Column: Objectivity: mission impossible?

By Shouger Merchant

People seem to have a twisted idea of objectivity in the media. Time and time again, every media outlet, be it electronic, print or broadcast has been accused of presenting unbalanced, distorted or inaccurate coverage. There seems to be this illusion that newspaper reporters and editors sit at news conference every evening, horned and speared, and decide in a Machiavellian manner to distort the truth (which of course they have absolute knowledge of) and feed to the readers a conglomerate of information that is deceiving in order to create a microcosm of the world according to their dictates.

This conception is amiss.

Objectivity is a notion that is much easier to define than to put into practice for journalists. Sure, the media possesses large amounts of disposable power, and while some mediums may manipulate content as per their will, most of them attempt an exercise of objectivity.

But can we ever truly be objective? How we cover a story is sometimes influenced by our previous experience, guided by our beliefs, perceptions, values and sometimes race, age and religion. If a young reporter is writing a story on senior citizens, he might approach it and focus on their age and health because that is his experience with senior citizens. Is that being unfair or subjective? Is it possible to go into an assignment, with a blank slate, without any opinions about it? We all have notions about everything. Sometimes they help with a story and sometimes they might hinder it. In the latter case, journalists need to learn to rise above it and disallow it from entering our writing – as difficult as it may be.

Sometimes writing a story becomes complicated when it involves dependence on sources. When reporters cover something, they rely on others for information to make the story. Oftentimes public relations agents sugarcoat and tell them only what they want us to print. And public officials do their best to avoid answering the questions and make a silly joke instead.

The media is also denigrated in the search for the abnormal. There is a lot of good in the world, but it’s the bad that gets all the attention. But would you like to read about how everything is going perfectly in the White House, or would you like to hear about Cheney’s office under investigation?

Another assumption is about the extent of influence owners have on the content. This summer I worked at a paper privately owned by a conservative who had no say in the material published and never exercised his power to suppress any Bush-thrashing or Kerry-praising stories. The only time his presence was felt in the newsroom was when he published a single editorial endorsing Bush for the election, which was his prerogative as owner.

Objectivity can be found on the copy desk at newspapers as well. When writing headlines, editors try to mention both candidates and give equal space to candidates, sometimes on the same page, if stories about both are running in the same paper.

Finally, people believe the media exercises too much authority by choosing what stories should be on the front page or last page or regulating different word counts for different stories. To me, that sounds ridiculous. When editors sit down to decide where stories are placed, every ethical editor considers what the public is interested in and what the public wants to read. Could there be some discrepancy in what editors think readers want to read and what they really want to read? Of course, but that’s the chance they are willing to take.

There are some media outlets that do not exercise this kind of objectivity and simply assert their own agendas. But the public should be able to make the distinction between biased news outlets and those who strive for objectivity. The media is powerful not because it has the ability to manipulate the news but because its members are performing the indispensable watchdog role.

Shouger Merchant is a senior in Communications. Her columns appear every Wednesday. She can be reached at [email protected]