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The future of objectivity
Andrew Calcutt, University of East London
Philip Hammond, London South Bank University
When humanity has seen itself as the subject of history, it has also seen the world of its own
making as an object of study – hence objectivity. Conversely, the recent rejection of
objectivity is the correlate of the ‘end of history’, or, the suspension of the idea of humanity as
its subject.
The rise of objectivity
Historically, journalism’s ability to fulfil its democratic role has been constrained by the
divisions and tensions of class society; specifically, by the elite’s need to marginalise radical
opinion and to manage mass public opinion.
Historical accounts of the concept of journalistic objectivity (for example Allan 1997) tend to
identify three key moments:
1. the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth century;
2. the development of the mass-circulation press as a business in the late nineteenth
century; and
3. the institutionalisation of professional norms of objectivity and impartiality in
newspaper and radio journalism in the early twentieth century.
According to Habermas’s (1989) account, the identification of the interests of the rising
bourgeoisie with the general ‘public interest’ in the eighteenth century was, though partial
(restricted to wealthy white men), also justifiable, to the extent that challenging the ancien
regime really was in the general interest of society. Once in power, however, the capitalist
class became less of a friend to liberty. As described by James Curran and Jean Seaton
(2003), in the nineteenth century the commercially oriented, advertising-funded mass
circulation press drove out radical newspapers and drastically narrowed the range of what
was included in the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
The establishment of objectivity as a core professional ethic of journalism after the First World
War went hand-in-hand with a concerted and conscious effort to ‘manage’ a volatile and
dangerous public opinion. Stuart Allan (1997: 308) suggests that ‘Popular disillusionment not
only with state propaganda campaigns, but also with the recent advent of press agents and
“publicity experts”, had helped to create a general wariness of “official” channels of
information.’ He is no doubt correct, but the underlying issue was not so much popular
scepticism toward official channels of information as militant working-class demands for social
change. This was, after all, the era of the Bolshevik revolution, the moment when communist
parties were being established across the Western world. The birth of Public Relations in the
inter-war period was one attempt to manage a new and unpredictable mass public by
‘engineering’ or ‘manufacturing’ consent as Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann put it.
The explicit promotion of journalistic objectivity (or BBC impartiality) was an attempt to cope
with this situation by finding ways to retain credibility with the mass audience. It was also – as
in John Reith’s famous equation of ‘impartiality’ with support for the government – another
tool in the box for managing public opinion.
Journalistic objectivity has always had a double-edged character: in part about a genuine
extension of public knowledge and informing public debate; but also partly about the
narrowing of debate within acceptable parameters. Few would want to celebrate ‘objective
journalism’ uncritically; but equally, few would wish simply to write off journalism’s potential for
sustaining the public sphere and informing democratic decision-making.
The critique of objectivity
The academic critique of journalistic objectivity has demonstrated how it constrains debate
within a ‘consensual framework’ (Hall et al., 1978) or a ‘sphere of legitimate controversy’
(Hallin, 1986). It has shown how ‘objective journalism is a political perspective…a
perspective most closely associated with political centrism’ (Pedelty, 1995: 171) and how
objectivity became reduced to a ‘strategic ritual’, a set of routines and a reliance on official
sources, rather than a search for truth (Tuchman, 1972). Just as the concept of journalistic
objectivity has a history, however, so too does the critique of objectivity. Rather than a set of
timeless truths, the critique of objectivity needs to be seen in context: indeed, it is our
contention that in today’s circumstances it no longer makes sense.
The critique of journalistic objectivity which was developed in the 1970s and ’80s was always
implicitly undercut by the fact that it did not defend the concept of objectivity as such. As
Judith Lichtenberg (1991) observes, it is logically inconsistent to criticise journalism for failing
to be objective while also arguing that objectivity is impossible. Yet that has been the thrust
of most of the critiques of journalistic objectivity which have come out of Sociology and Media
and Cultural Studies. In the past, the implied relativism of the critique was contained or
masked by the fact of active political engagement and contestation. News could be criticised
for systematically favouring some perspectives and excluding or marginalising others (trades
union or left-Labour views in the Glasgow Media Group’s classic (1995) studies, for example).
The question of what would constitute an ‘objective’ account tended to be avoided in favour of
amassing evidence of the ways that the ‘neutral, unbiased, impartial and balanced’ ethos of
broadcast news disguised its ideological character (Glasgow Media Group, 1995: 367).
Radical critics such as those at the Glasgow Media Group made it clear that they were not
‘neutral’ any more than the news was, but did not clarify the issue of objectivity.
In the absence of the clear Left/Right ideological contest of yesteryear, however, that critique
becomes much more difficult to sustain. What are the ‘alternative’ or oppositional viewpoints
now being marginalised? Mainstream political debate is narrower than ever, but it is difficult
to identify clearly defined perspectives which are being marginalised or left out. Perhaps
most importantly, the majority of people in Western societies are not really engaged or
interested in the public sphere.
Habermas’s view – that journalism was no longer able to play the role for which it had
seemed destined in the Age of Enlightenment, and that the contemporary commercial media
had instead given rise to a ‘re-feudalisation the public sphere’ – has usually been seen as
overly pessimistic. Today, however, the public sphere does indeed appear to have been ‘refeudalised’, in the sense that we are more or less passive spectators to a kind of court
politics. Yet where Habermas attributed the problem to the media, it seems clear that the real
problem is the hollowing out of political life itself: for this reason, his argument is actually more
pertinent to the period after its publication in English in 1989 than it was when it first appeared
in German in the early 1960s. After the end of Left and Right, the political class has become
increasingly isolated and disconnected from the demos it is supposed to represent.
Established institutions and sources of authority, from the monarchy to the press, are called in
to question, not from a critical political point of view, but simply as an expression of popular
cynicism and disengagement. In these circumstances, to go on recycling the critique of
objectivity is at best redundant, and at worst likely to reinforce cynical attitudes toward the
media and public life.
The fall of objectivity
Stuart Allan suggested more than a decade ago that ‘The end of “objectivity” and “impartiality”
as the guiding principles of an ethic of public service may soon be in sight’ (1997: 319). Even
then, there was already plenty of evidence that he was right. In the 1990s, a number of
prominent foreign correspondents repudiated the idea of objectivity. The BBC’s Martin Bell
rejected the ‘dispassionate practices of the past’, and maintained that he was ‘no longer sure
what “objective” means’. Objectivity, he suggested, meant having to ‘stand neutrally between
good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor’ (Bell, 1998: 16—18). Similarly,
in the US CNN’s star reporter Christiane Amanpour argued that: ‘In certain situations, the
classic definition of objectivity can mean neutrality, and neutrality can mean you are an
accomplice to all sorts of evil’ (quoted in Ricchiardi, 1996). Being objective, it seemed, meant
complicity with evil. Instead, reporters claimed to be listening to their own consciences, which
apparently told them to take sides in the wars they covered (particularly Bosnia – the example
pointed to by both Bell and Amanpour).
They also sought to make it plain to viewers and readers that they were taking this new
approach, by couching their reports in personal, often highly emotive terms. Again war
reporting threw up some clear examples of this: Fergal Keane’s use of a BBC current affairs
programme to read out a letter to his newborn son in which he reflected on his experiences
covering Rwanda is perhaps the most famous instance of the genre (Keane 1996). The same
trend was also visible in other areas of reporting, as objectivity was superseded by the
requirements of what Mick Hume (1998) calls ‘emotional correctness’. Journalists who did
not toe the emotionally-correct line risked opprobrium for appearing heartless – as, for
example, Kate Adie found in 1996 when her report of a school shooting in Scotland was
criticised by her colleagues as too cold and factual.
It is notable that the emotional, ‘attached’ style of reporting that developed in the 1990s did
not attract the sort of critique directed at objectivity in the past. Instead, critics sometimes
welcomed it as a positive development. John Eldridge et al. (1997:118—20), for example,
after heavily criticising the 'promotion of the just-war concept' in coverage of the 1991 Gulf
War, had nothing but praise for those who ditched the traditional journalistic commitment to
objectivity and sought, through their reporting, to influence 'international policy and action' in
favour of ‘just’ war in the Balkans and elsewhere.
Like political leaders going to war because their conscience tells them it is the ‘right thing to
do’, reporters have attempted to influence policy on the same grounds. The public is illserved by such journalism, but the problem is different from the traditional issue of ideological
bias. Rather, journalists confront a similar difficulty to that faced by politicians: how to make
sense of events when the old framework of political meaning has collapsed. Their response
has often been narcissistic, placing their emotional selves at the centre of the story, because
the goal has been to resolve this problem of meaning for themselves rather than to inform
public debate. The traditional professional routines of journalism were more than mere
‘rituals’: practices such as fact-checking, or seeking out both sides of a story, offered ways to
overcome the limitations of one’s own subjective impressions and get at the truth. Today,
there is little sense of a necessity to transcend the personal and impressionistic.
The routinism, the reliance on official sources, and the narrowness of debate which critics
have associated with the past practice of ‘objective journalism’ are hardly to be celebrated.
And yet, in questioning or abandoning a commitment to objectivity, more recent forms of
journalism do not offer an improvement on the past.
The future of objectivity
If objectivity is tied to that active process of rational and critical engagement with public affairs
which Habermas describes in the eighteenth century, then ultimately objectivity only has a
future to the extent that we again come to see ourselves as seekers after truth, able to act on
and transform the world.
We propose that journalism itself can play a significant role in the reconstruction of objectivity.
Not in the naive pretence that reporting is ‘real’, which would in any case be cynical; but in the
recognition of reporting as deliberate reconstruction of events (necessarily an abstraction
from them), which is then the object of scrutiny and deliberation on the part of readers and
writers who can now respond to each other in new ways supported by new media
technologies. Thus objectivity is reinstated as a social process, and this reinstatement may
also contribute to the restatement of humanity as the subject of social reality.
Allan, S. (1997) ‘News and the Public Sphere: Towards a History of Objectivity and
Impartiality’, in M. Bromley and T. O’Malley (eds.) A Journalism Reader. London: Routledge.
Bell, M. (1998) ‘The Journalism of Attachment’, in Matthew Kieran (ed.) Media Ethics.
London: Routledge.
Curran, J. and J. Seaton (2003) Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and
New Media in Britain (Sixth Edition). London: Routledge.
Eldridge, J., J. Kitzinger and K. Williams (1997) The Mass Media and Power in Modern
Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Glasgow Media Group (1995) ‘Ritual tasks’ [1980], in J. Eldridge (ed.) The Glasgow Media
Group Reader Vol. 1. London: Routledge.
Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Polity.
Hall, S., C. Crichter, T. Jefferson and B. Roberts (1978) Policing the Crisis.
Hallin, Daniel C. (1986) The ‘Uncensored War’: The Media and Vietnam. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Hume, M. (1998) Televictims. London: Informinc.
Keane, F. (1996) ‘Letter to Daniel’, From our own correspondent, BBC Radio 4, 15 February
Lichtenberg, J. (1991) ‘In Defense of Objectivity’, in J. Curran and M. Gurevitch (eds.), Mass
Media and Society. London: Arnold.
Pedelty, Mark (1995) War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents.
Ricchiardi, S. (1996) ‘Over the Line?’, American Journalism Review, September [accessed
Tuchman, G. (1972) ‘Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of
Objectivity’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 4.