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The End of Impartiality for Journalism?

  • Opinion

Kay Lee, LLB (Law)

The Impartiality in Journalism event hosted by the Commonwealth Journalists Association made clear that with rise of internet journalism, distinctions must start to be made between evidence-based journalism and the growing sector of “civilian” journalism.  Chaired by former BBC radio host Robin Lustig, the panel included noteworthy journalists such as former war correspondent Martin Bell to renowned Indian journalist Parvathi Menon, who discussed the idea of impartiality in journalism and what that means for journalism in this era of new media. The panel raised questions that we should consider as a digital generation and aspiring world-changers. Has journalism always been objective? What is the purpose of journalism in the first place? Does social media render fact-based journalism irrelevant?


What is the purpose of journalism – has it always been objective?


A central characteristic of journalism is that it is ideally “objective,” meaning that news stories, whether in the newspapers, on television or on radio were believed to be presenting “facts” and reflected the national or global discussion on an issue. However, it is clear that journalism is not always impartial – a journalist’s or editor’s choice of story, angle and even when to publish the article all reflect how important one believes the story to be, how ‘sell-worthy’, or even what facts or ‘sides’ they may deem as being representative of the ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ in a conflict. That being said, journalism is a discipline, and journalists are told to use their professional judgment and impartial values to approach stories instead of reporting on a personal bias; meaning that if a story finds itself to be slanted towards a specific direction, it is the journalist’s job to counter that bias by presenting facts, however unsavoury they may be to the journalist’s personal opinion. There are, of course, ways to detect a journalist’s opinion on the matter – through choice of language, syntax, structure and perhaps even choice of stories – but for the most part, journalists acknowledge their bias while attempting to be as fair as possible with the portrayal of the people, conflicts and situations that they report on. Public debate has been, historically, grounded by what the newspapers report, and with whatever facts that are presented, people form their own opinion. Traditional journalism has thus encouraged the use of evenhandedness in telling stories that are backed up by facts and evidence.


Does social media render objectivity in professional journalism irrelevant?

Social media and the need for instantaneous fact-checking have changed the way we view credibility, objectivity and the traditional journalism establishment as a whole. There is no doubt that aspiring and current journalists should adapt to a playing field that is constantly being remodelled. Over the last decade, the splintering of media platforms has diluted the notion of credibility in news. The news is on Twitter, videos of atrocities are on Youtube and people constantly report what they deem as fact all over various news feeds. This gives rise to the question: does the Internet and digital journalism render objective and fact-based journalism irrelevant?


The Internet age, especially with reference to websites that allow anyone to report what they deem as fact most of the time without prior research, has made evidence and fact-based journalism more important than ever. It has allowed perhaps misinformed individuals to present what they believe as fact, which can easily lead to a contamination of public debate – something that Richard Sambrook, a former Director of the BBC World Service, argues, should be grounded in fact.


An issue with social media is that it blurs the distinction between facts, prejudices and perhaps even rumours. It has given rise to subjective, opinion-based journalism where many people write reports posing as journalists to get what they want to say across. For instance, panel member Christina Lamb, current foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times, cites a news story where a picture and report were sent in, alleging Robert Mugabe’s government involvement in the mutilation of a young child. After the story was published, a doctor wrote in, saying that the deformation seemed like a clubfoot; upon further research, it was exposed that this was indeed the case and not an inflicted injury.


With citizen-based journalism, especially in areas of conflict with potential censorship laws, it is difficult to distinguish between what is fact and what is information being manipulated to promote a cause, which, in turn, can misinform the public. News sources need to be trusted to give people facts, whether or not the facts are what the public wants to believe. People should be able to form their own opinion based on facts presented, as opposed to telling people what to think, which is borderline propaganda. Therefore, in such an age where information is constant and it’s hard to distinguish what is fact and what is opinion posing as fact; objectivity and impartiality in journalism and news sources are becoming indispensable.


Media Literacy and Journalism

Another growing issue in the expansion of journalism into various media platforms is the rising illiteracy of our society towards the media. Some have suggested that we have become desensitised to ‘bad news’ because our news is coming from various sources, and as a result, the idea of ‘evidence-based’ journalism may not be something we search for any longer. It could also be suggested that this variety has made us less trusting on the whole, as we don’t know where our news is coming from. The fact of the matter is, in this growing age of various kinds of media, media literacy is important in distinguishing between what journalism is transparent and evidence-based, and what is personal opinion backed up by nothing more than sentiment.


The coexistence of different kinds of journalism

Despite this talk of objective journalism, there is definitely still space, if not need, for subjective, opinion-based journalism. For instance, it can be useful in places where there may be censorship or a lack of proper government reporting bodies and may provide the world with some inkling of what is happening in those places. While the internet can sensationalise and sometimes provide badly researched information, it does offer basic understanding on some level, giving oppressed peoples a voice. There are of course problems, such as the lack of certainty as to who we may be interviewing and how credible they as a source may be, but those can be countered by proper research and the understanding of situations.


While media outlets such as the BBC may remain objective for the most part, it is still important to have others, such as Channel 4 News and – though perhaps less credible – the Daily Mail; they give people the option for voicing their opinions, regardless of whether or not they are agreeable. The beauty of the current media is that everyone has an opinion, and only in understanding all sides of an argument or all kinds of beliefs can we form our own. However, this doesn’t diminish the importance of transparency in traditionally objective news sources. Now, more than ever, we need to know where our information is coming from, how journalists came to that conclusion, and perhaps how they’ve acknowledged their biases and what they’ve done to counter it. “Independent” and “unilateral” reports are still important in keeping the sanctity of fact and public debate, and in distinguishing the information that we can trust from the information that we cannot.

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