to do is present facts. 

Q.  And is that not what we ought to do? 

A.  That is not a description of what's possible in journalism. When journalists say, "All we do is present facts," that is misleading. 

Q.  Do we mislead intentionally? 

A.  Sometimes, to avoid criticism, yes. To escape from discussions about your craft, yes. To sever the conversation about journalism and its values from the rest of the political culture, yes. Journalism doesn't admit that criticism is legitimate. One of the most powerful things about the declaration "I'm objective," is the hidden corollary: "You're not." 

Q.  Who's you? 

A.  Everybody but the journalist. So everybody who comes at the press with a dissatisfaction, with a complaint, or even with an idea, is seen by journalists as subjective. And those who are "subjective," who are interested, who have a stake, are almost by definition unqualified to pass judgment on the
"objective" operation of the press. So one of the most insidious effects of objectivity is that it creates a world in which journalists can live without criticism, because they're the only judges of what's objective. 

Q.  But isn't that one of the reasons journalism exists, to be a third party, the Fourth Estate? 

A.  If you're saying good journalism is independent journalism, I agree completely. However, I also believe that an objective press has to be in conversation with the rest of the country and the political culture about what's a good lens to take. 

Q.  But the reality of the rest of the culture is that it's highly partisan and the press ought not to be. 

A.  Ah, but see that view of "everybody else but us is highly partisan" is itself an artifact of the ideology or doctrine of objectivity. 

Q.  Isn't it the case that there's a great deal of partisanship? 

A.  Yes. 

Q.  And don't you need somebody who is not partisan to provide the information so the partisans can function? 

A.  Yes, you need an independent source of information in politics. The issue is: How should we describe what this independent institution does? If we describe it simply as providing facts, we're going to miss a lot of what this institution does.  . . . The political drama given to us by the press is
dominated by professionals in politics, by insiders, by discussions of strategy and technique and manipulation. It is almost exclusively a story of conflict and controversy within the political class, and it is increasingly out of touch with the rest of the country and out of step with the problems we
face as a democracy. 

Q.  The press often feels it should stay as far out of the story as possible, doesn't it? 

A.  That is a fantasy that journalists have about themselves. If you look at Washington political culture, journalists are completely involved in that culture in a whole variety of ways. They are constantly involved in what gets on the public agenda, who's getting attention. 

Q.  What would you call the role the press plays in politics? 

A.  I would say the press is framing the story of public life for us in a particular way. It's inescapable. It's in the nature of what they do. And it's not working. . . . It's not working for citizens. 

Q.  And the press won't admit it? 

A.  They won't admit it because they would face a very different criticism of what they do, which they don't know how to deal with. It would require them to rethink a lot of their most basic assumptions, and it would require them to take a certain basic level of responsibility for how we conduct ourselves as a public society. At the root of objectivity is the wish to be free of the results of what you do. 

This article speaks about objectivity and does not mention fair-play. Journalist spalsh huge headlines across the front pages in order to sell but when those headlines are in error, when lawsuits for defamation occur the apology and retraction is tucked away in a tiny column buries deep within the newspaper or magazine. The damage has been done and the seed sown in the minds of the reader.

Now here's a bit of subjectivity in a current situation! The sexual abuse cases by Catholic Clergy. Each new case is BIG NEWS! But we never hear about any of the other denominations, or about fathers, or about teachers, or about social workers, or about policemen, all of whom in my opinion hold just as much of a responsible role towards children as do Priests, or about any other group in society. This must be purely a Catholic Priest condition!

I often wonder at the real agenda behind such reporting. Yes, it is good that these cases are being brought out into the open and it is high time the Church was purged of these evil-doers. But where is fair and balanced reporting? Where are the statistics to show that in truth the percentage of child abusers by Priests are actually much lower than the percentage in the population at large. 

Sure much of the blame must lie at the door of the Bishops for neglecting their duties towards their flock and the laws of the land. But has anyone looked back at the laws at the time of these abuses of 20 years ago to see what sort of legislation was actually in place for situations like these?

In the mid-eighties I did a brush-up nursing course in psychiatry and paedophilia was classed as a psychiatric medical condition at the time. It was only in the late 80's that laws were passed for child protection.

The pen is mightier than the sword and nothing could me more true. One headline of a false report is enough to ruin a career, a marriage, and a life. Journalists need to get back to the ethics of the job they hold for in their hands they virtually 'hold life'!


Moytura has several other sites with a 'Christian flavour'. Prayerful Thoughts & Thoughtful Prayers is a little collection of prayers and thought-provoking stories, and a few links to some other really nice websites. Reflections for Lent offers a daily meditation for the 40 days of lent and the week leading into Easter. As part of my Journey section of the website join me to learn a little of the Early Christian Church in Ireland by visiting Clonmacnoise, founded by St. Ciaran on the banks of the River Shannon in the 6th. Century. Read about Saint Brendan the Navigator who started a Monastic settlement in the tiny village of Clonfert in the 6th century, located on the Galway/Offaly/Tipperary border. Travel on my journeys to two of Canada's most famous Catholic Shrines - Saint Anne de Beaupré and Cap de la Madeleine, both on the shores of the Saint Lawrence river in Quebec. Finally I welcome you to come with me to see a little of Medugorje, a peaceful haven in a war-torn country - Bosnia-Herzogovina. Please also pay a visit to  Moytura's Irish Bookshop where you can find books on the history of Christianity in IrelandIrish Prayers and Celtic Christianity

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