"Objectivity" is the sacred cow of professional mainstream journalism. All "professional" J-schools stress the importance of filling reportorial and editorial duties with the utmost "objectivity". The problem is that, when pursued to its ultimate logical conclusions, human objectivity turns out to be a hoax, a fiction that, in expert hands, usually hides precisely the opposite, a very definite worldview which, wittingly or unwittingly, colors all choices, percepts, and opinions. In an environment in which most J-school students are simply indoctrinated to become unquestioning, careerist cogs in the machinery of corporate media, discussions of this kind may serve as an alarm bell for those wishing to become real journalists, real servants of the public interest. (This blog is also reproduced in our special blog section.)—Eds.
THE ELUSIVE OBJECTIVITY
Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the public radio and television network, is introducing new policies aimed at a more rigorous imposition of impartiality on the content of all ABC programmes. But what does this mean in practice?
It's always easier to see the bias of others than to recognise one's own. A story that supports the status quo is generally considered to be neutral and is not questioned in terms of its objectivity while one that challenges the status quo tends to be perceived as having a "point of view" and therefore biased.
Statements and assumptions that support the existing power structure are regarded as 'facts' whilst those that are critical of it tend to be rejected as 'opinions'.
The officious policing of impartiality and balance will mean ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment (government or business) are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.
Too much emphasis on objectivity in news and current affairs can lead journalists to leave out interpretations and analysis, which might be construed as personal views, and to play it safe by reporting events without explaining their meaning and keeping stories light and superficial so as not to offend anyone.
Journalists who accurately report what their sources say, can effectively remove responsibility for their stories onto the people they interview and quote.
The ideal of objectivity therefore encourages uncritical reporting of official statements and those of authority figures. In this way the individual biases of individual journalists are avoided but institutional biases are reinforced.
The enforcement of impartiality tends to give powerful industry spokespeople guaranteed access to the media, no matter how flimsy their argument or how transparently self-interested. No such access is guaranteed to critics.
When a powerful company is criticised for endangering human lives or the environment it is only fair to give it the opportunity to answer the criticisms but does balance and impartiality require that it be given equal time? Are individual criminals given equal time to answer allegations against them?
In their attempts to be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing view even when it has little scientific credibility in the wider scientific community.
This can be very misleading. In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has taken advantage of this convention by funding a handful of dissidents and demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community.
This strategy of exaggerating the uncertainties and confusing the public has ensured that governments like the Howard government have been able to avoid doing anything to prevent global warming, despite the overwhelming evidence that significant global warming is likely without government intervention.
It is only recently, after many precious years have been lost, that the most intransigent governments have been forced to admit that action must be taken to avoid global warming.
Some ask why this has not occurred earlier. Clearly part of the problem has been the ability of vested interests to manipulate the media by holding up the rod of balance and impartiality.
It is notable that the new ABC policy was announced at a meeting of the Sydney Institute, a corporate-funded right wing think tank, which has been one of the ABC's strongest critics on the grounds of bias.
Here is a case where bias really is in the eye of the beholder. The Sydney Institute is a breakaway group from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), headed by Gerard Henderson, formerly director of IPA NSW and chief of staff for John Howard (now prime minister).
The IPA also claims the ABC is biased. Aaran Oakley attacked ABC journalists in the IPA Review for making "the assumption that global warming is real, some even making assertions to that end." On this basis he has concluded that ABC reporting "represents a pernicious mixture of science and environmentalism."
This accusation of bias was despite the fact that ABC gave air time to IPA Senior Fellow, Brian Tucker, who stated on ABC's Ockham's Razor that "unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and international" and argued that global warming predictions are politically and emotionally generated.
By caving in to ideologically-motivated attacks on the ABC, the new guidelines are more likely to damage impartiality than enforce it.
<Thursday, October 19, 2006, 10:42 >
Chris P, Friday, October 20, 2006, 11:34
Agree with the first half, in which you write:
"A story that supports the status quo is generally considered to be neutral and is not questioned in terms of its objectivity while one that challenges the status quo tends to be perceived as having a "point of view" and therefore biased."
Couldn't agree more with that.
But then later you write:
"In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has [funded] a handful of dissidents[,] demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community."
So, now, because scientists have come to an opinion challenging the "scientific community" they have a "point of view"? By the way, I agree that it is important to look at who is funding the science, but who funded the scientists who proclaim global warming to be true? Or should we assume they are "neutral" because they proclaim the "status quo" of scientific opinion?
Sharon Beder, Friday, October 20, 2006, 13:45
The issue here is not that those supporting the scientific consensus are neutral nor that the dissenters have a point of view, but how the dissenters are portrayed in the media; that is, whether a handful of corporate-paid spokespersons with little scientific credibility can reasonably expect the same media treatment as that accorded to the concensus of hundreds of respected scientists from around the world.
Chris P, Tuesday, October 24, 2006, 23:10
Thanks for your reply.
You call the dissenters "corporate-paid" but could you tell me who funds the "respected scientists" please?
Mark Golding, Wednesday, December 27, 2006, 11:40
Who are respected scientists but those who receive respect from people who are most likely to benefit from their pronouncements and perhaps influence on policy? Every policy change has a positive and negative impact, and few are decided rashly. Whatever criteria influences policy it is highly probable that behind closed doors the interests of power brokers who represent fat controllers of essential economic zones get preferential consideration when it comes to scientific emphasis. Since the scientific community itself cannot agree on whether climate change is apocalyptic or not, the incestuous relationship between politicians and industrial giants, or 'partnership initiatives', is spoilt for choice when it comes to finding a suitable symbolic figure from the pro or con camp to endorse its particular political posturing or positioning.
Confusion seems to reign in government policy. i.e. International Agreement on Nuclear Disarmament versus HM Governments decision to completely ignore the agreement and press ahead for Nuclear proliferation.
I think it's a complete waste of time and energy trying to be politically sensitive and correct while the political/economic machinery we have inherited since the age of print drags this world into an abyss of unsustainable growth.
I would say to all the brave hearts who hunt down dirty dealers in global enterprises and corrupt officals operating with impunity behind a falacious code of keeping official secrets - you'll be dammed if you don't and dammed if you do. It makes no difference. If you've got the wherewithal to elucidate on the 'dark forces of corporate greed i.e. religion' by offering the reader an incite into how the grease pan works, you'll increase the momentum for change step by measurable step.
One day, future educationalists will make it mandatory for children to learn about how the political system works. At the moment they get ZERO information. That, in itself, is an indictment.
Cassandra, Thursday, January 04, 2007, 23:36
Sharon, take a look at www.blairwatch.co.uk - it's an excellent, open Blog, with a lot of popular participation. Unfortunately this blog is a bit of a disaster. Interminable headers, illegible comments, chaotic threads etc. Sorry to be critical; Running a blog makes enormous demands on time and energy, but with the resources of medialens something a bit better should be possible.
MEDIALENS is a fraternal leading media watch organization based in the United Kingdom. Sharon Beder is author of several books on environmental politics and corporate power including: Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda (Earthscan, London) forthcoming; Environmental Principles and Policies (UNSW Press, Sydney) forthcoming; Power Play: The Fight to Control the World's Electricity (Scribe, Melbourne & New Press, New York), 2003; Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR (Zed Books, London, KLIM, Denmark & Scribe, Melbourne), 2000; Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Green Books, Devon and Scribe, Melbourne), 1997, 2000 and 2002.