The end of “objectivity”: S&R special report on journalism education

Part two in a series.

Let’s begin with a brief look at how Americans view the press.

  • A 2004 Gallup Poll says “Americans rate the trustworthiness of journalists at about the level of politicians and as only slightly more credible than used-car salesmen.”
  • Only about one in five Americans “believe journalists have high ethical standards, ranking them below auto mechanics but tied with members of Congress.”
  • Only “one in four people believe what they read in the newspapers.”
  • Chicago Tribune Editor Charles M. Madigan says: “If you are a journalist, you should probably just assume that you come across as a liar.”
  • A 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey said that “53 percent of the public view the press as out of touch with mainstream America, while 78 percent think journalists pay more attention to the interests of their editors than their readers.”
  • About 22 percent of respondents to a 2003 Pew survey said they thought “the unethical practices of [Jayson] Blair, which included fabricating sources and events, occur frequently among journalists, while 36 percent said they thought wrongdoing happened occasionally. Another 58 percent believed journalists didn’t care about inaccuracies.”

It’s possible to argue that the American public, which grows less interested and intellectually capable by the day, might not have the wherwithall to form a highly credible opinion on the quality of news coverage (which is a complex business). But in this case expert and popular opinion aren’t far apart (and here I’ll simply point you to just about anything my colleague Dr. Denny has written on the subject either here at S&R or over at Lost Lake Library Society).

So if we can all accept that, at the very least, journalism (of the institutional “objective” variety) is in serious trouble, we can move directly to a consideration of the reasons. Certainly there’s no one cause, but let’s start with the hellish toll that’s been taken by the massive consolidation of the news/media industry.

It’s true that the news has always been a business (even the evolution of “objectivity” in the late 19th Century was driven more by business than it was ethical concerns), but the accelerating trend toward consolidated corporate ownership has eroded the public interest ideologies that shaped institutional journalism over the past century. As Ben Bagdikian notes in The New Media Monopoly, a vast majority of all media are today owned by five corporations, and their bottom-line concern is, well, the bottom line. An earlier edition of the book sums it up this way:

…the chairman of the board of the largest newspaper chain, Gannet Company, told an interviewer, “Wall Street didn’t give a damn if we put out a good paper in Niagara Falls. They just wanted to know if our profits would be in the 15-20 percent range.”

Despite the financial incentives that have always existed in the industry, though, there was a commitment to serving the public. Perhaps this was a function of principled professionals, and perhaps it was a function of the times – my guess is that if you put out a paper like we have today back in the ’50s you’d have been run out of town.

It’s not that good reporting can’t happen in this system, it’s just that if it does, it’s not by design. Covering important stories is potentially a means, but it is never the end. If great journalism produces 20% margins, then by all means have at it. Of course, great reporting is expensive – talented people working for a week or a month (or longer) on one story cost money, and if you can scrape the same ad dollars out of the operation by firing the folks with the highest salaries and instead filling the news hole with an even greater volume of syndicated content, then why pay more? (By all means, have a look at this to get a better idea of how the death-spiral works in a dying newsroom.)

The glorious irony in all this (and something that seems intuitively obvious to anybody who’s taken Econ 101, I suspect) is that investing in the newsroom is the best way to assure profitability. According to a recent University of Missouri study:

The team of researchers focused on three areas of operation – news quality; distribution and circulation; and advertising – by analyzing financial data of small- to medium-sized newspapers with circulations of 85,000 or less. Research revealed that news quality most directly affects the bottom line.

“The most important finding is that newspapers are under-spending in the newsroom and over-spending in circulation and advertising,” Thorson said. “If you invest more in the newsroom, do you make more money? The answer is yes. If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money.”

Regardless of publisher perception or economic reality, though, it’s painfully clear that coverage has deteriorated and that cost-cutting and revenue-rage has been at the core of the problem. A concern for the public interest may continue to exist in the newsroom as an inherent artifact of the essential character common of those drawn to the profession (hard reporting is like teaching – nobody is in it for the money), but it will never again be a primary motivator for the dominant organizations of the industry (if, in fact, it ever was).

The result is a news landscape driven by the logic of profit, not by the logic of public and community interest. Established networks, newspapers and magazines are therefore failing in their mission to provide reliable coverage of the events that shape the lives of their constituents.

This explains what’s happening with the news industry, but what does it have to do with “objectivity”? A couple things, actually. First, historically “journalist” has been a profession with canonized ethics and codes of conduct. It has been the physical embodiment of what reporting was, and objectivity was, in some measure, equivalent to the canons in other professions – like the Hippocratic Oath for doctors or the Lawyer’s Oath for attorneys. If the reporter came through a journalism school these principles were ingrained in his or her education from the first day of class; reporters who arrived in the newsroom via other paths got a quick and heavy dose of on-the-job training.

There’s nowhere else I’m aware of where these principles are being taught, so as the traditional institutions fade, so also do the professional codes that defined the activities of those who worked there.

Second, those codes seems to matter less and less even in the legacy organizations. Review the SPJ ethics code, then see how well you think the people at FOX, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and even places like USA Today are adhering to them. Those reporters may not be the models of professional behavior we wish they were, but they’re smart enough to know that while they’re not going to get fired for trampling an ethics code, they’re out the door the instant ratings and readership slip.

At this point, it’s hard to see how our official news industry is going to recover the principles and practices that produced so much landmark reporting in the past. That is, if we’re going to see a new golden age of reporting, it’s unlikely to be constructed on the foundations of past successes. If this is in fact the case, it’s time we started looking toward the dynamics that are most likely to inform productive journalism in the future, and the sooner the better.

Up next: the rise of “subjective” journalism


18 replies »

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  2. First, disclosure: I worked as a reporter, editor and editorial-page editor for 20 years and now teach journalism. That said:

    The argument seems based on these precepts:

    1. For generations, all newsmen and women rigorously believed in something called objectivity.

    2. That all top editors and publishers hew solely to bottom-line decision making.

    3. That polls place journalism practitioners in cellar of public opinion.

    4. That ethics have eroded in the newsroom, and a return to previous ethical standards is no longer possible.

    5. The public is increasingly incapable of critical thought, and there’s a correlation with the quality of journalism in mainstream media (newspapers and broadcast and cable nets).

    On 1: Not true. Scratch a journalist, and you’ll find an opinion. Anyone who’s spent a few years in a newsroom understands fully that a news story is the product of numerous subjective decisions. In my experience, the notion of “objectivity” was invariably spin trotted out when the chamber of commerce complained. Does this mean that journalists labored to place their opinions in their stories?

    No. But the whole notion of “having a nose for news” has everything to do with a journalist’s own lived experience and sensitivities to the world about him or her. What is actually a sense of “fairness” and “balance” has been mislabeled as “objectivity.” (And those words have their own issues attached, but let’s save that for another time.)

    No. 2: The nation has approximately 1,400 daily newspapers with a mean circulation of about 37,000 and a median circulation of about 12,000 and about 6,600 weeklies with a mean circulation of 7,300. About 20 percent of the dailies are attached to chains (ownership groups of two or more papers). Yes, the 12 top chains control 40 percent of all newspaper circulation. And yes, Gannett, the bottomest of bottom-line chains, owns 90 dailies and more than 500 non-daily publications.


  3. Denny:

    Let me begin by noting that your comments paint my argument as a lot more extreme and essentialized than it really is. In an analysis of this general length on a subject of this general magnitude, a certain measure of generalization is necessary. So I’m not describing absolute universalities – rather I’m looking at big picture trends. Perhaps my language in spots makes it look like I’m reaching, but that’s not the case.

    And while your comments do a great job of noting where the exceptions are, it seems like my description of the rules is in good shape. How could it not be, when I quote such solid sources as yourself? 🙂

    Some specific comments:

    1. For generations, all newsmen and women rigorously believed in something called objectivity.

    No, for generations the profession was guided by generally understood and agreed-upon canons, and the term “objectivity” came to describe, in a shorthand fashion, the sum of these principles.

    2. That all top editors and publishers hew solely to bottom-line decision making.


    On 1: Not true. Scratch a journalist, and you’ll find an opinion. Anyone who’s spent a few years in a newsroom understands fully that a news story is the product of numerous subjective decisions. In my experience, the notion of “objectivity” was invariably spin trotted out when the chamber of commerce complained. Does this mean that journalists labored to place their opinions in their stories?

    No, it means that the aforementioned canons defined the role their opinions were to play and not play in the practice of their profession.


  4. Just a few points on this. I’m uncomfortable calling the canons “objectivity.” Objectivity has a very specific meaning, is a limited part of the larger canon, and by calling the whole thing objectivity you both ignore other key elements and the degree to which objectivity is the thing that a number of journalists cling to–in stilted fashion–as the one thing they’ve got left.

    I think Denny’s point about the way that cost issues spread journalists too thin, with a resulting affect on quality. I’m more comfortable with that explanation than one too closely tied to consolidation (After all, McClatchy has been buying up other companies, too, but has managed to refocus on quality–as the U MO study suggests, that’s actually the best way to maintain longterm profitability.

    In any case, I’m in the middle of a big paper on these issues, so I do find this provocative–thanks.

  5. I try to use the term “objectivity” in context, but I don’t think I reduce the discussion around a misunderstanding of the term or “ignore other key elements.” I rather specifically link, in both parts one and two, to the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is as comprehensive a statement as there is of these professional canons, and I do so to avoid, as best I can, being open to this very charge.

  6. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Perhaps my problem is that there is a completely separate discussion about whether journalism should retain the false objectivity of he-said she-said journalism, which a number of otherwise really lousy journalists engage in. Seeking truth with professionalism is very different from ensuring there is no perceivable bias in an article.

  7. Oh and btw, critical thinking is a lost art in the US. That’s why people like Bush can get elected.

  8. The new Vanity Fair features a glaring example of journalistic malfeasance: “Going After Gore.”

    The descriptive blurb: “Al Gore couldn’t believe his eyes: as the 2000 election heated up, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other top news outlets kept going after him, with misquotes (“I invented the Internet”), distortions (that he lied about being the inspiration for Love Story), and strangely off-the-mark needling, while pundits such as Maureen Dowd appeared to be charmed by his rival, George W. Bush.”