Saturday, January 26, 2013

The case for journalistic objectivity

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 25.)

JOHN CAMPBELL is a very talented broadcaster and a likeable man. But I believe he is dangerously wrong when he pooh-poohs the idea of objectivity in journalism, as he did in a recent interview with this paper’s Your Weekend magazine.
“I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t want to change the world and make it a better place,” the TV3 current affairs host was quoted as saying. “Without exception that’s why they get into journalism. And yet when they get there they are asked to be dispassionate and objective.

“Who came up with that rule? It’s stupid.”
In fact that “stupid” rule, which requires that journalists try to remain impartial, present facts and opinions in a balanced way and keep their own views to themselves, has underpinned good journalism in Western democracies for decades.

The importance of objectivity is recognised, if not always followed to the letter, by virtually all the world’s great news organisations, including the BBC. It’s also upheld by the bodies that adjudicate on journalism standards, including our own Broadcasting Standards Authority and Press Council.
There’s a very good reason for this. The requirement for balance is a vital check on the potential abuse of media power. If it were abandoned, journalists would be free to spin the news however it suited them – in other words, to exclude any inconvenient fact or opinion that didn’t align with their own world view.

It’s a curious fact that those who argue that journalistic objectivity should be discarded – a view now routinely promoted in journalism schools – are almost invariably from the Left of the political spectrum. Yet the same people are the first to condemn right-wing news outlets, such as the notorious Fox News, for making little or no attempt at journalistic balance.
It doesn’t seem to occur to them that objectivity, or more precisely the absence of it, can cut both ways.

Being objective doesn’t mean, as is sometimes dishonestly argued, that journalists have to be timid or defer to those in power. Neither does it prevent them expressing shock and outrage when faced with obvious atrocities. But it does require reporters to acknowledge that in most situations there’s more than one side to the story, and that things are often more complex than they seem on the surface.
There is still a place for impassioned advocacy journalism of the type Campbell practices, as long as it’s clear to the viewer or reader that that’s what it is. But as a general proposition, the abandonment of journalistic objectivity would be disastrous.

* * *

DISILLUSIONED fans who endlessly criticise the Black Caps and the Phoenix miss the point.
We tend to think of soap opera as a form of television entertainment, but the human need for melodrama is played out as much on the sports pages as it is on the television screen.

Just as viewers are addicted to the nightly cliff-hangers so cleverly devised by the scriptwriters for Coronation Street and Home and Away, sports fans too must have their daily fix of shock, disbelief, relief and elation.
This is the real reason why teams such as the Black Caps and the Phoenix exist: to inject an element of nail-biting uncertainty into humdrum suburban lives.

The All Blacks fall miserably short in this regard by consistently winning (although when they do lose, the country makes the most of it by sinking into bouts of anguished introspection and recrimination that can last for weeks).
But the Black Caps and the Phoenix intuitively understand that sport fulfils a much bigger purpose than simply satisfying the urge to win. That is their unacknowledged brilliance.

They realise their function is to give meaning to sports fans’ dreary existence by taking them on a roller-coaster emotional ride, plunging them into the depths of despair with a run of humiliating losses and then, just when all seems lost, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and restoring hope.
Ridiculed as no-hopers one day, they always retain the potential to win the next and be hailed as heroes. People who condemn them for inconsistency fail to appreciate how dull life would seem if they won all the time.

In any case, their erratic performance merely mirrors the fickle emotions of their followers, who can be transformed in the space of a few hours from howling, vengeful mob to fawning admirers.
This is what sport is really about. Far from ridiculing the Black Caps and the Phoenix, we should salute them for having such a clear-eyed view of their real purpose.

* * *
WATCHING TV One’s Breakfast programme this week (not a habit of mine, but I was on holiday), I noticed a promotional caption underneath that read: “Rawdon [host Rawdon Christie] share’s some of his summer holiday antics.”

Surely that should have read “Rawdon share’s some of his summer holiday antic’s”.  I trust the caption writer has been disciplined.


Kiwiwit said...

John Campbell is correct - there is no universal rule that journalists should be objective. There is also no rule that we have to watch, listen and read their execrable propaganda. That is why the mainstream media is in such dire financial straits all around the world.

I didn't realise the intent of our national cricket team was to lose most of the time. Thanks for letting me in on the secret - I might start watching them again.

Regarding your third point - refer to my first point above.

Tinman said...

I have a question. Like me it is fairly simple.

If we salute, instead of criticizing, the NZ Cricket team (and, I suppose the Wellington Phoenix) won't we be defeating the purpose so thoughtfully spelt out in your column?