Objectivity in Journalism is a Fallacy

by Christopher Paslay

Sean Hannity recently stated on his radio program that “journalism is dead in America.” He made this comment in response to the attacks the media is waging against republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Although I agree with Hannity that Palin’s private life has been tastelessly scrutinized, I find it interesting that Hannity buys into the myth that there’s such a thing as a “fair and balanced” news media.

Total objectivity in journalism is a fallacy. Hunter S. Thompson knew this well, which is why he turned to gonzo journalism to get across the truths of the stories he was reporting. There isn’t a newspaper big enough, or a television broadcast long enough, to include every single point of view of every single story.

Based on the limits of time and space, editors must discriminate—decide what to include and what to ignore. Journalism textbooks suggest editors should make their choices based on the “elements of news,” things like prominence, proximity, timeliness and human interest. According to The Elements of Journalism, the award winning book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “journalism’s first obligation is to truth,” and “its first loyalty is to citizens.”

But truth and loyalty can be very subjective.

I’ve been teaching high school journalism for ten years. Over the past decade I’ve learned that achieving total objectivity in journalism is like traveling at the speed of light: it exists only in theory. Viewing society through the looking-glass of any single newspaper, television or radio station can be dangerous. It’s not that these news sources intentionally distort the facts—most preserve the five W’s and the H very accurately. It’s the way they cover and report their stories—the way their own perception of reality influences WHAT to report and HOW to report it—that results in a limited and sometimes unreliable portrayal of events.

However, poor perception is not the only cause of biased reporting. In my opinion, every news organization has its own unwritten (and sometimes unconscious) political agenda. Political neutrality—a news broadcast that is truly fair and balanced—doesn’t exist. For a news entity to survive, there has to be an edge, a shtick, a way to provoke conflict and spark interest. Otherwise, no one will care.

To create this conflict, news stations often use politics to force their audience to take a side, creating an “us against them” mentality. Once a person chooses a side and is properly indoctrinated, their mind tends to close to all outside points of view. Soon the person’s ready to attack anyone who disagrees with the values and ideas being purported by that particular news station. As a result, the station builds an audience.

In the 21st century, news is more about entertainment than it is about providing information. Many Americans simply watch the news to kill time before American Idol, or tune in to talk radio to make their drive to work more bearable. And what’s the biggest way to stimulate us listless Americans? By fanning the flames of our personal politics.

It’s time to end the charade of “objective journalism” in America. Every news station has a political bias. Turn on channel A and Barack Obama has the potential to become the greatest president since JFK. Turn on channel B and he doesn’t have the experience to lead the Cub Scouts. How is this possible? Our nation’s news organizations need to come out of the closet—admit the fact that the stories they report are more about agenda than they are about “truth”.

So how do we stay informed in the 21st century? How do we cut through all the political bias lurking within the American media? One way is to strive for a well-rounded diet of news. In other words, we need to balance our intake of CNN with a healthy helping of FOX. We must temper our portions of NPR with a nice dose of Glenn Beck.

As Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said, “People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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