Objective Journalism in the Online Age: Paramount or Pipe Dream?

The traditional ideals of journalism are under siege, colourfully illustrated during John Oliver’s entertaining diatribe on modern journalism on Last Week Tonight. In particular, the idea of objectivity – one of the cornerstones of journalistic integrity – is in flux in the online age. This is especially relevant in regards to headlines, which media outlets are beginning to be laxer with allowing their bias to show in. In an ideal world, the public should be presented with the unbiased facts that they need to come to their own informed decision, but this type of coverage is becoming more and more rare.

There is a plethora of considerations in regards to online publishing that go beyond objectivity and good writing, but in turn influence those two concepts. Headlines in an online age must keep in mind Search Engine Optimization (SEO), click-through rates, and the fact that traditional journalism has to be competitive with think pieces written by citizen journalists – which can be more appealing to share online and therefore can go viral. If mainstream journalists include buzzwords in their headlines, which are more likely to be Googled or shared, they may be adding bias to the piece – whether that bias is intended or not.

More than occasionally, social media users share or retweet articles based solely on the headline, without ever having read the article itself. Caitlin Dewey, for the Washington Post, reported on a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute which stated that “59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.” Given that Facebook’s algorithm favours the posts that are most interacted with, these blind shares help determine what others read on their newsfeeds. Even for those who do click through to the article itself, studies show that they are unlikely to read it in full. In these cases, when consumers are forming opinions based solely on headlines and/or short summaries, any explicit bias in a headline becomes far more important than the editor or journalist who chose it may have originally intended.

When Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, it was unsurprising in a time embroiled in emotions in regards to Brexit and the US federal election. Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Living in a post-truth society, it is perhaps unsurprising that mainstream journalism is struggling against a tide of “fake news” that can be at best annoying and mischievous, and at worst, propagandistic. The Washington Post reported on Russia’s involvement with the fake news cycle during the US election, saying “[t]he Russian campaign during this election season … worked by harnessing the online world’s fascination with “buzzy” content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories about how secret forces dictate world events.”

It must be noted however that the idea of “buzzy” content is not unique to fake news, with sites like Buzzfeed dominating the online world using clickbait-y headlines that promise “You Won’t Believe” what is contained in their articles (or listicles.) So, if these are the headlines that have the average web user clicking through to an article, how can the mainstream news media compete without abandoning the original ethical principles journalism? Further, should they even be “competing” at all? To take it a step further, when the news being covered hits passion points for the journalists reporting on it, should they be allowed to take a personal stance if they feel it is important? For example, criticisms of Donald Trump’s stances on immigration. Perhaps we need to look back to allow us to move forward.

The Idea of Objectivity and Bias in Mainstream Journalism

Objectivity and bias are oft debated topics in the world of journalism and ethics, going back much, much further than the 2016 election cycle. Some, like Walter Lippmann, argue that objectivity is paramount to an informed population, while others claim that it is impossible to truly avoid bias and that it is lazy for journalists to not use their investigative skills to present the public with fully formed opinions. In cases of social justice issues, the lines between what bias is acceptable becomes blurred.

So, can journalism ever achieve true objectivity? As Robert McChesney said in his essay “That was Now and This is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism” for Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights “institutional and human biases are unavoidable, and the starting point is to be honest about it” (159). In Liberty and the News Walter Lippmann said that “the really important thing is to try and make opinion increasingly responsible to the facts” (38).

In the essay “A Test of the News” that Lippmann co-authored, he also referred to the public’s perception of the news as “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs. This doubt ranges from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption” (Lippmann and Merz 1). However, the main omission to this rule is when the news that audiences are consuming aligns closely with their own pre-existing biases. In The News: A Users Manual Alain De Botton argues the dangers of personalizing the news. That is, audiences only paying attention to subjects that are already of interest and in line with their current beliefs. The tendency to seek out news that confirms standing notions and ideologies rather than challenges them is something that becomes a risk of a society that consumes media passively. Yet, when topics that are overwhelming seen as negative are covered, for example racism or homophobia, does it become okay to allow this bias to creep into the coverage of such events? Chris Hedges, in his essay “The Disease of Objectivity,” said that aiming for objectivity takes the journalist away from empathy and passion, and distracts them from one of the main abilities of reporting: a quest for justice. These are all things society should theoretically be striving towards.

What Would Walter Lippmann Say?

Robert McChesney, who I quoted in the previous section, is a scholar and professor, concentrating on the history and political economy of communication with a particular interest in journalism and self-governance. During his essay “That was Now and This is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism” he addresses many common criticisms of Walter Lippmann’s popular works, such as claims of him being elitist and “anti-democracy.” Most of the piece, however, focuses on Lippmann’s lesser known works that deal directly with journalism: “A Test of the News” an essay co-authored with Charles Merz, and Liberty and the News, a short book.

Lippmann was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writer, and political commentator, who was outspoken in his views regarding journalism’s role in democracy. He is best known for his works Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. However, McChesney argues that the importance of “A Test of the News” and Liberty and the News is magnified by the fact that they were written at what he calls “the climax of the last truly great defining crisis for journalism” (McChesney 153). This lends to a feeling of them being intensely timely and “of the moment” for the 1920’s. And this is, of course, relevant to today because we are now in another defining crisis for journalism.

The main issue of the day was the emerging trend towards organized propaganda, or what we now consider public relations. Lippmann referred to the public’s perception of the news at the time as “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs. This doubt ranges from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption” (Lippmann and Merz 1). With the rise of fake news, and further the fact that media is relying on native advertising and content marketing to fund online publications, these same doubts are once again becoming realized.

In “A Test of the News” Lippmann focuses on the New York Times coverage of the Russian Revolution from 1917-1920. He was upset with how the news was colored by “the wishes, distortions and lies of [anti-revolutionary] forces as gospel truths” (McChesney 153). The New York Times was particularly guilty of being misled by its reliance on the government as an official source of information. The frightening implications of such a system led Lippmann to propose that journalism not be considered a private enterprise, but as a public institution, and therefore suggested that public money should be used to improve its quality.

Lippmann, somewhat surprisingly given his socialist background, had no class analysis when evaluating the state of the commercial news system. He did not “entertain the idea … that those with property and privilege greatly benefited by an ignorant and ill-informed populace.” (McChesney 155). To him, the power of the news was in the hands of the editors, not the publishers. On that particular note, McChesney commented that Lippmann did not take into account how the concerns of said publishers influenced who became the editors, which fairly clearly shortsighted.

Lippmann particularly respected C.P. Scott, publisher and editor of The Manchester Guardian. After his death, his family placed The Guardian in a nonprofit trust, to “preserve the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity while its subsidiary aims are to champion its principles and to promote freedom of the press in the UK and abroad” (McChesney 176). Today, The Guardian is still widely read and respected around the world.

Despite his support of The Guardian becoming a nonprofit newspaper, Lippmann was not actually calling for all news media to adopt the model. Instead, he was calling for them to change course from the current status quo, and to embrace professional training. He called for standards of “the highest quality of factually accurate and contextually honest information unpolluted by personal, commercial, or political bias” (Lippman and Merz 41).

In his work Lippmann wanted to stray away from society remaining “dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses” (Lippmann 46). However, it seems that we are currently moving closer towards that again, with the rise of citizen journalism, which quite often invites personal biases.

Despite common criticisms of being elitist, Lippmann was determined that for the news media to succeed in changing for the better, the public needed to become more loudly involved. “Change will come only by the drastic competition of those whose interest are not represented in the existing news-organization” (Lippmann 60).

He posed the following as “jobs” for the reporter:

  1. Ignore bias (personal or otherwise) to ensure an accurate understanding of events
  2. Operate under, and enforce, a professional code of honor.

Under these guidelines, schools of journalism boomed after World War I, and “the notion that the news should be unbiased and objective became commonplace” (McChesney 158).

However, McChesney pointed out that somehow the current standard of professional journalism in the United States has “veered dramatically from the core values [Lippman] prescribed” (McChesney 158). He cites the coverage of the lead up to the War on Terror as a large example of the presses tendency to take the claims of the government at face value.

Knowing the history and context of Lippmann’s works, we must acknowledge that his vision is not entirely feasible in a world ruled by the commercialism he disregarded. The resources that Lippmann’s theories relied on are no longer in place, and instead we are left with what McChesney calls the shambles of commercial journalism in a significantly monopolistic news media system.

What Should We Be Aiming For?

In the case of news stories related to social justice, where empathy and passions are more likely to be involved, it becomes a question of if the news has an obligation to report as objectively as possible, or if reporters can fulfill their personal, moral obligation to express distaste towards subjects such as homophobia and racism. When it’s a topic that is overwhelmingly seen as outdated or distasteful, should journalists be allowed to show their bias as long as it does not affect accurate and fair reporting? Potentially, emotional decisions could be made, leading to inaccurate reporting being posted online. In the days of the Internet, tides of public opinion can change quickly. With the rise of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, opinion being touted as fact is becoming increasingly common, and the mainstream media (especially in regards to news reporting) should be held to a higher standard of objectivity.

This is not to say that journalists cannot follow their passions and take up the mantle for a cause like Chris Hedges recommended. Rather, they just must keep journalistic integrity in mind while doing so. Perhaps rather than trying to remain wholly objective, they should be trying to examine more angles than just the standard two disparate ones that journalists look for to prove they are unbiased. While standard news writing does not allow for in depth analysis due to both word counts and time constraints, reporters such as the late David Carr of the New York Times are champions of well-researched, dogged investigative reporting. Acknowledging that a certain amount of bias is unavoidable, and doing their best to align opinion with fact is integral to journalists keeping the public informed on world issues while staunching the flow of rampant misinformation. For society to progress beyond issues of sexuality and race, which should be outdated and obsolete, it is important to have passionate whistleblowers who have the skills and training necessary to get to the heart of the story.

The crucial lessons in Lippmann’s works remain relevant today, no matter the format journalists are publishing in ­– online or in print. The relationship between journalism and democracy, and the importance of the public’s role in holding them accountable, remain. Therefore the difficult, but not impossible, mission of creating an independent fourth estate is central to ideas of self-government and freedom. Despite journalists’ bias and feelings of moral obligation, the mainstream news media must do their best to maintain unbiased coverage. Presenting the facts of a news event without using language that leads their reader to a conclusion, but rather allows the reader to come to their own, is one of the main purposes of media coverage. Citizen journalism can be extremely biased and one-dimensional, and as such, it is increasingly important for the mainstream news media to remain unbiased in their reporting. If the tendency towards bias can be ignored by professional journalists, mainstream media has the potential to infiltrate the Internet with better researched pieces.

Works Cited

Botton, Alain De. The News: A User’s Manual. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. Print.

Dewey, Caitlin. “6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says.” The Washington Post 16 Jun 2016. Web. 25 Nov 2016.

Hedges, Chris. “The Disease of Objectivity.” Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights. New York: New Press, 2011. Print.

Journalism: Last Week Tonight with John OliverLast Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, 7 Aug 2016.

Lippmann, Walter and Charles Merz. A Test of the News: An Examination of the News Reports in the New York times on Aspects of the Russian Revolution of Special Importance to Americans, March 1917 — March 1920. New York: New Republic, 1920. Print.

Lippmann, Walter. Liberty and the News. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920. Print.

Maksym Gabielkov, Arthi Ramachandran, Augustin Chaintreau, Arnaud Legout. “Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?.” ACM SIGMETRICS / IFIP Performance 2016, Jun 2016, Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France. 25 November 2016.

Manjoo, Farhad. “You Won’t Finish This Article.” Slate 6 Jun 2013. Web. 18 Nov 2016.

McChesney, Robert. “That Was Now and This Is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism.” Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights. New York: New Press, 2011. Print.

Timberg, Craig. “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The Washington Post 24 Nov 2016. Web. 26 Nov 2016.

2 Replies to “Objective Journalism in the Online Age: Paramount or Pipe Dream?”

  1. Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for this interesting analysis of today’s journalism stance on integrity/bias. I liked that you started off talking about headlines and acknowledged how difficult it is for journalists to not only consider SEO and click-through rates but also, if they want their articles to reach more readers, they must make their articles viral. And one of the best ways to do that is to have a punchy, clickbait headline. I was curious to get your opinion on whether or not they intend to be biased when they add buzzwords in their headlines. Do you think that journalists today are more interested in getting their articles read/shared by a maximum of people, or are they more focused on finding the truth and exposing it to the world? Is there a balance between those two that would be ideal?
    I was very surprised that 59% of people share articles without even reading it—and most of the remaining 41% doesn’t read the entire article before sharing it. Well, I was surprised… but not really. I saw this article a few weeks ago (among many other articles about Bernies Sanders becoming the next president if so and so happened—which made no sense): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bernie-sanders-could-replace-president-trump-with-little_us_5829f25fe4b02b1f5257a6b7? This one is very clever as I’m sure people shared it just for the headline without even looking inside. And it’s the content that really matters. I’m also curious about this kind of article how the author uses SEOs. It’s clear from the link that people searching for “Bernie Sanders could replace president Trump…” will take them to the article but I wonder if they used another tactic to reach well-read readers that wouldn’t normally click on a headline like that.
    In your essay, you also asked if mainstream news media should be competing with those bait articles, and I think, sadly, that they already are, and that with readers getting accustomed to short, glamorous articles agreeing with their own ideologies instead of challenging them, mainstream news media is losing the battle. But should they abandon their ethical principles? I don’t think so. I suppose there is a way to balance sense and sensation and still give readers satisfaction without compromising journalism ethics.
    What Alain De Botton says about personalizing the news is very interesting. This subject was raised by many Mpubbers when Quietly presented their content marketing business in our management class. And since content marketing—a business that publishes articles and listicles based on data—is becoming so popular, it is fair to be concerned about the future of journalism. The two are becoming more and more alike and since the concept of content marketing appeals to businesses as much as the articles appeal to a large audience, journalism might try to use the same tools (collecting data and publishing content based on what readers what to read). Or are they already doing that?
    I enjoyed the background on Lippmann’s ideas and also learning about C.P. Scott (or was it Lippmann’s family? The use of the pronoun “he” was a little confusing there) and what his family did with The Guardian and his reasons behind making it a non-profit (to preserve the financial and editorial independence and promote freedom of press)—but I thought that this part was a bit too long and it distracted me from your main argument.
    You also talked about objectivity taking away compassion and passion for certain subjects like racism and homophobia. It is true, in a way, but then if reporters turn let their emotions/ empathy/bias influence their writing then it might be difficult to judge what issue/topic is worth adding passion to and this also becomes very subjective. One person might feel passionate about a topic while another won’t see the delicacy of the subject. In which case, where do we draw the line?
    I like, at the end, where you suggested that journalists could try to examine more angles of an issue instead of remaining entirely objective. It could be a solution, but again, where would they draw the line? Would they do that for every subject or only for the emotional ones? Because it sounds a lot like going back to facts only, unless they examine all sides but still let the readers know which side they’re on.
    Overall, the article was clear and very interesting, and it resonates a lot with Bulb Press’ AntiHype series :)

  2. This essay tackles the very important issue of journalistic bias in a click-bait and post-truth era. It makes some important points, especially in signaling to the increasingly important role of headlines today, and it offers a historical lens through which to think about it. However, halfway through the essay the author drops the idea of headlines and focuses more generically on journalistic bias in a way that detracts from her thesis. In summarizing Lippman’s point of view in such depth, she loses sight of her own analysis.

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