News: Beyond the Myth of Objectivity
Objectivity, n. (Apparently,) The practice of presenting both sides of an issue.
Spend a week watching any of the network news reports and you are likely to conclude that all issues have only two sides and that middle-aged, white males have the only insight on them. From Sunday afternoon interview programs to ABC's Nightline, satisfying the U.S. media's standards of "objectivity" seems to require bringing opposing personalities together to debate issues of foreign and domestic policy. The ensuing dialogue, usually between Democrats and Republicans or some equivalent, suggests that all sides of the issue are covered.
This dualism is one way media interpret news in North America. It seems clear, however, that "presenting both sides" tends to undermine creative discussion of the many shades of belief that actually represent opinion on complex issues.
If all issues are presented in black-and-white, yes-and-no terms, if one is either pro-life or pro-choice, pro-intervention or anti-intervention, what happens to discussion of cases that fail to fit the neatly established dichotomy?
Another traditional definition of objectivity focuses on the idea of impartiality. In this view, objectivity means keeping one's own beliefs, opinions or feelings separate from the story. This definition is more textbook than honest, however. Most journalists would agree that true impartiality is impossible. Even the most evenhanded reporter is subject to personal bias.
Objectivity is stressed and stretched today by the growth of new media and the shrinkage of mass media markets. Its surviving forms carry the weight of tradition. The unwary viewer can be left with the impression that media dualism represents all the sides there are to current issues.
The limits of objectivity make the search for alternative viewpoints crucial. Still, there's no doubt that in the immediate future, most readers, viewers and listeners will depend on mainstream media for the basic facts that shape their opinions.
What to watch for, then, in media news? Look for creativity. Look for journalists and media that stretch to find unusual perspectives. Watch for the foreign correspondent who takes the trouble to interview refugees when another power invades their country. Pay attention to the broadcaster who takes precious time to explore the history of the debate over rights, pointing out how today's opinions echo historical questions. Read the writer whose editorial on nuclear energy in Tennessee includes an interview with an elderly Appalachian trout fisherman who remembers what the fish were like before the power plant was built.
Journalists are well aware that any story will change with the number of people interviewed, but not enough of them follow this principle on all stories. Those who go the extra mile are worth watching for. A truly effective journalist shouldn't be satisfied with the views of the experts. Neither should media consumers.
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