Research in journalism ethics typically focuses on the actions, intent and duty of practitioners rather than the expectations of the public at whom messages are directed. When we do devote attention to the public, we find them to be increasingly critical of journalism. Polling data reveals that the public widely believes the press to be inaccurate, one-sided and lacking independence (Pew Research Center, 2011). Interestingly, these criticisms represent precisely the inverse of the ideals espoused by journalistic codes of ethics. For example, the Associated Press Media Editors (1994) Statement of Ethical Principles affirms that “The good newspaper is fair, accurate, honest, responsible, independent and decent” while remaining impartial and dispassionate. Similar statements advocating independence, accuracy and impartiality can be found in the American Society of News Editors (1975) Statement of Principles, while the Society of Professional Journalists (1996) Code of Ethics emphasizes accuracy, fairness and independence.
This essay traces the development of alternatives to the ethical value of objectivity over the past several decades, assesses the decline in public trust of the media during the same period and outlines several perceived causes of that decline. It further examines the public perception of disparity between the ethical actions of journalists and the ideals laid down in journalistic codes of ethics, presenting a call for renewed attention to the traditional ethical value of objectivity in journalism.
Objectivity as a Norm
Journalism has long been accorded a vital role in democracy. As Alexis de Tocqueville (1899) observed:
When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn. The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be regarded as correlative (para. 6).
When de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, the role of the press had begun to increasingly be seen as that of providing “objective” news rather than a “partisan viewpoint” as had previously been the norm (Schudson, 1981, p. 4). Objectivity as an ethical value evolved over the next 150 years to become the “supreme deity” of American journalism and a general expectation of the public (Mindich, 2000, p. 1).
While challenges to objectivity have existed throughout its history as a journalistic value, they gained a substantial measure of support in the latter decades of the 21st century. By the mid-1990s, “public” or “civic” journalism had arisen as a proactive response to the public's opinion that, rather than help society solve its problems, the media were getting in the way of solutions (Merritt, 1995). Harkening back to the recommendations of the Hutchins Commission (1947), public journalism encouraged journalists to reconnect with their communities, strengthen civic culture and persuade citizens to play a more active role in politics and self-governance (Friedland, Rosen, & Austin, 1994). Some supporters worried that this new form of journalism could become an excuse for journalists to engage in subjective journalism reporting “from a clearly stated point of view” (Meyer, 1995, para. 24). But as the movement caught on in universities, as well as a number of media outlets, many began to rethink strict adherence to objectivity as an ethical value. In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists elected to remove all references to the previously enshrined “objectivity” when it revised its Code of Ethics, opting instead for values such as fairness and accountability (Black, 1998).
By the turn of the century, interest in public journalism had begun to wane and attention turned to a trend re-emerging in the new online environment—“citizen journalism,” which some proponents thought of as “Public Journalism 2.0” (Rosenberry & St. John, 2010). Citizen journalism, sometimes referred to as “participatory journalism,” calls upon citizens to go beyond serving as sources, subjects and receivers of the news and instead take an active role in producing journalism. Yet, despite the initial promise of presenting a true alternative to traditional media outlets, many citizen journalism projects have fallen flat. Thorson, Duffy, Lacy, & Riffe (2009) concluded that “Citizen journalism today is far from fulfilling the promise that many early proponents envisioned. It is clear that such enterprises are not replacements for legacy news media and the newsgathering capabilities of [the] professional newsroom” (para. 8). Meanwhile, Lowery & Anderson (2006) found that citizen journalism weakens journalistic authority and blurs the line between traditional news and other information sources, such as public relations practitioners and politicians. The broader the definition of “journalism,” the more media outlets could become vulnerable to criticism engendered by actions of participants outside the scope of traditional journalism.
Public journalism and, for the most part, citizen journalism can be viewed as examples of advocacy journalism, a form of journalism that endeavors to be fact-based, but does not separate editorial opinion from news coverage and often approaches the news from a specific viewpoint. Advocacy journalists distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” and “actively participate in the debate, becoming more activists than observers of the events” (Ruigrok, 2010). Thus, they can be said to exhibit the same kind of “interventionist impulse” that scholars such as Hanitzsch (2007, p. 373) see at work in public journalism. Advocacy journalism has been at times credited with everything from combating “the moral failings of Western governments” (Hammond, 2002, p. 178) to offering "a more progressive notion of experts and expertise by citing community members while critiquing or pointedly ignoring dominant discourses from government and academic ‘experts’” (Heitner, 2009, p. 405). It has been tied to peace journalism (Kempf, 2007), “alternative” publications (Waisbord, 2009) and environmental journalism (Waisbord & Peruzzotti, 2009) among others. Some scholars contend that advocacy journalists can be assumed to write from a “leftist” point of view (Craig, 2004, p. 240), often as a counterweight to the “inherently conservative” notion of objectivity (Glasser, 1984, para. 3), which some argue serves as a tool to “help the powerful maintain order” (Ryan, 2009. p. 8). Many other scholars contend that any liberal bias on the part of journalists is more than offset by a conservative bias among owners. For example, Parry (2003) notes that “media owners historically have enforced their political views and other preferences by installing senior editors whose careers depend on delivering a news product that fits with the owner’s prejudices.”
Advocacy journalism has been seen at work in mainstream journalism as well (Schultz, 2013). As Downie & Schudson (2009) reported, “in the plurality of the American media universe, advocacy journalism is not endangered—it is growing” (para. 17).
Public Perception of Journalism
Scholarly investigation into the public’s perception of journalism has tended to focus on media credibility and trust. Early research in this area examined credibility primarily along two fronts: source credibility and medium credibility.
Source credibility studies date back at least to Hovland & Weiss (1951), who examined the impact of “untrustworthy” sources on the reception of content. This research has influenced a wide variety of studies involving sources used by the media into this century. Manning (2001) examined source credibility as an element in political and socio-economic control of the news, finding that mainstream journalists tended to rely upon official or elite sources in their work, thus granting advantages to the powerful. Alternative media may mitigate this effect by making use of sourcing routines that emphasize “ordinary” sources as opposed to those favored by mainstream media (Atton & Wickendon, 2005). Source diversity, e.g., the inclusion of both governmental and non-governmental sources, has been shown to increase perceived credibility of articles about risk issues (Cozma, 2006). It also led to examination of individual journalists as sources themselves (Messner & Distaso, 2008; Phillips, 2010; Nah & Chung, 2012).
In addition to looking at the credibility of journalists as sources, scholars have also examined the trustworthiness of specific media as channels—otherwise known as media credibility. Roper’s (1985) decades-long examination of perceived credibility among radio, television, magazines and newspapers showed that audiences consistently reported television as the medium they would be most inclined to believe when faced with conflicting versions of the same story. That trend began to reverse in recent decades. Kiousis (2001) looked at how audiences perceived news credibility among print, television and online media. The research indicated that media consumers, skeptical of all three media, gave especially low marks to television—a move away from the higher credibility ratings given to television in previous studies (e.g., Gaziano & McGrath, 1986).
Others have examined media credibility within the framework of “trust.” Kohring & Matthes (2007) suggested a move away from attempting to assess credibility, which they found theoretically and methodologically troublesome, and toward evaluating “trust.” Their multidimensional scale measures trust in terms of selectivity of topics, selectivity of facts, accuracy of depictions and journalistic assessment such as commentary and explicit calls for action. The move toward trust stems from earlier research by Tsfati & Capella (2003), who found distrust or skepticism of the media correlated negatively and significantly with consumption of mainstream news. Those who distrusted media content were less likely to consume mainstream news and more likely to seek out alternative sources. Additional research by Tsfati (2003) indicated that media skeptics were also less likely to exhibit the effects of agenda-setting than non-skeptics. Media skeptics themselves tended to be more conservative, leading the researcher to question whether those who were more resistant to the agenda-setting effects of the media appeared so because of media skepticism, conservative orientation or some combination of the two.
Observations of decreased trust in the media have been supported by numerous surveys conducted in recent years, which continue to show a steep and steady worsening of the public's perception of the media. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” (Morales, 2012). A similar poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [Pew] (2012) showed a sharp fall in media credibility, with every news outlet in the survey experiencing a double-digit drop in believability ratings during the previous decade.
Partisanship and Media Credibility
The 2012 Pew poll notes huge partisan gaps in media credibility ratings between Democrats and Republicans. Of the 13 news organizations included in the survey, only FOX News was rated more highly by Republicans than Democrats, and even that had fallen 10 percentage points in believability ratings since the previous poll in 2010. Predictably, Republicans gave the lowest believability ratings to MSNBC (32%), The New York Times (37%) and CNN (40%). Just as predictably, Democrats gave their only low believability rating to FOX News (37%). With few exceptions at the extremes, believability ratings among Independents looked far more like that of Republicans than Democrats. Media believability ratings for the 13 news organizations among Independents were on average 5% (2.46 points) higher than Republicans and 24% (16 points) lower than Democrats.
New York Times
you know best
Wall Street Journal
Local TV News
Source: 2012 Pew Research report (p. 6)
The poll showed a drop in media credibility for all news organizations among members of both parties over the course of the previous decade. Every one of the 13 news organizations received a lower credibility rating in 2012 than 2002. However, the decline was much more substantial among Republicans. Among Democrats, half of the noted declines were within the margin of error. (However, no value was given for The New York Times in 2002.) Only the credibility decline for “Local TV News” fell within the margin of error for Republicans. Clearly, Republicans are skeptical of news organizations, and their mistrust has deepened substantially over the past decade.
One might be tempted to blame Republican skepticism on the “hostile media” phenomenon identified by Vallone, Ross, & Lepper (1985). Hostile media phenomenon points to the effect of partisanship on the assessment of media bias, noting that strong partisans on both sides of an issue view the media as being biased against their side. However, like the 2012 Pew poll, research on American media has increasingly shown trust varying along political lines. For example, Oh, Park, & Wanta (2011) found that, while hostile media phenomena existed for both political parties, they were much greater for Republicans than for Democrats. Moreover, they noted that Democrats experienced a higher incidence of biased assimilation. In other words, Democrats in the study were more likely to view the media as supporting their own views, whereas Republicans were more likely to see the media as hostile to their views.
Jones (2004) observed that trust in the media has a marked connection to political partisanship with strong Democrats representing the largest group of participants who “just about always” trust the media and strong Republicans making up the largest group who “almost never” do so (p. 66). Nearly 40% of all Republicans could be classified as media skeptics, according to the study. Instead of falling along a normal bell-shaped curve, with large amounts of trust in the middle and small amounts at each end, the data are skewed to one side with strong Democrats exhibiting an unusual amount of trust in the media and strong Republicans an unusual amount of mistrust.
Allegations of Liberal Bias
A number of books in the popular press (e.g., Goldberg, 2001; Stossel, 2004; Anderson, 2005; Bozell, 2004) have attempted to attribute the growing mistrust of journalism to inherent liberal bias within the media. Many build their arguments off studies showing that American journalists tend to be significantly more liberal than average Americans (Lichter, Rothman, & Lichter, 1986). And indeed, journalists have been shown to donate vastly more often to Democrats (Dedman, 2007) and favor Democrats in their voting (Walsh, 1996; “Press,” 2005). However, Covert & Wasburn (2007) argue that given the ethical value of objectivity in journalism, the personal views of journalists should not be influencing coverage at all. Their content analysis of Time and Newsweek magazines over a 25-year span showed no significant ideological bias. Other studies, for a variety of reasons, also have rejected the notion of liberal bias in the media (Watts, Domke, Shah, & Fan, 1999; Niven, 2001; Niven, 2003; Alterman, 2003; Fico, Freedman, & Love, 2006; Edwards & Cromwell, 2006). Indeed, a meta-analysis of more than 50 years of research into presidential election campaigns showed no significant biases for newspapers or magazines and only a slight liberal bias in television news coverage (D'Alessio & Allen, 2000). Some scholars have referred to the entire concept as “The Liberal Media Myth” (e.g., Lee, 2005).
However, a number of recent studies have reported increasing “liberal bias” in the media. Reichert, Mueller, & Nitz (2003) looked at coverage of the 2000 presidential election in young adult magazines and discovered a “consistent bias” toward the Democrat candidate and against the Republican. In a follow-up study, Mueller & Reichert (2009) noted that bias against the Republican candidate and in favor of the Democrat continued in the 2004 presidential election. In the case of Rolling Stone magazine, which is known for advocacy journalism in its political articles, 83% of coverage involving the Republican candidate was negative compared with 92% positive coverage of the Democratic candidate. Lowry (2008) also found partisan (pro-Democrat) bias in how network television news framed economic developments under Republican and Democratic presidents.
An increase in “liberal bias” was noted in coverage of Senate races as well. Looking at nine Senate races in the 2004 election, Fico, Freedman, & Love (2006) found the coverage to be generally even-handed. To the extent that bias was discovered, it could be attributed to structural (bias in individual stories that favors one side in a conflict) rather than partisan (aggregate news coverage that systematically favors the liberal or conservative side in a political conflict) effects. However, a follow-up study of the 2006 Senate races arrived at a different conclusion. The researchers found that coverage of 11 U. S. Senate races favored Democratic and liberal candidates over Republicans (Fico & Freedman, 2008). Moreover, the researchers noted that, unlike two years earlier, the imbalance appeared more the result of partisan rather than structural biases. They offered two possible explanations for the apparent increase in partisan bias between 2004 and 2006:
First, 2004 was a presidential election year, and news organizations may have been more aware of the need to balance coverage. A second explanation is that journalists studied in 2006 were simply biased toward liberal candidates and shaped their coverage accordingly (p. 509).
They noted that differences in timing and sampling could also help explain the findings, as could growing negative reactions to the nation's wars and the Republican president in office at the time.
Groseclose & Milyo (2005) asserted the existence of “a systematic tendency for the United States media outlets to slant the news to the left” (p. 1226). News outlets included in the study fell consistently left of the “average U. S. voter” with only FOX News Special Report with Brit Hume and the Washington Times scoring to the right. (This content analysis omitted editorials, book reviews and letters to the editor). Groseclose’s subsequent work examined approximately 100 news outlets in the United States and found only a handful of right-leaning news outlets (Groseclose, 2011). He argued that the media's liberal bias distorts Americans’ view of the world and pulls them to the political left.
Alternative Causes of Perceived Media Bias
The existence of liberal bias in the media remains a matter of heated debate. However, regardless of whether or not the media actually exhibit ideological bias, nearly all agree that the American public perceives such bias. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 47% of respondents thought that the media were “too liberal” compared with just 13% who said they were “too conservative” (Morales, 2011). These findings were more or less consistent over the previous decade. If one assumes that the perception of liberal bias is not due to actual ideological bias in the media, the question becomes: what causes the public to perceive the media as leaning to the left ideologically and (by extension) in a partisan manner toward Democrats?
Scholars have suggested a variety of external explanations for perceived partisan or ideological bias in the media. Watts, Domke, Shah, & Fan (1999) asserted that one explanation could be “media self-coverage and elite cue taking” (p. 147). Citizens might perceive the media as liberally biased because political elites, especially Republican elites, focus media reporting on these allegations, which in turn helps convince the public that the charges are true. Lee (2005) echoed this concern, suggesting that Republican elites “like to remind their supporters that journalists tend to be liberal and pro-Democratic” (p. 56). Lee asserted that the political leanings of journalists do not affect their reporting, but they do open those reporters up to criticism from these Republican elites. He questions whether conservatives and Republicans are therefore “less objective in their evaluation of the media than liberals or Democrats” (p. 58). Ladd (2012) also suggested that polarization between America’s two major political parties led to increased partisan criticism of the press. Additional research suggests that this cuing could extend to the interpersonal level as well. Eveland & Shah (2003) found that discussions with ideologically similar individuals affected perceptions of media bias and that the impact of such conversations among Republicans was stronger than among Democrats.
Rather than look to external factors, some have suggested that the perception of bias could be related to other journalistic interests. Brookes (1991) argued that rather than an ideologically liberal bias, real journalistic bias lies in the direction of promoting the expansion of government—what he termed the “statist quo”—because that would be good for journalism and journalists:
Collectively, the national press is not liberal, per se, so much as it is statist. That is, (and I speak broadly here) it is committed to the promotion of an ever more intrusive governmental presence in every aspect of our lives—with the exception, of course, of the business of journalism (p.17).
Exploring this line of reasoning, Anderson & McLellan (2006) found evidence of Brookes’ “statist quo” rather than ideological bias during their research into media coverage of acid rain.
Ethical and Practical Implications
The past two decades have witnessed a conscious push away from the traditional journalistic value of objectivity, often deeming it an impossible goal. Calls for advocacy journalism have taken a variety of forms including public journalism, citizen journalism and peace journalism. Scholars have noted that advocacy journalism promotes societal change. Thus it tends to advocate more for “leftist” causes, serving as a progressive counterweight to the intrinsically conservative nature of objectivity. And advocacy journalism as a whole—including much “rightist” activity—is growing.
Research has shown that members of the press have a strong, widespread politically liberal orientation. At the same time many scholars and journalists argue that, despite this inherently progressive attitude, the ethical value of objectivity exerts a powerful moderating influence and that liberal bias in the media is for all intents and purposes non-existent, even a myth. Figdor (2010) calls this "paradoxical" (p. 19). A highly partisan press corps cannot produce politically unbiased journalism without respect for the value of objectivity. And once one admits a degree of objectivity in news reporting, one must concede that the reporting itself can be more objective or less objective.
Despite scholarly findings of “balanced” political news reporting, the public increasingly views the media as politically partisan, with nearly half of poll respondents specifically citing a liberal bias in the press. As charges of bias have risen, media credibility and trust in journalism have plummeted. While this is prevalent among Republicans, independents have also shown a substantial drop in trust of the media with ratings much closer to Republicans than to Democrats (Morales, 2012). More than three-quarters of the respondents in a 2011 Pew poll indicated belief that the media favored one side. With some journalism organizations continuing to enshrine “objectivity” in their ethical codes and others, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, are moving away from it, one can understand the public's confusion about the place of objectivity in journalism.
In an era of challenges wrought by the new online information environment, news organizations have fallen victim to decreased audience, layoffs and in some cases shutdowns. One need not look hard to find articles, blog posts or comments tying the decline of the news organizations to perceptions of media bias. Some scholars have found evidence supporting the idea that perceived bias drives audience members away from use of traditional media as a common source of news, and toward alternative outlets, exacerbating partisanship. For example, Hollander (2008) found evidence that partisan viewers were migrating to media that reflected their own viewpoints, while casual news consumers were moving to entertainment rather than news programming. Ladd (2010) reported that distrust of the media leads voters “to discount campaign news and increasingly rely on their partisan predispositions as cues.” As distrust in the media increases, voting becomes correspondingly more partisan. Malone (2008) and others have suggested that this represents a danger not only to the future of news organizations but to the American democracy.
This essay is not meant to suggest that objectivity is the only laudable goal of ethical journalism. Nor should it be taken as an assault on either the ethical or practical merit of advocacy journalism. It is instead intended as a call for the re-evaluation of objectivity and advocacy as ethical values in journalism. As a practical matter, perceived objectivity has a demonstrable impact on journalism. Some have asserted that a lack of objectivity has been responsible, at least in part, for journalism's reputational decline. Others declare that objective journalism has grown stale and that advocacy journalism offers an opportunity to make it fresh and relevant in a society overloaded with information. News organizations need to understand what members of the public mean when they express a desire for the press to be objective, the extent to which the public is aware of the advocacy movement within journalism, and their reaction to the virtues of both objectivity and advocacy. Media ethicists should assert a central role in furthering our understanding of these vital concerns.
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