Objectivity/impartiality = cowardice, boredom, obsolescence

When we debate journalistic objectivity in America, we tend to talk about the truth of the claim, the self-delusion, the lack of transparency. I am among those who also talk about its obsolescence, now that media channels are no longer scarce. In the UK, when they talk about their synonym, impartiality, the discussion has turned to new judgments and adjectives. The New Statesman calls impartiality cowardice, the Guardian boredom.

The issue that’s raising this age-old J-school seminar topic is the BBC’s dropping of Comic-Relief-like day of programming around global warming.

Asked whether the BBC should campaign on issues such as climate change, [BBC head of TV News Peter] Horrocks told a session at the TV festival: “I absolutely don’t think we should do that because it’s not impartial. It’s not our job to lead people and proselytise about it.” [BBC Newsnight editor Peter] Barron added: “It is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped.”

Acting as if there were no agenda in journalism is itself a deception. Why does an editor decide to pursue and publicize a story about, say, public corruption? Because he thinks corruption is bad — otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story — and he wants to do something about it. He has an agenda. Of course, he has. To act as if he doesn’t is a lie of omission.

Mark Lynnas at the New Stateman pokes a hole in the BBC editors’ hot-air.

If Barron is really suggesting that the BBC should be “neutral” on the question of planetary survival, his absurd stance surely sets a new low for political cowardice in the media. It is also completely inconsistent. On easy moral questions, such as poverty in Africa, the BBC is quite happy to campaign explicitly (as with Comic Relief or Live Aid), despite the claim by the corporation’s head of television news, Peter Horrocks, that its role is “giving people information, not leading them or prophesying”. By analogy, the BBC would have been neutral on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, and should be giving full voice today to the likes of the British National Party – all in the interests of balance and fairness.

And Peter Preston in the Guardian attacks the BBC’s government-degreed doctrine of impartiality from another angle: He says it’s boring.

When Whitehall handed the corporation its revised charter and system of trust governance, it made accuracy and impartiality bounden duties. . .

The question that matters isn’t yea or nay with alleged fairness and balance, it is where the hell we go next. . . .

But Peter Barron of Newsnight – “It isn’t the BBC’s job to save the planet” – and those top executives who took his side, exalting impartiality, couldn’t see where the issue had got to; they had to frame it once more, through ignorance or timidity, in its original yea or nay state, as somehow politically dubious and therefore untouchable. Yet nothing, in practice, starts there. And the grinding brakes, the clunking change into reverse gear, is not just depressing but deeply tedious. Which is probably the worst thing about impartiality stretched across 12 commandments: boredom comes guaranteed. . . .

Human existence means making choices. Choosing where you start dictates how you finish.

In his blog, Peter Barron argues that it shouldn’t be the mission of the BBC to make us act differently: “[I]s it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so.” That makes sense; I’m not looking for propaganda or coercion from journalism. Then he adds: “There’s currently huge interest among the public in leading more sustainable lifestyles and we should reflect and explore that.” I agree with that, too, as I do with Preston: The real story here is what do we do next. Then Barron concludes: “But I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet. Do you?”

There I think we see the corner into which the impartial journalist paints himself. He is looking for cover for the judgments he makes. He says there is interest in the story and so that’s why they cover it. But there are plenty of stories for which there is little interest — such as suffering in various poor corners of the world — yet journalists cover them because they believe these events and issues are important. They made a judgment and that is itself not impartial. Indeed, what I want is more information about what goes into that judgment — more transparency. At the same time, when they give the public what they want about Paris Hilton, it’s called pandering. Is ecological coverage pandering? Now it’s reasonable for Barron to say that it’s not his role to proselytize. But is it reasonable for him to say that he wouldn’t, given the chance, save the planet — and that we wouldn’t want him to? Don’t we want him to expose a terrorist plot against us or a crime against the public trust or a theft from public shareholders? Doesn’t he want to? Is that agendaless only because there’s a law and a bad guy involved? Can they, again, hide behind someone else’s judgment?

The irony for Barron is that he ends up quoting the “Ethical Man,” a journalist who spent a year counting his carbon on Barron’s own show. The name of the segment is thick with judgment: Green is ethical, thus using energy is not. Yet in this blog post from Ethical Man, we see a way to cover the story with both agenda and transparency: He clearly has a viewpoint (and is proselytizing by example, I’d say) but he still seeks to report the facts on the carbon creation (if not impact) of flying (an activity that is being vilified in the more radically green quarters of Europe). So Ethical Man has a perspective and is fairly transparent about it. Given that, he tries to get the facts. And the facts he tries to get are those that the editors believe the public wants to know.

Note, too, that if anybody thinks that Ethical Man is wrong or unfair (for demonizing first-class passengers, for example, and for giving airlines cause to cram more seats onto planes), they can say so. And they do. At last count, there are 230 comments on his post plus some outside blogs pointing in.

And there (finally) is the point: The new architecture of media makes obsolete the reasoning behind the BBC’s (and American newspapers’) futile — and ultimately misleading — claims of objectivity and impartiality. Balance will not come from a reporter or editor thinking he can shut off his bias (and brain) to be impartial. It will not come from a TV news producer filling two chairs on any one issue to be objective.

Balance comes from the link. Balance is the product of the conversation.

Oh, this balance is not as neat and tidy as a carefully packaged story manufactured under a label of objectivity. Life and the conversation are messier than that. But in the long run, it will be more honest and productive than one person controlling a once-powerful pipeline arguing that he was the best proprietor of it simply because he claimed impartiality.

Impartiality/objectivity is not merely cowardly or boring. It is obsolete.

SEE ALSO: Steve Outing on News Corp and green goals.

I still find it odd that news organizations mostly refuse to go beyond their role of strictly reporting on and analyzing climate change news. Helping to avert planetary environmental disaster, I’d think, is a cause worth championing. (To reiterate, I am NOT talking about abandoning objective coverage of climate change; some critics seemed to think that’s what I have suggested.)

  • Jeff, excellent post, you put your finger on something I’ve been strugging to articulate in my discussions with journalists.

    This ties in nicely with two recent posts by Steve Outing on coverage of climate change: http://snipurl.com/1qqey and http://snipurl.com/1qqez.

    I’ll be blogging more about this later on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits and my own blog Contentious.com. But thanks for tackling this debate.

    – Amy Gahran

  • Hunter McDaniel

    I don’t think objectivity and impartiality are bad things and I don’t think they are obsolete, but they are not gods to be worshipped – I think that’s your main point, right? And the lengths to which many journalists go to preserve an APPEARANCE of impartiality are quite often just a mask for cowardice. Transparency is far preferable.

    However I do think a national institution like the BBC has some additional responsiblity to maintain intellectual diversity and avoid groupthink – responsibilities that it has not handled very well in recent years. But that may be more an argument against having such a national institution in the first place.

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  • ChrisPer

    How about liberal fair-mindedness? Is this a value to be thrown out? Impartiality is not only about protecting MSM franchise on a rationed portion of broadcast sprectrum, but a reflection of one of the ideals of civilised discourse.

    Some blog commenters would pull towards the level of debate recently exemplified by Hamas vs Fatah… vehemence unconstrained by intellectual standards will take public discourse down in a bidding war for ‘purity’.

    I believe that liberal ideas do not have to be concealed under impartiality, but standards that incorporate quality of argument are necessary.

  • Nick Reynolds (BBC)

    Sorry Jeff but:

    “objectivity” is not the same as “impartiality”.

    The BBC is required to be impartial by law. If you look at the BBC’s editorial guidelines they state:

    “In practice, our commitment to impartiality means:

    * we seek to provide a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and views broadcast over an appropriate time scale across all our output. We take particular care when dealing with political or industrial controversy or major matters relating to current public policy.
    * we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented.
    * we exercise our editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
    * we can explore or report on a specific aspect of an issue or provide an opportunity for a single view to be expressed, but in doing so we do not misrepresent opposing views. They may also require a right of reply.
    * we must ensure we avoid bias or an imbalance of views on controversial subjects.
    * the approach to, and tone of, BBC stories must always reflect our editorial values. Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC, they can have a significant impact on the perceptions of our impartiality.
    * our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters.
    * we offer artists, writers and entertainers scope for individual expression in drama, arts and entertainment and we seek to reflect a wide range of talent and perspective.
    * we will sometimes need to report on or interview people whose views may cause serious offence to many in our audiences. We must be convinced, after appropriate referral, that a clear public interest outweighs the possible offence.
    * we must rigorously test contributors expressing contentious views during an interview whilst giving them a fair chance to set out their full response to our questions.
    * we should not automatically assume that academics and journalists from other organisations are impartial and make it clear to our audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint.”

  • Sorry back, Nick, but I think that in practice they translate pretty damned closely. ‘No bias or imbalance’ is in both creeds and brings the same question: How is that possible? The BBC, like US newspapers, insists it is. Others believe it is not and by trying to act as if it is, one hides behind lists like this and their opaqueness rather than being transparent about one’s perspective and, yes, bias. Coming in with that bias does not, of course, mean that one cannot and should not be fair, balanced, complete, accurate, and, most importantly, intellectually honest (reporting that which may not bolster one’s pespective, bias, experience, or wishes). But the truth remains that everyone carries bias and to deny that is to commit a lie of omission, an act of opaqueness.

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  • Nick Reynolds (BBC)

    Well I disagree Jeff. If you are “fair, balanced, complete, accurate and honest” then you will be getting close to being impartial (not objective).

    While it’s true that everyone carries some kind of bias, they can make an effort to ensure that that bias does not colour their reporting.

    I think a good analogy is a referee in a football match. The referee doesn’t see everything, and may make mistakes. He can’t be objective, but he is expected to be impartial, i.e. apply the rules of the game fairly to both sides.

    If a referree can be impartial, then so can a news reporter.

    The more accurate you are, the more impartial you are. The more open you are, the more impartial you are.

    I happen to believe that the more open the BBC is about how it makes editorial decisions, the more impartial it will be, and will seen to be.

    Impartiality will no longer be about handing down judgements. It will be about moderating fairly and transparently a news offer that is becoming more networked.

  • Nick Reynolds (BBC)

    Anyone who has tried to make a judgement based on evidence and facts rather than prejudice is trying to be impartial.

  • Kyle

    Well Nick guess the ex-BBC employee and author of “Can we trust the BBC?”…


    …doesn’t seem to agree with all your steaming about the BBC’s legally enforced impartiality!

    By the way… great post Jeff.

  • deadrody

    Objective: expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

    Impartial not partial (inclined to favor one party more than the other) or biased (to give a settled and often prejudiced outlook to) : treating or affecting all equally

    I’ve seen it stated elsewhere, and echoed here, that you cannot eliminate bias. To pretend otherwise is a fools game.

    You can attempt, however, to be both impartial and objective, and frankly, the football analogy is off. An impartial referee calls a fair game because he favors neither Team A nor Team B. An objective referee calls a fair game according to the rulebook because they do not allow their own judgement about the fairness or legitimacy of the rules to enter into the game.

    A referee that swallows his whistle because he is a Packers fan is not impartial. A referee that won’t call a minor hand check defensive pass interference because they disagree with the rule is not being objective.

    A paper that puts every piece of negative coverage for the GOP at the top of page 1 but buries bad news for the Democrats is not being impartial. It isn’t as simple as that, however, because if the editorial board of said paper believes in socialist economic policy and so wishes to see the democrats in a good light does the same thing, but is not objective.

    In my opinion, the fact-based news and the accuracy therein, should not be subject to value judgements. Save that for the editorial pages. I mean, at this point, most of the mainstream media have moved so far away from objective news coverage that you cannot even be sure what is accurate and what is complete fabrication swallowed whole because the media purveyors WANT IT to be true. The TNR Scott Beauchamp episode is a perfect example of a lack of objectivity taken to an extreme.

    BTW, there should be minimal value judgements. The editor doesn’t decide to cover corruption because HE thinks it’s bad, he does so because it is an objective FACT that corruption is bad. As soon as we start thinking that the editors are the keepers of information based on what THEY think is good or bad (and it seems that is already the case) then objectivity is out of the question. The fact that Jeff thinks this way is pretty telling, actually.

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  • DK

    “…you cannot eliminate bias. To pretend otherwise is a fools game.”

    That’s because attempting to eliminate bias does nothing to eliminate the source of bias, which is not bias itself.

    The source of all bias is ego. Eliminating bias keeps ego intact and, therefore, enables bias to continue.

    If you eliminate the ego, however, then you also eliminate bias.

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