The Detrimental Effects of the Objectivity Standard in the News Media:
The Need for a Return to Democratic Public Debate in News Reporting
A Proposal for the PhD
December 22, 2019
Cries of ‘fake news’, complaints of the ideological domination of the so-called liberal media and lamentations over the death of journalism prevail in discourses of the modern news media in the United States and Western Europe. Typically, these discourses are founded in the presumption of objectivity as an essential bedrock of the free press, which is a necessary foundation for a healthy democratic society. The assumption that the modern news media has fallen short of its mission and its ideal all too often leads news media consumers to insulate themselves into their own information islands, persuaded that media sources outside of their chosen venues are deficient, if not wholly corrupt. Without a full-fledged and multi-faceted outlet for news reporting, democracy will fail based on a lack of ancillary public opinion, debate, and dialectic.
The principal view that media is inherently biased or false is profoundly detrimental to the values and the deliberate practices of the free press. Indeed, such misperceptions perpetuate the deficiencies they purport to bemoan and resist. More specifically, the originating presumption that journalism should be objective if it is to be genuinely free, virtuous, and valuable lies at the core of the present crisis in both the perception and the practice of journalism today. To insist upon complete ‘objectivity’ in journalism is to demand that which is impossible: the value of press itself is to exemplify various points of view that are inherently subjective, albeit not black-and-white in their scope. Furthermore, the tendency to entirely discredit that which is not perceived to be ‘objective’ leads to an echo chamber effect so often lamented by media critics, politicians, and audiences alike (Carey, 2000). Consumers actively seek out sources that align with their own expectations, values, and beliefs under the premise that these are, in fact, the only ‘objective’ sources and, by extension, the only credible or trustworthy ones. Therefore, the subjectivity of the news consumer shifts the paradigm in a way that is becoming impossible to account for entirely.
As the proposed study will demonstrate, however, the presumption and pursuit of unvarnished ‘objectivity’ in the news media is not only misguided but profoundly damaging, requiring journalists to magically slough off their humanity to assume the mantle of partisan angels or total automatons. The requirement, in essence, demands that journalism, if it is to have value, become an impossibility, an ideal that has no actual resemblance to the constituents it was designed to represent. True journalism, as this study will demonstrate, does not presume or aspire to be ‘objective’ because the complete objectivity, even if possible to achieve, is antithetical to a constitutional democracy. The insistence on a singular ‘objective’ representation to the exclusion of all others precludes conversation, the free exchange of ideas, in the vital arena of ideological contestation and democratic debate (Carey, 1993).
As demonstrated in the forthcoming study, aiding modern journalism in living up to the ideals of the free press colliding with the notion of ‘objectivity’ as a litmus test must be abandoned. The process must be replaced with an ideology of public debate as multi-tiered and diverse as the populace from which it stems. A free press that serves democratic ideals must not espouse an impossible stance of unimpeachable objectivity but must instead acknowledge, assess, and advance its own ideals and acknowledge its own deficiencies, uncertainties, and biases, while also contending with external or detracting perspectives. It must take its place in the marketplace of ideas. It must be prepared to acknowledge and defend its own limitations and ideological investments while giving others a fair hearing and an equal opportunity for self-expression and defence in the free press’s battleground of public opinion.