The objections to objectivity

At the dawn of my journalism career, I sat in a college classroom and listened as a central tenant of my new profession was ripped to shreds.

Ripped apart by a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist no less.

That man was Allister Sparks, a distinguised reporter and editor from South Africa whose front-line work exposing the corruption in his nation’s apartheid government had won him international respect and acclaim. Sparks was now a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaching a small seminar course to a handful of undergraduate journalism majors that included myself.

Just a sophomore at the time, my reporting experience was limited to a single internship and a bunch of articles for the Daily Tar Heel. It was still enough time to have the idea of objectivity firmly entrenched into my code of ethics, to the extreme that I would measure the column inches I gave each speaker at a debate — regardless if one had more interesting or insightful things to say — to make sure my coverage was equal and no one could accuse me of bias.

But the notion of objectivity, so engrained in the fundamentals of my intro journalism classes, was promptly tossed out the window by Sparks. Over the course of several classroom periods we debated how merely providing balanced coverage of both sides does readers a disservice. Sparks argued that only subjective choices regarding what is honest, morally sound and relevent produced reporting on controversial issues that made a difference. Had he taken the neutral route, Sparks said, his reporting would have merely propped up the injustices of apartheid rather than pushed the nation to democracy.

That class didn’t instantly make me a convert. But it planted a seed that grew over the next eight years as I worked in print journalism. Time and time again the “objective” reports simply transcribed two opposing views without any insight into which had merit, while the meaningful investigative pieces carried a fact-based viewpoint that highlighted the important information while dismissing the trivial. Over time I came around to the idea that true objectivity in journalism, even if obtainable, could never deliver the change and enlightenment the profession seeks to create.

Others monitoring the industry have also come around to this idea. Among those is Robert McChesney, whose exhaustive critique of the modern media landscape continues to dominate much of my class discussions for graduate school. McChesney derides objectivity as a tool inserted into the standard protocol of “professional” journalism by elites hoping to maintain the status quo. If reporters are shackled from revealing too much information that favors a particular side, then even dishonest positions can maintain credibility in the eyes of the public.

It’s one thing to be fair and accurate in reporting. It’s quite another to ignore obvious truths because doing so would reveal your preconceived beliefs and bias on a topic.

Strangely enough, it’s this desire to be freed from objectivity that has propelled me into public relations, an industry McChesney (and many of my old journalism colleagues) deride as ethically bankrupt for spinning facts to suit an agenda. There’s no doubt that does take place in some corners of the industry. But at its heart PR involves spreading information and viewpoints that need to be heard. If I help a courageous non-profit raise its voice to a large audience — as my fly-in project to Panama seeks to do — then I am reporting with a subjective agenda, but one that helps a worthwhile cause.

Objectivity has its merits, especially with regard to research papers and governmental reports. But when it comes to making a difference in communications, often the subjective approach proves more powerful.

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