Monday, January 10, 2005

The myth of the unbiased reporter

CBS News today fired four staffers that played key roles in the airing during the presidential campaign of the since-discredited report about President Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. Although serious ethical issues were implicated if the staffers knew or had reason to suspect that the report was false, the firings cannot restore the status of CBS News as a source of unbiased news because it is impossible for any media outlet to be objective.

The argument that major newspapers and television networks should be objective assumes that objectivity is possible. This objectivity is not possible even if reporters make every effort to present all sides. The very decision to decide what to cover in the face of potentially infinite topics out there requires judgment that will necessarily incorporate reference to values about what is important and what is not. Media outlets, when deciding what to cover, may decide on the basis of who they think their audience is, what is important to this audience, and what they think their audience should know. Throw in the competition for coverage by those who would be covered, and the process becomes even more subjective. These factors are further influenced by social circumstances: how these judgments are made will differ across the country and around the world. In this way, the New York Times' motto that it prints everything fit for print is circular because it tells us nothing about how it decides what to run.

Media outlets should come clean and drop all pretense of objectivity. Even when they try to balance coverage, they should try to unsettle the expectations of readers that their coverage will be objective. While such outlets may never be purely objective, openly making their readers uncomfortable may actually achieve something closer to the objectivity the outlets seek by forcing readers to think about where their news comes from. Although running explanations justifying each article might be overly cumbersome, general mission statements may go a long way towards clarifying for readers why the coverage was presented in the way that it was.

This goes especially for Foxnews, which has been the butt of many jokes for trying to have its cake and eat it too by claiming to present fair and balanced coverage while also targeting a conservative audience. Were it to drop this pretense of objectivity, it would do the country a great service in making clear the source of its values and promoting discussion about the validity of these first principles. And in so doing, Foxnews could lead the way in restoring public perception of reporter integrity.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i must AGREE w/ "put on your specs" here.

objectivity in journalism recalls the heisenberg principle. one cannot observe a thing without changing its state. to shed light on a thing is to alter it.

- mister burp 1506

1/10/2005 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that television stations should come clean about being partisan but I think you are incorrect that they shouldn't be objective. I believe, though most people are morons (including me), that they believe they shape what the media covers and how they should cover it. So when they turn on the network news they don't want an angle when they read. They want it played down the middle. I think most people understand that the media is biased but yet they vote yearly that the media is untrustworthy. If people believed that it was okay to have a slant (and of course know about it), I do not think they would say the media is untrustworthy.

1/11/2005 12:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must concur as well. In fact, I believe there is a well known bumper sticker out there that reads: "CNN Lies".. apt indeed.

~JF

1/11/2005 06:22:00 PM  

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