Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of reporting only the facts and not a personal attitude toward the facts. That means that when covering hard news, reporters don’t convey their own feelings, biases or prejudices in their stories. This article questions if objectivity has chilled journalists. Objectivity was not always a core foundation of journalism and while it is considered needed in journalism perhaps it is this illusion of fairness. This article looks at objectivity mostly from the American press perspective and briefly touches on the development of the British press as well.
Journalism wasn’t always considered a profession in fact before professionalism became an integral part of journalism newspapers were not neutral, non-partisan outlets, but the products of particular political parties. Britain’s press can trace its history back more than 300 years. William Caxton had introduced the first English printing press in 1476 and, by the 16th century, the first ‘newspapers’ were seen in Britain. Newspapers were slow to evolve, with an illiterate population relying on town criers for news. Around 1640 around 30,000 ‘newsletters’ and ‘newspapers’ were printed. News, commissioned by the wealthy and by aristocrats and senior clerics, had been transmitted orally by messengers and in manuscript form before the arrival of printing in Western Europe in the fifteenth century. As the world of the Early Modern period began to quite literally expand, with the so-called voyages of discovery and the subsequent increase in commercial traffic, people were keen to keep in contact vicariously with a more dynamic world. In 1794 America, newspapers made up 70% of post office traffic and the big debate in Congress was not over whether the government should pay for their delivery, but how much of it to pay for. James Madison attacked the idea that newspaper publishers should have to pay even a token fee to get the government to deliver their publications, calling it “an insidious forerunner of something worse.”
Objectivity wasn’t even invented until the 1900s. Robert McChesney comments in The Problem of the Media, “Such notions for the press would have been nonsensical, even unthinkable.” The beginnings of journalism at Columbia with Joseph Pulitzer, the founding gift to Columbia in l908, the formation of an undergraduate school and its opening in 1912, Pulitzer’s insistence that the separation between the news and advertising departments achieved in the world and other modern newspapers are reproduced in the school. By the turn of the century, we had entered the age of the reporter. The reporter became the archetypal figure of journalism simply because the “glut of occurrences” forced him or her to the center of the enterprise and made the newspaper an instrument of news gathering and writing rather than an excuse for editorials or printing official documents.
It was this “glut of occurrences that in 1919, Walter Lippmann and others began to look for ways for the individual journalist “to remain clear and free of his irrational, his un-examined, and his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news.” Journalism, Lippmann declared, was being practiced by “untrained accidental witnesses.” Good intentions, or what some might call “honest efforts” by journalists, were not enough. Faith in the reporter, what Lippmann called the “cynicism of the trade,” was also not enough. Nor were some of the new innovations of the times, like by-lines, or columnists.
In an article by the American press institute described how Lippmann argued, for journalists to acquire more of “the scientific approach”. What Lippmann meant by this that journalism should aspire to “a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact”. Lippmann thought the early field of journalism education should be transformed from “trade schools designed to fit men for higher salaries in the existing structure.” Instead, the field should make the study of evidence and verification more prominent. The first courses in journalism, in short, were designed to transform irresponsible writers into responsible journalists, to teach not only a craft but politics and ethics congenial to the needs of college presidents seeking, like all administrators, more order and docility. The entire foundation of press criticism was rebuilt.
Now, instead of criticizing papers for the bias of their owners, press critics had to focus on the professional obligations of their writers. Bias wasn’t about the slant of a paper’s focus, but about any slanting put in by a reporter.
Categories: Thoughts on journalism