In Defence of a Supposedly Outdated Notion: The Range of Application of Journalistic Objectivity

Gilles Gauthier (Université Laval)

If thought is to go far enough, the imagination must go further. If the will is to accomplish enough, it must imagine more.

Gaston Bachelard, La formation de
l'esprit scientifique

Among all the clichés that clutter up human minds, there is one which gives rise to a stir of approval in its audience each time it is sententiously pronounced: "Objectivity does not exist--in reporting." In politics, labour unions, diplomacy, business, culture, and justice its existence is not questioned. But in the very profession that tries to establish a truthful report objectivity is considered a theoretical impossibility. Reporting, due to some mysterious law of nature, is thought to spring from pure relativism. Journalists should therefore limit themselves to juxtaposing a number of points of view, leaving the public to choose between them.

Jean-François Revel, Le rejet de l'État

Few journalists or journalism scholars today would hazard calling upon the principle or ideal of objectivity. On the contrary, the majority reject or denounce the concept in almost total unanimity. Aside from the fact that, as shown in my article of 1991, the arguments against it do not hold water. Be they epistemological, ontological, psychological, pragmatic, or ethical, one of the most puzzling aspects of this rejection of objectivity in journalism is that it seems to be taken both as an established fact and as a matter still requiring careful, if not to say obsessive, attention. If objectivity is really a myth and if it has been clearly demonstrated as such, why do scholars not move on rather than continuing to cry out against the notion as if it still presented some danger despite its non-existence? Of late, the general attitude towards objectivity bears similarities to the attitude of those who denounce religion with a zeal that is essentially religious in nature. Another defining trait of modern criticism of objectivity is its lack of intellectual rigour. Much of the time, the notion is criticized but not defined. The idea that is rejected is not a clear, easily identified notion, but rather a vague intuition: the object under attack never precisely defined. Certainly, objectivity has different meanings according to differences of time or place, but this is all the more reason for those who wish to reject the notion to give at least a minimal definition of it. Without a definition, criticism of objectivity in journalism is characterized at best by slovenly intellectual practices, at worst by total lack of method.

In the present paper, I confront the cliché that objectivity in journalism is useless, illusory, or artificial. My ultimate goal is to defend this much beleaguered concept, for I hold that the end of objectivity in journalism would spell the end of journalism itself. This paper explicitly advocates maintaining objectivity in journalism, but its defence must necessarily be based on a clear and precise definition of the concept. In other words, to defend objectivity in journalism, I believe it is necessary to provide what is lacking in the arguments of its detractors: a satisfactory definition.

In working towards this definition, my first step is to attempt to identify the aspects of journalism involving objectivity. One of the greatest problems in any discussion of objectivity in journalism is the ambiguous and elastic nature of the concept. Rarely do we bother to identify the aspects or elements of reporting to which the concept of objectivity can be applied. In other words, there is considerable confusion as to what, in journalism, is supposed to be objective. Inspired by the notion of "central range of application" used by John Rawls (1971) to describe the applicability of his principles of justice, I have adopted the term "area of application" to designate the areas in which a concept may be used. In short, the goal of the present article is to identify the area of application of objectivity in journalism.

My approach is essentially negative: first, in a series of propositions, I shall identify those aspects of journalism to which matters of objectivity cannot apply. This should enable me to define the area of application of objectivity in journalism accurately enough to establish a minimal definition of the concept itself. This indirect approach also offers the advantage of bringing out the different ways in which the notion of objectivity is used, clearly demonstrating that certain criticisms and attacks are inappropriate because they are, in fact, misapplied. Analyzing objectivity in relation to an area to which it cannot be applied is a logical error. I shall call this type of error a "category mistake," a concept I encountered in the writings of Gilbert Ryle (1951). In my opinion, much scholarly writing criticizing objectivity in journalism is completely invalidated by the fact that it is based on a category mistake: it is based on the application of the concept of objectivity to an inappropriate aspect of reporting.

Some of the propositions I put forward here concerning the area of application of objectivity in journalism may seem banal or even self-evident. However, they must be established in order to carry out a methodical and comprehensive analysis.

1. Objectivity Can Only Be Applied to Straight News Reporting

Journalism is composed of a certain number of fields which are very similar and yet very distinct. Many different ways of distinguishing various types of journalism have been proposed. I maintain that the matter of objectivity can be legitimately raised with respect to only one of these types (or one category of types), and that is straight news reporting. This proposition is intended primarily to exclude such disparate types of journalism as advocacy journalism, editorials, the New Journalism, muckraking, and service or marketing journalism, as well as certain types of investigative reporting, from the area of application of objectivity.

This proposition may seem self-evident--indeed, it is often taken for granted and has already been clearly expressed. Glasser & Ettema (1989), for example, stipulate that investigative journalism is incompatible with objectivity due to the reporter's adversarialism. It is important to state it explicitly, however, because some writings on objectivity tend to discount the fact that the concept should only apply to news reporting. For example, although Merrill (1990) seems to realize that objectivity can only apply to the intent to report (i.e.,"reportorial attitude" or "reportorial objectivity"), he echoes an attack on objectivity based on an analysis of advocacy journalism. Such an attack can only claim a small victory, since the battle is won before it is fought: of course objectivity can be questioned with regard to types of journalism other than straight news reporting--it cannot even be applied to them! This is an obvious category mistake: extending the notion of objectivity to areas it was never supposed to cover.

Whether explicitly, as in Proposition (1), or more implicitly, objectivity is generally associated with news reporting, and not the more "politicized" forms of journalism. Occasionally, however, the opposite is claimed by those who wish to legitimize this type of journalism. Dennis (1984) describes how certain advocates of the New Journalism, advocacy journalism, and even service journalism claim that, in the end, despite appearances to the contrary, these forms of journalism are more objective than traditional news reporting.

This will undoubtedly mark the beginning of a historic debate, as different concepts of objectivity can be projected onto the successive phases of evolution of the press in an attempt to explain the changes it has gone through. Nonetheless, the most orthodox conception of objectivity is still that which associates it with news reporting. That is the basis for Proposition (1). It also coincides with the working hypothesis developed by Jean de Bonville (awaiting publication) according to which informative reporting is no more than a temporary and relatively brief phase in the history of the press, following editorial journalism and succeeded by entertainment journalism. According to de Bonville, objectivity is in fact one of the defining characteristics of the paradigm of news reporting.

2. Objectivity Can Only Be Applied to that Genre of
News Reporting Known as the "News Story"

Within news reporting, three main genres are generally distinguished: news stories, news analysis, and commentary. This classic division, which is not always very clear, nevertheless presents the advantage of distinguishing journalistic genres by dividing them into categories. By stating that objectivity in journalism can only be applied to factual reports, Proposition (2) not only restricts the area of application to certain types of news reporting, it also defines it at least in part: objectivity is a meaningful concept only with respect to the reportorial function of journalism.

This idea is not new in itself. Many scholars have written about "reportorial objectivity" (Merrill, 1990), or "objective reporting" (Merrill, 1984), or "objective news reporting" (Stensaas, 1986-1987). However, it is important to note that these authors do not always explicitly restrict the area of application of objectivity to the reportorial function of journalism alone. Rivers & Mathews (1988), for example, although they presuppose that objectivity in journalism is only an illusion, seem to advance (p. 76) that news analysis combines opinion with objective facts. In light of Proposition (2), they are making a category mistake, that is, they raise the matter of objectivity with respect to an inappropriate genre (or genres) of reporting.

However, it is not always obvious that objectivity should be restricted to the news story. If commentary, at least in its most habitual forms such as the editorial, is closely related to journalism of opinion and therefore falls outside of the area of application of objectivity, news analysis is much more ambiguous. It is possible that some forms of analysis or even interpretation could be deemed objective (or not objective) in the same manner as a factual report. McDonald (1971) tends to adopt just such a wide concept of objectivity, which he equates with the investigations and evaluations that reporters must undertake in order to form a picture of reality. Roshco (1975) adopts a similar point of view in a more historical perspective. He considers that the norm of objectivity emerged in all genres of news analysis with the notion of impartiality in a reaction against partisan journalism.

If we allow that objectivity can be applied to news analysis, it must first be proved applicable to news stories. That is the premise of Proposition (2), which aims to legitimize objectivity with regard to its most obvious area of application. In other words, Proposition (2) identifies the only core area of application of objectivity, and is therefore provisional. Once the possibility of objectivity in factual reporting is firmly established, it can likely be extended to news analysis.

3. Objectivity Does Not Apply to News Gathering

The most conventional form of attack on objectivity consists of affirming that it is impossible because in practice the journalist chooses the raw material, the news--there is always investigation, interpretation, or even creation of reality in news reporting. This is precisely the point of view defended by McDonald, as we have just seen, but he is not its only advocate. In fact, quite probably the most widely accepted school of thought in today's "sociological" perspective on journalism considers that reporting rearranges, reworks, and truncates news, and consists, according to the common expression, in a "social construction of reality" to which reality itself is not pre-existent.

One of the most common ways in which those who hold this opinion challenge objectivity in journalism is by pointing out the necessity of selection in journalism. And, indeed, how can the news lay claim to objectivity when there is continual discrimination between different elements of reality, and between different aspects of these elements and different ways of presenting their context?

Although he is not alone in this form of attack, John Merrill is probably the author who states it most explicitly. Not only does he emphasize the different ways in which selection intervenes in journalism--which facts are reported, which quotations are used, which individuals are interviewed, which viewpoints are presented, which aspects are shown--he also demonstrates the impossibility for any journalist to adequately report every element of the context of a news story. In this respect, Merrill seems to be rather exacting:

All the context is part of the story. Not only the words that the speaker speaks, but how the speaker says these words make up the story of the speech. Not only what he says, but what he thinks as he is speaking is part of the story--a part admittedly unavailable to the reporter at the time of the speech. But what the speaker thinks about the audience and how he feels about the audience's reaction to his speech is part of the speech story. (And this could be obtained after the speech by the reporter.) (1984, p. 108)

Merrill develops two further arguments against objectivity in journalism. First, according to Merrill, selectivity introduces an element of subjectivity into reporting: "At any rate, the reporter selects, and the selection of what to put in a story automatically subjectivizes it, in a sense biasing and distorting the reality that the reporter is claiming to objectify in the report" (1990, p. 272). Merrill's second argument, which is at the core of his opposition to the notion of objectivity, could be called the argument of the whole truth. As Merrill sees it, objectivity implies integral reproduction or representation of reality, an impossible goal he describes with irony:

Let us consider "objective reporting" for a minute. It would be reporting that is detached, unprejudiced, unbiased, and omniscient--and infallible, I presume. Where do we find this? The objective report would, in effect, match reality; it would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Where do we find this kind of reporting? No reporter knows the truth; no reporter can write a story which can match reality, for... the "map is not the territory." The story, in other words, is never what it purports to be; it is always much bigger than its verbal image. (1984, p. 104)

In other words, it is impossible for journalism to reflect the whole of reality; it is always the result of a choice or selection. Therefore, news is always different from the reality it reports and cannot claim to be objectively true!

The above demonstration of the invalidity of objectivity can only be attacked on the basis of the conception of objectivity that is its point of departure; in fact, Merrill sets up an indefensible notion of objectivity in order to destroy it with mockery. It is obvious that a news story, like any other piece of information, cannot, by definition and by its very nature, be an exact replica of the state of things, the event, or other form of news that it recounts. Merrill's requirements render objectivity in journalism impossible a priori. In fact, his argument denies the possibility of representation of any sort. Absolutely no representation of any kind could represent, as Merrill seems to require, a whole object in its integral truth. In fact, that would not be representation, but rather some form of duplication or reproduction. This argument questions the foundation of all types of objectivity, including scientific objectivity. It is in tune with the constructivist intellectual sensibilities of our time, according to which reality does not exist prior to our knowledge of it, for knowledge is a construct which constitutes reality. So, logically, when he challenges objectivity in journalism on the grounds that it is impossible to represent the whole of reality, Merrill should also consider that there is no news event or reality prior to the story.

The "whole truth," which Merrill sees as a requirement for objectivity, is impossible because selection is necessary; because the news is the result of a selection, it cannot be a whole, integral representation. The surest way of countering this argument is to attack its focus; Proposition (3) states that objectivity does not apply to selection. It posits that objectivity does not come into play at the time of the original choice but during a later phase of reporting. The same holds true for scientific endeavours--it is not when the problem is being defined that it makes sense to talk about objectivity (or the lack thereof ), but later on, when it is being solved.

Proposition (3) does not oppose the idea that there is selection in journalism or the notion that journalism is a social construction of reality. But it does refuse to make these considerations the basis for a discussion of objectivity or the basis for deducing that objectivity is impossible. And it shows Merrill's "whole truth" argument to be a category mistake. Arguments such as McQuail's, according to which a truly objective story must not only reflect reality, but also bring out its most interesting or pertinent elements (in other words, the elements that have the greatest "social relevance") are another type of category mistake. Objectivity, at least as it is defined in Proposition (3), has nothing to do with social relevance.

4. Objectivity Does Not Essentially Apply to the Formal, "External" Conditions of News Reporting

According to certain analysts, objectivity in journalism is impossible (or at least very difficult to achieve in reality) because of the formal and material constraints affecting the press. McDonald (1971) claims that the nature and the respective forms of representation in the media--writing, sound, and images--adversely affect their objectivity. Similarly, Merrill (1984) holds that the techniques relative to these forms of representation or to the particularities of the publication and publicization of the media is loaded with subjectivity and works against objectivity rather than promoting it. McDonald (1971) goes so far as to claim that the environmental conditions in which journalism is practised affect its objectivity: according to him, the working conditions of journalists, the news policies of the media, their commercial nature, and their appetite for profit determine their approach to objectivity.

The general conditions of reporting can certainly affect its objectivity. However I believe, on the one hand, that they do not render objectivity in journalism impossible, and, on the other hand, that they are not an essential part of the area of application of objectivity. Proposition (4) addresses this issue.

Although there are a certain number of external constraints affecting news reporting due to the different media and their different modes of representation and due to the conditions of the practice of journalism, these factors do not imply that objectivity is impossible. It could sometimes be hampered, but objectivity is still a possibility, both in theory and in reality. Potentially, a news story is no more or less objective according to the type of medium it uses--newspapers or radio are no more objective than television, for instance. And writing, sounds or images, or even reporters' general working conditions, do not comprise in themselves a total barrier to objectivity in news stories.

Once again, these constraints can be obstacles to the pursuit of objectivity, but not major ones. They are not determining factors for objectivity or for non-objectivity, therefore they should not be the focus of claims about objectivity. In short, although they can be a disturbing factor, external constraints are not that element of journalism which can be referred to as objective (or not): they are not central to objectivity's area of application.

However, statements such as McDonald's which claim that the formal and external conditions of news reporting can affect its objectivity are not category mistakes, since they do not conclude that objectivity is impossible by using arguments based on a peripheral notion. Merrill, on the other hand, makes a category mistake. According to him, the formal and material constraints on journalism are the cracks through which subjectivity leaches into reporting to such an extent that objectivity is irremediably lost.

5. The Application Area of Objectivity in Journalism is
Limited to the Way News is Handled

The aspect of reporting to which objectivity applies is only the handling of news, and not news gathering or the external conditions of reporting. Proposition (5) states that objectivity's essential concern is the primary, fundamental relationship between the journalist and the facts he or she reports, which is to say, the way the journalist processes information.

Proposition (5) is in fact the logical result of the first four propositions. Because objectivity has been successively narrowed to news reporting and news stories, and because news gathering and working conditions have been excluded from the area of application, it has become possible and, indeed, necessary, to limit it to the information processing aspect of journalism. The five propositions set out in this paper should be interpreted as forming an integrated whole which, through several considerations, sometimes negative but ultimately constructive, offer a minimal description of objectivity by identifying its area of application. In stating that the concept of objectivity in journalism can essentially only be applied to the way information is processed, I not only positively determine the concept but also specify what it is not. Similarly, when I point out category mistakes made by the detractors of objectivity in journalism, my aim is not to criticize these authors, but rather to define the area of application of objectivity a contrario.

One of the most important considerations in current debate over objectivity (and its criticism) is that it is not seen as a goal but rather is considered a posteriori as a practice of journalism. In this way, researchers and commentators attempt to discover the practical uses of objectivity. Using this perspective, they characterize objectivity as an occupational ideology (Roshco, 1975) or a strategic ritual (Tuchman, 1972). This approach to analyzing objectivity is certainly legitimate; the role and functions of objectivity in the practice of journalism are of great interest. However, I would like to point out that this type of approach is not a study of objectivity itself; rather, it is the study of the use reporters make of objectivity. So, unless objectivity is to be reduced to its use, and scholars such as Roshco and Tuchman do not attempt this, "sociological" or "pragmatic" studies of objectivity cannot furnish an essential description of the concept. They attempt neither to define it nor to determine whether or not it is possible. The present study aims to do both. Once the range of application of objectivity in journalism has been determined, it is possible to describe, not only what use is made of objectivity but how facts are processed by a journalist aiming at objectivity. Establishing this type of definition and subsequently identifying the specific semantic field pertaining to objectivity could lead to a new recognition of the necessity of objectivity in journalism, to the extent that we wish to preserve the existence of straight news reporting.


Translation by Carole Small.


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