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Objectivity in News Reporting

Is news coverage objective and are we given the facts we need to be informed citizens of a democracy?

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Photo: Six journalists standing with cameras. Flashes going off.

Objectivity in news reporting

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The media is often criticised for not ensuring impartial coverage of issues. Politicians often claim that what they say is misrepresented, organisations complain about getting too little attention, and terrorists claim to be freedom fighters. Even the man in the street often fails to recognise what he said in the interviews with the local newspaper. It is a fact that it would be difficult to find news coverage that satisfies everyone. There’s a big audience, a lot at stake and complex issues to cover.

Journalists are ordinary people like you and me. We are all deeply rooted in our own culture. The values and views of this culture affect how we perceive things. Two individuals growing up in different cultures may experience news and events very differently. We always carry a cultural backpack. Journalists who grew up in Los Angeles, where seals get specialist treatment in animal hospitals if they are injured, would find it hard to cover the Inuits' traditional slaughter of seals, or the Chinese practice of eating dogs, in an unbiased way. They would find it hard to prevent their revulsion from affecting their coverage of these issues. The same thing happens when Western journalists criticise the lack of democracy and individual freedom in countries like Saudi Arabia, failing to understand the nuances of local culture and tradition. It also happens when Arab journalists cover the Western world – they may see it as degenerated and without values. In these cases, where cross-cultural understanding is so badly needed, there is a tendency to simplify and generalise so what we perceive fits our "pre-coded", understanding of the world.

Some media researchers suggest that it is impossible to be impartial. Your own culture colors your vision and makes you blind to qualities in societies and cultures different from your own. This will invariably affect who journalists decide to talk to, which questions they ask, and what they decide to focus on.

Photo: Seven women of Asian origin are preparing food. In front of them are bowls filled with food in many different colours.

Are journalists able to describe foreign cultures in an unbiased way?

In undemocratic countries, journalists face the problem of governments denying them the right to speak the truth. Though few countries openly practise censorship, there are other ways of controlling the media. In Russia, several critics of the current regime have been killed. In many Muslim countries, journalists have to avoid a lot of topics and issues that contradict religious teachings or may offend Muslims in other ways. These may be issues regarding women, sexuality, individual liberty, and democracy. Journalists and women's rights spokespersons have found themselves physically attacked for raising issues that people in the western world take for granted. Many Arab countries have still not accepted the UN Human Rights Resolution.

In 2018 Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi visited his country's embassy in Istanbul. Khashoggi was a US-based journalist who often wrote critically about Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi never left the embassy. He was murdered and dismembered.

Candles are lit in front of a poster saying Justice for Jamal Khashoggi.

Protesters light candles for murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Journalists have to sell what they write to the public. If few people read a text or watch your TV coverage, you may find yourself out of work. Therefore, most journalists have an underlying agenda: What do my readers want to read about? This affects what they decide to cover and how. Usually celebrity, sex and violence sell well, while topics that deal with developing countries come last. Events that are rare also get more attention than regular events. Thus, famine and drought in Ethiopia get less attention than the lips of a Hollywood diva. Stories that are complicated to explain are pushed aside in favour of stories that can instantly be grasped, and photos and illustrations are used more and more. The imperative that stories must sell means that many important stories go untold because they are unlikely to generate widespread interest.

When visiting online news sites, you may find yourself drawn to catchy headlines that seem to have little to do with the actual stories. These kinds of headlines are called clickbait and are made to get readers to click on links, see more stories, and generate more advertising income for the company behind the site. If journalists are concerned with writing popular stories and angling them in a way that attracts readers, they are not able to give an objective and unbiased version of events. But even worse this "junk food news" takes up space where other, more important news could have been covered.

When journalists in general only write stories that are popular, the image of our society relayed to viewers and readers becomes blurred and out of proportion. Instead of providing information, journalists complicate and distort events. It becomes news as entertainment, not news as information needed to be an informed citizen.

One example of this is the US practice of changing electoral districts. By changing who belongs to which electoral district it is possible to change the outcome of an election. This practice is called gerrymandering. This is a quite dry and technical subject matter, so it doesn't get nearly as much attention as for example a politician being caught having an affair does. While the latter is mainly a private matter, the former affects people's lives and the democracy in which they live.

Another example is Brexit. The UK's relationship with the EU is a complicated one, and most people did not have the time or inclination to learn about it fully. The people who campaigned in favour or against leaving the EU therefore boiled this complex choice down to a few main issues, for example border control or not paying membership fees, this simplification was then covered by the media. Since the referendum in 2016 it has become clear that many were not fully informed about what they were voting for, and the realisation of what leaving the EU actually entails has left some confused and angry.

Journalists do important work, but it is a difficult balancing act: the news that people seek out and want to read or watch may not necessarily be the news they need to know about. It is a challenge to cover significant news in a way that is interesting enough that people pay attention to it.

Sist oppdatert 28.09.2020
Skrevet av Knut Inge Skifjeld og Tone Hesjedal

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