The myth of objectivity


Do political journalists truly maintain objectivity? Do we even we really want them to?

As a long-time observer of politics, I’ve often struggled with the question of journalists’ political views. That they have them is indisputable. Whether these views colour their political reporting and analysis is another thing altogether.

Former journalist, editor and now ABC radio presenter Jonathan Green wrote last week

Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right? What is certain is that it should not matter. Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence. Journalism tainted by conviction just isn’t. That’s the simple truth of it.

For the large part, Green was railing against New Limited’s uber-tabloidisation of political news: the reduction of nuanced policy discussions to absurd campaigns and the deification of shock-jock commentators such as Andrew Bolt.

While I agree with his sentiment, I suspect Green may be pining for a lost time that might not have even existed.

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy. Environment writers tend to favour progressive policies that protect the environment, while business writers lean towards pro-business policies that inherently are conservative. Agriculture and resources writers usually support capitalist industrial-scale exploitation of Australia’s natural resources. And economics writers implicitly favour approaches aligned with whatever school of economic theory they support.

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand. The ubiquitous commentary pieces that are the privileged domain of senior political writers can also distort our perception by blurring opinion with analysis and fact.

This can make it hard to get to the truth of a matter, for it is the truth that’s meant to be at the heart of journalism. Invoking CP Scott’s admonition that “facts are sacred”, Green also stresses:

Journalism is neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. In any journalism worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance and the journalism that might be produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it.

Find and report the truth. That’s a noble goal: just ask church abuse whistleblower Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox. But sometimes it’s not: just ask former Speaker Peter Slipper. How the truth is wielded – for good or ill – is completely dependent upon what the journalist sees as being the public good.

Added to this diabolical conundrum is the cult of celebrity, which distorts how politics is reported. The personal branding of journalists has become so important that now some mistakenly assume their private views are as important as the news they report.

At its most benign, this phenomenon has delivered us endless panels of journalists interviewing journalists and, at its worst, political editors such as Michelle Grattan brazenly calling for the Prime Minister to resign and Peter Hartcher actively campaigning on behalf of Kevin Rudd.

However, journalists’ celebrity status does not necessarily have to go to their heads. Even though they’ve reported politics for two decades or more, I’d argue the political views of other high profile journalists such as Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis are unknown. So it’s not impossible to have a strong personal brand and still be an impartial journalist.

Extended to a broader canvass, we know that some news media organisations favour one political philosophy over another. The views of arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch are reflected in the editorial stance adopted by his newspapers and television stations. Conversely the Guardian newspaper continues to promote the small L liberal values upon which it was established.

It seems these days that any assessment of whether media bias is a good or bad thing is usually determined by one’s own political preference. Liberal supporters bask in the warmth generated by the Murdoch cheer squad while deriding the luvvies at the ABC for their (albeit limited) scrutiny of the Opposition. Meantime Labor supporters rail at the partisan News Limited, while calling for the soon-to-be-launched Guardian Australia to even up the score.

So what do we want? Do we want to “simply be informed without bias or favour” as suggested by Jonathan Green? Or do we want the media to support our chosen side?

It’s all in the hands of us, the consumers. But we can’t have it both ways.