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The Facade of Objectivity: We Can Do Better

By Aminah Hashmi, BA Politics and International Relations

I’ll just come out and say it: the pretence of objectivity hinders good journalism. Good journalism is not just presenting ‘what happened,’ it contextualises the event and helps people understand why it matters. The preoccupation with keeping to ‘complete impartiality’ in news reporting conceals the fact that bias is inevitable – writers are not detached from the world they write about. What we accept as ‘impartial’ are perspectives that serve the status quo and a historical dismissal of the perspectives of those not in power: minority ethnic and religious groups, the LGBT+ community, and immigrants to name a few. Student journalism especially should not hide behind the contrived front of objectivity – chances are, the readership of the student newspaper wants the student perspective. Good journalism goes beyond the regurgitation of the basic facts of an event, it provides context and analysis and goes beyond ‘What happened?’ to ‘What does this mean?’ We can’t really be impartial when we answer the latter question – it’s inevitably shaped by the context of where the individual is coming from. 

I feel like every field I’ve encountered has had this strange idolisation of ‘objectivity’ as an ideal to strive for. In social sciences, researchers value quantitative research more than qualitative research because of that same facade of objectivity valued in journalism. This comes from the natural sciences where a ‘central truth’ is achievable when studied objectively. 

By definition, an objective view of a social event is impossible. Anyone who has taken a research methods class can tell you that facts about the social world are not impartial statistics. Facts are collected, chosen, and distributed by people. Which facts are emphasised, how (or if) they are contextualised, and what information they omit are all influenced by bias hidden under the label of ‘objectivity’. Journalism itself is a decision-making process, everything from what event is newsworthy to who we choose to quote is a choice informed by bias. Historically, the people making those decisions were those who benefited and furthered the interest of the status quo – white, middle-class men. When the image of an impartial news piece is held too high in esteem, it conceals this decision-making process. The fact is, by trying so hard to make a news piece ‘neutral’, what we are actually doing is restricting the perspectives of those who don’t fit into the criteria of the status quo. 

Being a credible news source is not about pushing for the image of impartiality. Every major news organisation has a perspective, whether or not they acknowledge it. The pursuit of objectivity comes from a place of insecurity and the need to be taken seriously by those who made ‘neutrality’ an ideal. In 2021, the BBC quit Stonewall’s diversity scheme over fear that it would affect people’s perception of the impartiality of BBC journalism on LGBT+ issues. Was that an impartial move or one that supports the biases of existing power structures?  Building trust between an organisation and its readership is more effectively achieved by being transparent about biases than by claiming complete impartiality. A more valuable journalistic approach acknowledges that neutrality is not something achievable and instead is transparent about the perspectives that inevitably inform their reporting. Journalism that embraces perspective enriches news reporting and analysis without compromising credibility. 

To be clear, this is not to argue that every news piece becomes an opinion piece. It is instead an argument to remove strict ‘objectivity’ as the guiding ideal of journalism when it is not only impossible but harmful. Being transparent about perspective makes for a more credible news source than an image of impartiality. In student journalism, this is especially true. Student journalism gives a voice to perspectives not found in mainstream news coverage mainly because there are not as many hoops to jump through to be heard. People who find themself underrepresented in the staff rooms of major news outlets are more likely to be represented in student journalism, especially at SOAS. Pushing for ‘complete impartiality’ in news reporting in this context is counterproductive to good journalism when the insights of students are part of the appeal of a student newspaper. 

What I’m trying to ask is: can we stop getting caught up in making sure journalism is perceived as objective and start embracing the diverse perspectives that can enrich news reporting?

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