There’s no such thing as objective journalism. And, you know what, it isn’t an ethical disaster, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - There’s no such thing as objective journalism or value-neutral journalism. And, you know what, these are perfectly acceptable truths about the trade. It isn’t an ethical disaster. The consequences, both for the journalist and for the reader, viewer, or listener, aren’t dire at all.
Before I explain myself, let me say why the topic has been on my mind lately. The country is already in elections mode, and political reporting in particular is about to be attacked, left, right and centre.
Quite literally. Politicians, and their supporters, will try to discredit many of my media colleagues who report on politics, and even us talk show hosts, analysts and columnists who have a lesser duty than reporters to even pretend to be neutral.
If you ask tough questions of, say, an ANC politician, you will be labelled pro-DA. Equally, if you criticise DA policies or strategy, you will have stones thrown in your direction as a hard-headed closet ANC junkie, and so on.
One reason not to disparage, if you’re a journalist, is simply recognising that even the more reasonable lot within the political arena relax their critical faculties during the elections cycle because so much is at stake in the battle for political power. So just do your job well, and ignore the noise.
But one thing that doesn’t help us in the media is the lie so many journalists tell themselves and the public. And that lie is the claim that our work is “objective”. If there’s a logical problem with my column today – which I confess to upfront, happily – it is that I’m not even sure what the heck it is I am sceptical about when I say objectivity is a myth.
The reason for this is that it isn’t clear what an exemplary piece of “objective” journalism looks like. The very concept, frankly, is fuzzy. But, as is always the case with vague words, if they are used often enough, with confidence, then users of the word sincerely think they are expressing a well-defined idea, even if it hasn’t been spelt out properly anywhere.
And that is why we open ourselves to cynicism and criticism from the public. Because the public know that when they read City Press, The Star, Business Day or Daily Sun, they are not being fed value-neutral reports or analysis. And the public are dead right.
The reason is rather banal, frankly.I can’t be anyone other than Eusebius McKaiser, with a very specific, subjective upbringing, and a specific set of beliefs, values and principles, that go to the core of my identity as a human being. I can’t set that person aside when I report the news or when I analyse the news or debate the news.
Let’s take reporting, where this lie of being able to distance yourself from your own biography runs most rampant.
If I report on the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, say, I might decide to include quotes from analysts about the likely response of the public to his death in the weeks ahead.
How do I choose between a liberal race-realist who is optimistic about race relations, and a more sceptical colour-blind researcher deeply concerned about an impending race war?
One possibility is to simply juxtapose the two quotes and then casually conclude that you have “balance”, and thus “objectivity”. That’s the kind of thing I think journalists mean by talk of objectivity. But the reality is that a report isn’t innocent even then.
You have to choose an angle, a headline thought that drives the report, words that convey tone and texture, and – if we’re honest – often one or two analysts are slavishly used by the same reporter in their work over time.
If you have space limits, is the singular analyst you quote chosen innocently?
The truth is that the unexpressed convictions and outlook on the social world she finds herself in will drive the choices the journalist or editor makes in the newsroom. That isn’t objectivity in some value-neutral sense as advocated in first-year journalism classes.
Even your choices about what to leave out – what stories not to run, what sources not to use – reveal the connections between the subjective biography of the journalist and their words that will appear in print. Value neutrality is a pipe dream.
Three concluding thoughts, however, should comfort us all.
First, if we accept that professionals aren’t value-neutral robots, I hope South African journalists, editors, publications and broadcasters can feel comfortable to come out of the closet now and own their ideological convictions explicitly.
It’s okay. We know you have these anyway. Liberate yourselves.
Second, the public can’t take this column as a vindication that journalism is in a poor state. That doesn’t follow.
You can still distinguish between good and bad journalism, even if objectivity is a myth.
Third, and related, good journalism isn’t objective or value-free (that being psychologically impossible).
Good journalism, loaded with subjectivity, is journalism that is, for me, well argued, evidence-based and pleasant to read, watch or listen to.
Can we now stop the search for mythical objectivity?