"Objectivity" is both much-revered and much-maligned as a core normative component of U. S. journalism. Journalists praise the virtues of remaining completely unbiased in covering the news, but acknowledge that doing so is humanly impossible. Being even-handed in providing information is a plus, but "he-said-she-said" reporting is a disservice to the public. Accurately reporting the facts is a journalistic virtue, but failing to pursue "the truth behind the facts" is a shortcoming.
Numerous scholars and media practitioners have written about objectivity. Most agree that, as both a rhetorical claim and an information-gathering method, it has had clear value-economic, professional or both. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, news organizations and practitioners positioned objectivity as both a goal and a distinguishing characteristic. Claiming a commitment to objectivity helped set their work apart from earlier journalistic forms, such as the partisan political press, and from contemporary competitors, including purveyors of "yellow journalism," propaganda, marketing and public relations campaigns.
Objectivity was always somewhat problematic, as coverage of such figures as Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s amply demonstrated. But it largely withstood both professional and societal challenges throughout the 20th century. It was challenged from within by print forms that included the "new journalism" and "literary journalism" of the 1960s and beyond, as well as by the more personal delivery style of radio and television journalism. It also was challenged by the overall cultural shift to post-modern and deconstructionist perspectives that emphasized an inherent subjectivity of human perception. Yet for the majority of mainstream journalists, objectivity served as a bulwark against these challenges: It was a way to arrive at truth, neither sidetracked by literary pretensions nor deterred by esoteric debates about whether reality was knowable. It happened. We reported it "objectively." It's true.
Today's challenge is different and less easily brushed aside.
Our contemporary media environment is a network. It no longer consists of discrete media products, created and controlled by people and institutions distinct from both their competitors and their audiences. The digital products that journalists create today are neither finite nor free-standing. Instead, their stories are part of a fluid, seamless, participatory and intrinsically interconnected media world, and the ongoing development of those stories is a collective and ultimately uncontrollable process. No online product is ever in final form, and no story is ever inextricable from those that surround it. Indeed, the pervasive use of hyperlinks, search engines, RSS feeds, news aggregation sites such as Yahoo! News, and other personalizable tools for locating and retrieving information implies that the number of stories that are seen within the context provided by a single media entity's Web site is rapidly diminishing.
But of course, it is not just the stories that are part of this networked world. More important from an ethical perspective, the network also encompasses the journalists who produce those stories.
In a 20th century media environment, the distance provided by an objective stance-distance from both sources and readers, and thus presumably from any direct influence they might wield-was arguably useful. In the 21st century, it is not even possible.
Objectivity, as print journalists in particular have defined and sought to enact it, involves metaphorically standing apart from the world on which the journalist reports. It positions the journalist as one who observes but is not observed, who attends (both in the sense of being physically present and the sense of paying attention) but does not participate. Objectivity works in a world in which the end product itself reproduces the same roles: a newspaper or news broadcast that enables readers or viewers to look at the day's occurrences but not directly engage in them.
In a digital media environment, all distances collapse. Physical distance is erased by the immediacy with which any message can span the globe. Metaphysical distance is erased by the interconnections among all manner of information. And professional distance, such as that maintained by journalists through their articulation of objectivity as a normative stance, is erased by the interconnections among all manner of information producers.
Journalists in recent years have been startled by the scrutiny under which they have suddenly come-and by the fact that most of those doing the scrutinizing reject claims of objectivity and instead see media professionals as active (and not necessarily altruistic) participants in the construction of news.
The emergence of blogs has been especially eye-opening. Bloggers have been instrumental in pushing journalists toward greater "transparency"-more openness about who they are and where their information comes from-and toward increased communication not just to but also with the public through various interactive channels. Nor have bloggers been reluctant to both attack and traverse the boundaries that journalists have erected over the past 150 years. This is hardly surprising for a media form that has arisen on the Internet, which makes boundaries of all sorts-among products, among ideas, among people, among social roles-difficult to sustain.
Newspapers are the children of an industrial world structured to produce tangible objects suitable for a commercial exchange that determines their value. Blogs have been born of a digital network that is amorphous and participatory, where information itself is the commodity and value lies less in one-to-one exchanges than in many-to-many linkages. (The more links pointing to your site, for instance, the easier you will be for a search engine to find; the larger your social networking site, the more new people will want to join it; and so on.)
What does this have to do with objectivity? A lot. The shift to a world of fluid and interconnected information, rather than information transfer from one source (such as the journalist) to another (the reader), means that standing apart from this world in order to observe it is no longer desirable. Such detachment is deeply isolating, and in a networked world, the one thing that has virtually no value is isolation.
This is not at all to suggest that journalists should cease to be observers, nor that they should become participants in the events they observe. We need, and will continue to need, people who are both willing and able to serve as trustworthy eyes and ears in places we cannot be. We need, and will continue to need, people who can convey what they saw and heard from a perspective that bears in mind the interests of the public as a whole rather than the interests of a few of its members. In fact, those needs become arguably greater than ever in an information environment to which so many can and do contribute.
It does, however, suggest that journalists need to rethink what they mean by "objectivity." The term does not mean detachment. It does not mean erecting walls around the journalistic product, process or person. It does not mean a determination not to care about an event or its effects. It cannot mean those things if journalism is to retain any relevance in a world in which we are all so thoroughly intertwined.
Instead, objectivity in a networked environment means a recommitment to the professed rationale behind establishing it as a norm in the first place. Journalists have long claimed that an objective approach to gathering and reporting information is the best way to enable them to fulfill their primary loyalty. That central loyalty is not to an advertiser nor an employer, not to the overall profession nor to the individual story nor even to the sources of information leading to that story. The primary loyalty of any journalist is to the public.
And that public no longer occupies a distinct space or role within the media environment-a space and a role apart from the journalist's. We all are citizens of the network, and we all contribute to it. Serving today's public means conveying not just the "news" itself but also as much as we can about the people, process and products that shaped it-including us. Because, in a networked world, there no longer is the "journalist," "audience" and "source." There is only "us."
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.1,15-16.