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why do we still talk about objective political journalism?

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‘Journalists are supposed to be objective.’ If ever there were a mantra for journalism students, this would be it. No group of people (except maybe judges) is expected to set aside their personal beliefs and values for their profession quite like journalists.

But no matter how often we repeat the creed, no one actually believes it. (At least they shouldn’t.) It doesn’t exist. And as long as reporting is being done by thinking human beings, it cannot exist.

The goal is this: journalists – a broad definition to be sure – should investigate and report facts, completely uninfluenced by their personal beliefs, values, experiences and expectations. Anything else is manipulation of the public and shoddy, unethical work. This is fair in theory; for most of the daily news that slips past public scrutiny, it’s almost true. But where “objectivity” is most crucial – in political and international coverage, environmental and health stories, in stories about economic policy and social justice – it is also least realistic.

The general public should stop expecting news delivered without subjectivity – and journalists should stop claiming neutrality. The political news story that represents both or multiple parties fairly and in equal measure is an elusive dream.

To be clear, this is not tacit support for journalism that disregards or deliberately distorts facts, or for a media landscape that consists entirely of columnists and op-ed writers. Rather it is an argument for a more realistic evaluation of news. Keeping in mind that journalists are also affected by the policies and events they cover and that they are employed and edited by people with their own opinions, the expectation of objectivity in journalism is a dated one. When readers can be updated on developments in short sound bites and 140-character or less, the comprehensive news report now functions as a venue for interpretation as much as for reporting.

Where media criticism is ubiquitously most intense is during an election. Unsurprising, since the journalists are often the link between politicians and their constituents. This is a reciprocal relationship: as much as we rely on writers and broadcasters to endure the media scrums and press conferences to keep an eye on those we elect (or not, in some cases), politicians use journalists as well. It’s no wonder then that news outlets are consistently slammed for being too right- or left leaning.

But is the lack of media objectivity a factor in election results?

In an article for The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow questions the fall of the Labor Party in the days leading up to the election. The party that lurched out of the ‘political wilderness’ in 2007 slowly started to fall out of favour with (in Sparrow’s view) Kevin Rudd’s passionate focus on both the environment and making amends to the Aboriginal population, and seeming apathy toward the economy. It’s difficult to ignore an economic crisis, though, even if you try to convince voters that reviving the environment will solve their problems.

‘Yes, he gave good symbol but his frenetic enthusiasms suddenly felt rather underwhelming: all sizzle and no sausage, as it were,’ writes Sparrow.

According to Paul Sheehan at The Sydney Morning Herald, Rudd’s time in office will be remembered most for its ‘dysfunction’.

When Julia Gillard replaced Rudd, the first female prime minister of Australia inherited the problems of her party and an incredible amount of sexist press and treatment by her colleagues. Gillard responded to the misogyny she faced in an interview with The Monthly and in her now famous speech in Parliament last October.

‘The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,’ she said.

‘Well I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.’

In the case of objectivity and the media’s responsibility to its readers, what’s worse: Sparrow’s description of Rudd and the Labor Party as a sinking ship with sparring leadership; a sympathetic feature on Gillard’s plight with a hostile opposition; or the coverage of Gillard’s governance? Depending on what you already believe, the answer will be different, but no option is completely free of bias.

Similarly, can Tony Abbott, what with his “woman problem”, credit his win to conciliatory reporting, when his many public gaffes and the subsequent criticism were covered? For those who are supportive of the Coalition (or maybe just unimpressed by the other options) the amount and quality of the coverage would not matter when it came time to vote. It is the job of journalists to report without favouritism, but readers will select and evaluate their news with respect to their own values – or, in the case of the Labor Party, their frustration.

Major news outlets are meant to avoid advocacy journalism and their reporters are cautioned against providing platforms for polarising causes and politicians. It’s a reasonable request but ultimately unsustainable when news culture demands more analysis to stay competitive. Bias creeps in through the selection of sources and word choice and readers are not oblivious to an outlet’s political slant. (Philip Coorey, for example, described Rudd’s re-instatement earlier this year as “revenge” for having the Labor leadership “torn away from him”.) Yet, the romanticism of the journalist as passive observer still lives, especially in journalism schools where new students are encouraged to remove any trace of opinion from their work.

The solution to “biased, partisan, one-sided reporting” is greater consumption of news from more news sources, not detached coverage altogether. As much as journalists influence public thought, public though influences journalism and it’s silly to expect otherwise.

 

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