Objectivity, neutrality, impartiality and balance

A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

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Normative vs descriptive approaches

  • “The best stories are those that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, the ones that the people of power do not want told.”
  • “The function of reporting and the press is [to present] the best obtainable version of the truth. We’re not out there to bring down governments, we’re not out there to be prosecutors. We’re out there to be judicious, not judicial.” (Carl Bernstein)
  • “Newspapers in Britain are first and foremost businesses. They do not exist to report news, to act as watchdogs for the public, to be a check on the doings of government, to defend the ordinary citizens against abuses of power, to unearth scandals or to do any of the other fine and noble things that are sometimes claimed for the press. They exist to make money, just as any other business does. To the extent that they discharge any of their public functions, they do so in order to succeed as businesses.” (Colin Sparks)
  • “Responsible to whom? The state? Never. To “the people”? But which people, and of what views? To the readers? It is vanity to think you know them. Responsible, then, to some general belief in truth and accuracy? Well, that would be nice.” (Andrew Marr)
  • “If one person says it’s raining, and another says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the window and find out which is true.” (Jonathan Foster)
  • “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” (Hopefully apocryphal)

NB objectivity, neutrality, impartiality and balance are not the same as accuracy and clarity.

Prominent positions on “good” journalism

  1. Cynical

    • media ethics = oxymoron
    • journalist as hack
    • Nietzschean amoralism
    • sales are all that matter = let the market decide
    • don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
  2. Individual/ad hoc responsibility

    • ethical relativism
    • codes are pointless, impractical and irresponsible.
  3. Professional

    • independent free press vs state-controlled propaganda - personal liberty, freedom of expression
    • fourth estate inc. adversarial state vs media, campaigning
    • objectivity, neutrality, impartiality and balance = search for truth in the face of subjective anarchy and propagandist bias = sources balanced, fact not fiction, no value judgements
    • truthfulness - resistance to postmodern relativism
    • social responsibility and public interest - civic journalism aimed at revitalising public sphere
    • promotion of pluralism as mirror to society
    • codes of conduct/practice
    • value of training.

Critical responses

  • Political: journalism functions in the interests of dominant social groups/classes - free press, democracy, public interest etc. are all myths.
  • Objectivity, neutrality, impartiality and balance are all myths, acting as basis for professional legitimacy (thus serving ruling classes) cf. many great writers have been anything but these things.
  • Professionalism is a myth: rhetorical strategy aimed at obscuring journalism’s inherent pro-establishment bias cf. technical orientation is too narrow.
  • Fact and opinion are inseparable - subjectivity is always present, and partisan.
  • News values suppress pluralism and limit opinions: collusion between propagandist MSM and national security state manufactures consent.
  • Economic necessities produce bureaucratic journalistic practices … and media monopolies.
  • Democracy is a myth that legitimises the rule of the many by the few (education, electoral process and media combine to prop up political system).
  • Campaigning journalism is self-promotion disguised as public interest.
  • Action speaks louder than words - especially in a society which is amusing itself to death.
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