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Objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. According to scholars, objectivity may refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship. The term therefore lacks a single meaning as journalists and the public use it in these varied ways. In many countries, advocacy journalism is considered as a legitimate sort of professional journalism.
According to scholars of journalism, journalists and publics often tend to identify objectivity in its absence. Few journalists would make a claim to total neutrality or impartiality. However, most strive toward a certain modicum of detachment from their own personal biases in their news work. In Discovering the News (1978), sociologist Michael Schudson argues that "the belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' a distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation." In the United States, an objective story is typically considered to be one that steers a middle path between two poles of political rhetoric. The tenets of objectivity are violated to the degree to which the story appears to favor one pole over the other.
According to some, it refers to the prevailing ideology of newsgathering and reporting that emphasizes eyewitness accounts of events, corroboration of facts with multiple sources and "balance." It also implies an institutional role for journalists as a fourth estate, a body that exists apart from government and large interest groups.
Others hold it should mean reporting things without bias, as if one just came to Earth from another planet and had no preconceived opinions about our behavior or ways. This form of journalism is rarely practiced, although some argue it would lead to radical changes in reporting. (See, for example, Noam Chomsky, The Journalist from Mars.)
Still others hold it to mean that journalists should have something like a neutral point of view, not taking a stand on any issues on which there is some disagreement. Instead, journalists are simply to report what "both sides" of an issue tell them. Some even extend this standard to the journalist's personal life, prohibiting them from getting involved in political activities, which necessarily requires taking a stand.
Advocacy journalists and civic journalists criticize this last understanding of objectivity, arguing that it does a disservice to the public because it fails to attempt to find the truth. They also argue that such objectivity is nearly impossible to apply in practice — newspapers inevitably take a point of view in deciding what stories to cover, which to feature on the front page, and what sources they quote. Media critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) have described a propaganda model that they use to show how in practice such a notion of objectivity ends up heavily favoring the viewpoint of government and powerful corporations.
Another example of an objection to objectivity, according to communication scholar David Mindich (Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism, 1998), was the coverage that the major papers (most notably the New York Times) gave to the lynching of thousands of African Americans during the 1890s. News stories of the period often described with detachment the hanging, immolation and mutilation of men, women and children by mobs. Under the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to balance these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. David Mindich argues that this may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.
Some argue that a more appropriate standard should be fairness and accuracy (as enshrined in the names of groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Under this standard, taking sides on an issue would be permitted as long as the side taken was accurate and the other side was given a fair chance to respond. Many professionals believe that true objectivity in journalism is not possible and reporters must seek balance in their stories (giving all sides their respective points of view), which fosters fairness.
Notable departures from objective news work include the muckraking of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, the underground press of the 1960s, and public journalism.
The term objectivity was not applied to journalistic work until the 20th century, but it had fully emerged as a guiding principle by the 1890s. A number of communication scholars and historians agree that the idea of "objectivity" has prevailed as a dominant discourse among journalists in the United States since the appearance of modern newspapers in the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s. The rise of objectivity in journalistic method is also rooted in the scientific positivism of the 19th century, as professional journalism of the late 19th century borrowed parts of its worldview from various scientific disciplines of the day.
Some have observed that "objectivity" went hand in hand with the need to make profits in the newspaper business by selling advertising. Publishers did not want to offend any potential advertising customers and therefore encouraged news editors and reporters to strive to present all sides of an issue.
- Herman, Edward and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.
- Mindich, David T. Z. 1998. Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism. New York: New York University Press.
- Schudson, Michael. 1978. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.
- Schudson, Michael. 1997. "The Sociology of News Production." In Social Meaning of News: A Text-Reader. Dan Berkowitz, ed. Pp. 7-22. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
 See also
- Advocacy journalism
- Corporate media
- Objectivity (philosophy) for a general discussion of objectivity
- Objectivity (science)
- Journalistic professionalism
- Media bias in the United States
Parent article: Journalistic standards