Frame of Reference and Journalistic Integrity

Can writers, can anyone be truly objective? In his article, “Journalism and the Illusion of Objectivity,” Michael Holtzman tackles a topic that impacts media and journalistic integrity. It is correct to question claims to journalistic objectivity and to question the very existence of such a beast as objectivity.

Holtzman wrote, “Nobody can honestly claim an objective perspective.” He links to a source where Barbara Walters claims journalistic objectivity, to which her colleagues agree. That Walters claims objectivity speaks something about her and those around her. Walters’ record stands for itself, and it should be a simple case to go through that record, look at choice of sources, interviews, and questions posed. Surely, no one’s claim to objectivity would stand up to such scrutiny. Does Walters believe what she says? Is she being honest? And is objectivity more important than honesty?

In the late 19th century, New York journalist John Swinton spoke to his colleagues on the lack of honesty in media,

There is no such a thing in America as an independent press, unless it is out in country towns. You are all slaves. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to express an honest opinion. If you expressed it, you would know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid $150 for keeping honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with….1

Holtzman opened his article with bias and, I submit, factual inaccuracy when he wrote of “the most reputable mainstream publications, such as the New York Times…” Using a term such as “mainstream publication” instead of “corporate publication” (mis)leads readers to think NYT is reputable, albeit Holtzman expresses mild reservations about NYT later in his article. As many media consumers are well aware, there are numerous examples of disreputable reporting at NYT.2 How many instances of disreputable reporting does it take before a publication is no longer reputable?

One should define “objectivity” and “bias.” Likeliest the very defining of what constitutes objectivity is colored by bias. Nonetheless, permit me to take a stab: objectivity, in its most open and obvious sense, requires the presentation of all information, all context, all interpretations to media consumers. This is, of course, not done for many reasons. One reason is that there is a premium on medium space. Second, many media consumers rely on editorship to present the nitty gritty of the information for easier digesting. Third, for objectivity to flourish, there must be a process (more than just a semblance of one) to determine the factuality of information.

Holtzman chose, curiously, to define objectivity as a “mythical state of factual truth.” That seems like quite the oxymoronic contradiction. It is difficult to comprehend what Holtzman wants to imply. Can factual truth (is there “fictional truth”?) be a myth? Or does Holtzman want to argue that truth does not exist? If he wants to state that truth is somewhat dependent on one’s point of view, then that is a view to which I have much sympathy.

Holtzman recommends divulgence of one’s “advocacy journalism.” This presumes that all people must be advocating something – at least on a conscious level. Is it not possible that some people report merely the facts as they see and hear them and that this may be free of overt ideological baggage? Nonetheless, there is a refreshing honesty to laying one’s cards on the table for all to see and consider how this might impact on the written word.

Consequently, it is very reasonable to provide the framework from which one is reporting. For instance, corporate media should state that there is an ownership in place and that revenue is derived from advertisements and copy sales. Independent media can claim they do not rely on advertisers or government handouts but might depend on reader donations and/or copy sales. In such a scenario, which source of information is likeliest to be free from the sway of money?

Interestingly, Holtzman asserts:

Journalistic objectivity promotes the view that facts should be reported “as they are” and value judgments avoided entirely. There may be a fine line between the two but there is a difference between asserting well-established truth — for example, the holocaust really happened — and expressing opinion, even if well-informed. Because the reporter’s personal opinion is removed, the news consumer is left to interpret the truth for herself.

To assert means “to state with confidence” — as opposed to state with evidence.3 The example the writer posits is interesting: “the holocaust really happened.” It raises some questions. Which holocaust is the holocaust? Is it the one professor David Stannard titled the American Holocaust, or does it, perhaps, refer to the holocaust of World War II? Even though the definitions of holocaust include “a great or complete devastation or destruction, especially by fire” as well as “any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life,” I will go out on a safe limb and assume Holtzman does not refer to the Nakba. What is the WWII holocaust? Was WWII a holocaust for all the victims or just “chosen” victims? Has Holtzman introduced his bias here in referring to holocaust without a reference? Indeed, far too many holocausts have really happened in history.

Holtzman has done well to refute any notion of journalistic objectivity. Any claim to such a notion ipso facto discredits the claimant. I second his call for proactive analysis and interpretation of news, media, and what are purported to be facts.

Writers, journalists, reporters, editors operate within a framework, and that framework needs to be promulgated at the organizational level and, of course, at the individual level since individuals are all too often mouthpieces for the organization that pays their salary.

  1. See “John Swinton,” Wikiquotes. []
  2. See, for example, Dan Barry, David Barstow, Jonathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak and Jacques Steinberg. Research support was provided by Alain Delaquérière and Carolyn Wilder, “Correcting the record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” New York Times, 11 May 2003; Kim Petersen, “Pulp Fiction at the New York Times: Fawning at the Feet of Mammon,” Dissident Voice, 23 June 2003 and “Not Getting It: The Mind of Thomas Friedman,” Dissident Voice, 3 November 2003; “The Times and Iraq,” New York Times, 26 May 2004; Robert Parry, “NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis,” Consortiumnews.com, 29 December 2013. []
  3. Although one might assert based on evidence. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.