Impartiality in journalism: does it even exist?

The Guardian in its comments section last week ran an interesting op ed. by Kellie Riordan titled “Does journalism still require impartiality?”

In it, Riordan describes people like

blogger/journalist Glenn Greenwald, data guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, and now the increasingly popular lo-fi documentary makers at Vice News

as

story-tellers for a digital age that come less from the tradition of straight, impartial news gathering and instead embrace a new style of journalism which favours transparency, strong analysis, opinion, a subjective standpoint, and at times, flat-out advocacy for one side of a debate.

She then goes on to ask the question if we “really need impartiality anymore,” considering that, as she puts it, “younger audiences in particular are turned off by traditional news”.

Indeed, studies – for example in New Zealand – seem to confirm that “music audiences and the young are leading the charge to digital platforms.”

Similarly, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Centre said earlier this year that younger audiences are “interested in the world, but [don’t] feel a strong need to tap traditional news sources.”

In fact, a survey from Pew Research Centre shows that traditional news consumption has been in steady decline – this is true for newspapers (despite their availability on mobile devices), as well as TV. Internet consumption of news has increased proportionately amongst certain age groups.

As for impartiality as opposed to digital age storytelling: arguments could certainly be made for – and against – both.

For example, Riordan quotes media scholar John Pavlik who wondered in 2001 whether

by moving outside the ideology of objectivity, alternative news sources may help to put the facts into a more complete context and perspective. Perhaps society collectively will then be able to triangulate on the truth in a way that traditional journalism cannot, because of its objectivity ideology.

There is much to be said for that. You could argue, of course, that people are perfectly capable of forming their own opinions and that impartial news would allow them to do that much better than news which too strongly reflects the ideas and ideology of the journalist or news organisation behind it. Then again, an argument could also be made that opinions are hardly ever made in isolation and that perhaps much more informed and better-reflected opinions could be formed if people considered multiple points of view. These, in turn, could be provided through different opinions from journalists or, if you will, “storytellers”.

In addition to that, transparency, rather than objectivity, according to “proponents for a post-impartiality world,” can “give[] the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

Now, the idea of transparency as a means of counter-acting “ever-present biases” in an interesting one. It seems particularly pertinent in light of another issue that arises with the idea of impartiality or with what former BBC News boss Richard Sambrook has called “a neutral voice”: does such a thing as a neutral voice or impartiality even exist? Granted, some news may seem more impartial to us than other news does – because some news organisations have been founded upon an ethos of impartiality and objectivity that we assume makes their news equally impartial and objective.

However, just because the opinions of journalists are not reflected in their reporting and it may seem to us that we are being given “the facts”, that does not necessarily mean the news is unbiased. Rather, such news runs the risk of veiling the fact that it is still very much the product of a decision-making process of the people behind a news organisation.

For example, there was much criticism of the BBC earlier this year for its “unbalanced” coverage of the conflicts in Gaza and its subsequent choice not to report on any of the protests outside its Broadcasting House.

The BBC’s statement in response to the criticism:

Many of our programmes focused on detailed reporting and analysis of the latest developments in the Gaza conflict rather than a protest about our reporting, although this was included in our coverage on some outlets. There were also a number of bigger news stories yesterday including a significant cabinet reshuffle and the implications of a sharp rise in inflation.

Whether or not implications of yet another inflation rise or a cabinet reshuffle constitute bigger news that protests outside the UK’s national broadcaster’s venues against its editorial choices is in itself debatable, reflecting clearly that programming is very much a matter of choice and not necessarily neutral and unbiased.

By contrast,

sites such as Politico, Ezra Klein’s Vox and Silver’s FiveThirtyEight are publishing content with many of the same editorial standards upheld by legacy media, but they’re also being transparent when they cannot give a full picture or when information is rapidly shifting.

This seems to be almost a form of meta-journalism, as it draws attention to the very issue that journalism and news reporting, especially in a world of rapidly shifting information, can hardly ever be neutral, wholly impartial or in fact in possession of all the facts, even if it attempts an “impartial and independent approach which examines the facts and draws conclusions based on the weight of evidence.” The evidence, after all, may be – wittingly or unwittingly – weighed very much in favour of a certain point of view and the danger with impartial and independent-seeming media is that it may veil its own limitations.

Equally, it seems justified and necessary to demand that “writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts”.

This is especially important if

[a]udiences still rely on journalists to distill complex facts, filter through information to pull out the important aspects, and to contract lengthy arguments into consumable stories.

Yes,

[t]ransparency must still be coupled with the hallmarks of solid journalism: checking facts, attributing accurately, uncovering new information, and exposing falsehoods.

The problem these days seems to be – and this may be one of the reasons why younger audiences are turning away from traditional media – that these hallmarks of solid journalism sometimes seem to be disregarded precisely by those media we – and they themselves – consider impartial.

Not to mention the fact that as “old media” sought to “achieve [impartiality] with objective methods,” it has always been questionable how “objective” such methods even were.

Riordan is right that “audiences [may still] need a journalist to de-code the news or contextualise the facts” – the NSA reporting is a perfect example of that. No one could or should be expected to make sense of the trove of Snowden documents on their own. Which is why the idea of complete transparency as advocated by WikiLeaks I debatable: it doesn’t seem to make much sense to mass-dump information anywhere and then leave people alone with it.

However, perhaps advocacy journalism also has a place in this new media landscape – next to a blend of new and “traditional” approaches – simply to offer several opinions up for review and discussion so that a multitude of sounder, more informed individual opinions can be formed through active engagement and debate – whether that debate take place on the virtual plane or at the dinner-table in the real world.

It may be high time for audiences to become more active researchers and debaters of opinion rather than mere passive consumers and advocacy journalism may have a part to play in achieving that.

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One thought on “Impartiality in journalism: does it even exist?

  1. This post makes some very important points – it is clear reading the output from mainstream media in relation to recent crises, particularly in Gaza but also virtually all other major and minor events, that impartiality cannot realistically be achieved, and that it should not be used as an excuse to report certain news events in a way that covers ‘both sides of the story’ when this can actually serve to distort the real picture. Jon Snow’s brave broadcast beyond the constraints of C4 told more about the crisis in Gaza than any news report did. No wonder people are finding other sources for news. Let this be a force for good.

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