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The oft-stated and highly desired goal of modern journalism is objectivity, the detached and unprejudiced gathering and dissemination of news and information. Such objectivity can allow people to arrive at decisions about the world and events occurring in it without the journalist's subjective views influencing the acceptance or rejection of information. Few whose aim is a populace making decisions based on facts rather than prejudice or superstition would argue with such a goal.
It's a pity that such a goal is impossible to achieve. As long as human beings gather and disseminate news and information, objectivity is an unrealizable dream.
Perhaps a good place to begin would be with a definition of terms. I think we can generally agree that the definition of objective is being without prejudice or bias, the presence of full understanding, honest, just and free from improper influence. Subjective, on the other hand, would be peculiar to a particular individual as modified by individual bias and limitations. Can we all agree those are reasonable definitions? Then let's see how they apply to journalism.
Let's begin with an examination of how people gather information about the world around them in order to arrive at what they consider an objective view of it.
The brain has no actual, physical contact with the world. It doesn't even have pain nerves, and thus needs no anesthesia when operated upon (of course, the skin of the scalp and the bone of the skull are not likewise blessed and do require anesthesia when the brain is operated on). Everything the brain knows or reacts to comes to it in only one way: through the senses.
People, like all other sensate beings on Earth, gather their information through their senses. Human senses include the ability to detect electromagnetic waves in the 3900-7500 angstrom range, air waves in the 20 to 20,000 beats per second, air-borne and liquid-borne molecules of proper size, quantity and configuration, and to generate nerve impulses triggered by objects impinging on body surfaces with enough force. These senses are better known as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and are the only methods, as far as we know, of perceiving what exists and happens in the world around us.
However, when one notices the limits on each sense, one cannot fail to realize that it is impossible for any person to perceive all there is to perceive. The electromagnetic spectrum extends far below into the ultraviolet and radiation and above into the infrared and radio than the narrow visible light range that humans can see. Many animals can hear and smell far better than humans. Touch requires an actual physical presence with the object being touched.
Humans, however, do not have to rely only upon their personal senses to gather information about the world. They can also make use of extrasomatic (meaning "out of the body") senses.
Humans construct instruments and machines, extrasomatic senses, that can perceive what humans can not. The microscope and the telescope can make the too small or the too distant to see visible. Radio telescopes, X-ray machines and infrared film and nightvision scopes can allow a human to see mechanically or by computer generated views far above and below visible light. Microphones, amplifiers and speakers can detect and convert to the audible range sounds above and below the human range of audibility. However, no machine can replace the sense of touch, and the most advanced gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (a machine designed to detect, analyze and identify minute quantities of molecules that humans can smell or taste) is not even close to as sensitive as the human tongue and nose, and the latter has only one-millionth the sensitivity of a bloodhound dog's.
Of course, the above has very little to do
with the average person since the average person does not walk around with
either a radio telescope or a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. Average
people depend on their own senses to identify what is in the world around them.
In addition, people design instruments and machines to detect what the builders
expect to detect: if the unexpected appears often it is rejected as anomalous,
a flaw in the equipment, or misreading of the data. A prime example of this is
There are other extrasomatic senses. Such extrasomatic senses include printed material such as books and newspapers, films, video and audio tapes, and radio and television. With these it is possible to be told or shown what other people have sensed. However, such sources of information have the built-in drawback of being constructed from the limited senses of the authors. Add the complicating factor of the limited communication media of words and images rather than a direct communication of the sensations experienced and vicarious experience is a mere shadow of the real thing.
Due to the limitations on perception the world must be a construct, an illusion created from the raw material of photons, pressure waves, and other forms of primary sensory stimuli. These stimuli people process into abstract symbols such as "red" for a color or "sweet" for a taste. The abstract symbols are then assembled via the nervous system into conscious experience of people, places, and things.
As external realities, the people, the places, and the things exist only as bare frameworks. The mind projects covering, form, warmth, color, and other attributes which the mind itself creates onto them. Thus each mind manufactures its own illusory world upon a minimum of shared reality. The shared reality is those things that people sense in common: the feel of corduroy, the smell of a rose, the appearance of a tree, the sound of a violin, the taste of an apple.
People may share reality, but the world constructed from that reality can and does vary according to each individual's perception. Each person's world conforms to its own set of culturally defined expectations and in such a way as to appear satisfyingly real in total to its creator. The taste of roasted beetle grubs can be delicious or repulsive depending upon the taster's culture. The definition of feminine or masculine beauty depends on if the viewer is European or Australian bushman. As Arthur Clarke says, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Thus if a culture does not include television as a natural part of its world, it must be un- or supernatural. Any report of television to others in that culture is considered unreliable, no matter how much a part of the reality of other cultures television might be.
Preconceptions, prejudices, biases, cultural norms and mores, education, superstition, peer opinion, all play their role in an people creating their own realities. This process I call filtering.
No matter what the senses perceive, the mind has to understand the information in terms that it can believe. This information filters through the person's experience, education, culture and upbringing. These in turn can affect the person's sense of politics, morality, religion, race, sex, economics, and even humor. These filters are preconceptions, biases, prejudices and attitudes that influence the way the mind processes information and therefore how the individual constructs his or her world and reality.
For example, several witnesses see a traffic accident no one could survive. Nonetheless, nobody is hurt. All the witnesses see, objectively, the same event. Yet, what they "see" differs according to how they filter the information: a devoutly religious person will see the hand of God in sparing the victims; a politician may see a necessity for government action to make that intersection safer; an attorney may see a potential lawsuit; a sexist may blame a driver of the opposite sex. It is a problem well known to law enforcement and the legal profession: eye witnesses can't seem to agree on what they saw. It is not the fault of the witness. It is simply that what is perceived must be understood, and understanding usually comes through relating new information to old. Whatever the old information is influences how the new is understood.
For another example, take the case of several young black men walking down a street. What are they: a peace gathering, a civil rights march, a street gang, a protest parade, the local black student union? Or are they simply several young black men who, by pure chance, happen to be walking in the same direction at a pace sufficient to bring them close together? Any of the above answers could be correct. They could also all be wrong. Until one asks each man what he is doing, preconception will create the reality of the observer. Of course, even the post-questioning reality can be wrong if one or more of the men lie.
Because the world is a subjective construct unique to each person, it isn't possible for there to be an objective discussion of the world or the events that take place in it. What is possible is for people to describe the world they have created on the basis of what they have perceived.
However, even after a description the
realities of both parties will not perfectly coincide. Until ESP becomes a
viable form of communication, descriptions must be in words. However, words are
notoriously slippery things: no word means the same thing to everybody or even
anybody. For example, the lead in a news story might be, "There was a
demonstration in downtown
Although the person making the statement knows what he or she means, the message received by a listener may bear little or no relationship to that intended. Thus, the rest of the news story is an attempt to explain what the lead means. However, bear in mind that the explanation must necessarily use words, which in turn need explaining--with words. It thus appears impossible for anybody to realize objectively what another person has perceived.
(The sentence above contains an example: my thesaurus got a workout as I examined and rejected more than one hundred words before selecting "realize" and "perceived" as those I deemed most likely to be useful to the reader in understanding my point. I could, of course, be wrong.)
Granting that a sense of objective reality is not possible, how much less possible objectivity must be when reporting the news.
Journalism requires making a series of decisions, the first and most important deciding just what is news. Derived from the word "new" it can be any information that an individual has not already received. However, in modern parlance news is a report of recent events or a matter of interest to newspaper readers or newscast listeners. This definition can be narrowed further. After all, if news is that which is of interest to newspaper readers then the comics, the horoscope and the crossword puzzle are news, a conclusion with which few would agree. Let us, for convenience, define news as a report of recent events.
The first decision to make is what is recent: today, yesterday, last week, five minutes ago, since the last news report? Someone, in journalism usually an editor, makes this decision, and thus that person's world determines what is recent.
Then there is the necessity to determine what events constitute news: disasters, either natural or man-made, economics, politics, religion, people interacting with each other or animals or nature or . . . ; what is of interest? Anything that happens is an event; does that make whatever happens news? Again, someone must decide because it is impossible to relate everything that happens. However, the decision of what events are news once again depends on the decision maker's world. Of course, the decision maker receives that power on the basis of years of experience in determining what is news. However, that merely proves the above point that experience is a basis of a person's world.
It must be obvious that the basis for the selection of events that constitute news is the subjective criteria of the selector rather than objective criteria. However, what about the reporting of the news: can that be objective?
The answer is no. A news report is a series of words describing the event. As in selecting which events are news, someone must decide which words best describe the event. These decisions are based on the reporter's world as he or she examines the facts gathered and decides what words those receiving the report will best understand. Taking an extreme example, let us assume a reporter who is "pro-life", a description that also assumes a world-view, but is generally accepted as meaning against human abortion. This reporter is to write a story on the technology of abortion. The reporter may unconsciously chose words in writing the report that reflect the pro-life stance and state, "another way to kill the baby is". The statement would merely be a given part of the reporter's world view that any abortion technique is a way to "kill the baby". A "pro-choice" (another self-conscious way to say someone who is not anti-abortion) may write the same story and use the phrase "terminate the fetus". These words do not carry the same emotional weight as "kill the baby". They are thus less likely to evoke a negative reaction in the receiver of the report.
Television, using pictures in reporting the news, might allow the argument that pictures don't lie. Since people can actually see what is occurring or has occurred, the event is reported objectively. Nonetheless, the pictures are as subjective as words. Again decisions based on a world view are made: at the bottom the reporter or camera operator decide where to aim the camera, at what focus, at what distance, using a close-up, a medium or long shot, and at what angle. All are decisions that affect the content of the pictures. An example is the Iran Hostage Episode in which the mobs would sit around basically picnicking until the cameras appeared. The mob would then stand, chant and wave banners. The chants would be in English or French depending on which cameras appeared. A close-up camera shot can make ten people look like a mob; a long-shot can make thousands look like a local dispute. What shots to use are decisions made by people who depend on their world views to determine what is important, what they want to show, what is news.
Added to what to say or what to show is how to say or show it. Selecting the order in which news stories appear can be an indication of their relative importance. On television whether or not there are pictures can determine importance. How much time or space devoted to a story can determine importance. Bear in mind that importance is a relative determination, and in news the determination is the province of the editor. He or she determines what is important and, on the basis of his or her world view makes the above decisions.
The reporter also makes decisions in determining how to present the information in the news. However, the reporter's world view can alter the information, particularly on radio and television when the reporter is personally presenting the story. Most people are sensitive to voice tone or body language, and take them as cues how to react to words or pictures. A television reporter, by a slight smile or a slight lift of an eyebrow or a tilt of the head can alter the meaning of a word or an entire report; a radio reporter, by an ironic tone or a slight laugh under the words said can make words that would ordinarily be accepted as serious, ludicrous.
Objectivity is not a possible goal in human interaction, and that includes journalism. As long as human beings gather and disseminate the news, then subjectivity will be the rule, not the exception. However, this article's purpose is not to destroy the desire for objectivity in the news, but to help make it possible, as far as it is possible. If the reporter is not aware that his or her reaction and thus way of presenting the news is affected by that reporter's world view of the news, then the reporter's subjective view of the news is the view given, not the objective view that is the goal.
However, if reporters are aware that their world view is a component of the news, then reporters, if they are ethical in a sense that most people will accept, will consciously minimize the impact of subjectivity. They will not only accept, but allow for and consider that no one person's world view is the only reality. They will examine their work to be sure that prejudice, bias and a personal world view is not the one that dominates in gathering, preparing and disseminating the news.
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Copyright © 1996
Richard F. Taflinger.
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