“Objectivity in its most pure form never existed,” said Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, the London School of Economics journalism think tank, speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia today (7 April).
“There has been a long tradition that journalism should strive to tell stories based on facts, without a personal bias from the writer,” he continued, “but it is becoming more subjective not just in the way it's made but also consumed.”
Beckett moderated a discussion on the death of objectivity in journalism, and said this drift towards subjectivity is driven by social media and the increasingly personalised way in which people consume news.
Dan Gillmor, who teaches digital media literacy and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said some people are using the notion of objectivity as an excuse for laziness in their reporting.
“I think that if we add up thoroughness, accuracy, independent thinking and transparency, we get something better than what we used to call ‘objectivity’.
“If we can understand well what the biases are and if we get thorough reporting in the process, I am confident that a collection of reports can add up to what I need in order to make my own decision,” he explained.
“All I care about in the information sources I follow is ‘does this person know what they're talking about’? If they do, agreeing with them or not becomes less important.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for The Independent, shared some of her concerns about objectivity in journalism from the perspective of a “third world person living in the first world”, as a liberal Shia Muslim who immigrated to the UK from Uganda in 1972.
“In Africa we didn't have this stupid belief that journalists were noble and free and would tell us the truth no matter what,” she said.
“In moments of high panic such as the war on terror we are in, journalism becomes much less able to sustain its distance from power. We need to ask ourselves where something is coming from, why, what are the questioning stories we should be reading and writing?”
Alibhai-Brown added she finds it difficult to be objective, as under this notion she is unable to write about certain topics such as Israel, without being accused of antisemitism.
“It’s important for journalism to be disloyal to everybody,” she said. “Loyalty is the most overrated quality.”
Anna Masera, public editor of Italian newspaper La Stampa, also highlighted the importance of transparency in online publishing.
“I think there's need for less emotion and more news analysis,” she said. “We need clear-minded journalists to help us analyse and understand what’s happening.”
La Stampa is working with the Trust Project, an initiative partially funded by Google to make news online more trustworthy by developing a new, more transparent approach to storytelling.
The prototype will allow readers to delve deeper into a journalist’s work by clicking on his byline on the website – it will also have a map showing where the correspondent is reporting from.
Articles will provide information on who has edited the story, and whether the corrections or updates included came from the journalist or from readers.
The concept of objectivity encourages people to be clearer and produce better work, whether that’s articles, tweets or videos, said Mathew Ingram, senior writer at Fortune.
“Assume that nobody clicks on anything. Objectivity is something you do when you assume that people don't click on any links or references you’ve provided in your story.
"I want different things at different times. Sometimes I’m looking for objectivity, but in some cases I may want total subjectivity such as when I’m looking for information from someone who is at the scene of the story.”
“Being objective is not a binary question," said Ingram.