du Fresne on media balance

writes in the Dom Post:

is a very talented broadcaster and a likeable man. But I believe he is dangerously wrong when he pooh-poohs the idea of objectivity in journalism, as he did in a recent interview with this paper’s Your Weekend magazine.

”I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t want to change the world and make it a better place,” the TV3 current affairs host was quoted as saying. ”Without exception that’s why they get into journalism. And yet when they get there they are asked to be dispassionate and objective.

”Who came up with that rule? It’s stupid.”

In fact that ”stupid” rule, which requires that journalists try to remain impartial and present facts and opinions in a balanced way, has underpinned good journalism in Western democracies for decades.

The importance of objectivity is recognised, if not always followed to the letter, by virtually all the world’s great news organisations, including the BBC. It’s also upheld by the bodies that adjudicate on journalism standards, including our own Broadcasting Standards Authority and Press Council.

There’s a very good reason for this. The requirement for balance is a vital check on the potential abuse of power. If it were abandoned, journalists would be free to spin the news however it suits them – in other words, to exclude any inconvenient fact or opinion that doesn’t align with their own world view.

It’s a curious fact that those who argue that journalistic objectivity should be discarded – a view now routinely promoted in journalism schools – are almost invariably from the Left of the political spectrum. Yet the same people are the first to condemn Right-wing news outlets, such as the notorious Fox News, for making little or no attempt at journalistic balance.

A fair point. It is rather hypocritical to be a critic of Fox News for being unbalanced, but praise Campbell Live for proclaiming they are not objective.

It doesn’t seem to occur to them that objectivity, or more precisely the absence of it, can cut both ways. Being objective doesn’t mean, as is sometimes dishonestly argued, that journalists have to be timid or defer to those in power. Neither does it prevent them expressing shock and outrage when faced with obvious atrocities. But it does require reporters to acknowledge that in most situations there’s more than one side to the story, and that things are often more complex

And this is where I think John Campbell sometimes gets it wrong. 99% of NZers would agree that kids should not go hungry to school. But how to fix that is a complex issue, and any solution such as the state providing free food may have unforeseen side-effects. But if a TV show decides that “their”solution is the only solution and campaigns for that – well it is not serving the public well.

There is still a place for impassioned advocacy journalism of the type Campbell practices, as long as it’s clear to the viewer or reader that that’s what it is. But as a general proposition, the abandonment of journalistic objectivity would be disastrous. 

The challenge is making it clear when it is advocacy journalism and when it is so called balanced reporting. In print that is usually reasonably clear. In broadcasting far less so it seems.

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