Redefining standards of objectivity

Most people who keep track of current news understand that articles are never truly objective by the contemporary understanding of the word. Keeping the content of an article factual and without opinion is only a small aspect of this understanding of objectivity. Even if a story doesn’t have the writer’s opinion represented in it, the topic and the angle or perspective the reporter decides to write the article from is a choice that must always be made by someone.

Because of this fact, many communicators will argue that objective reporting does not exist at all. Perhaps not as most people would define the concept, but I would argue that the definition of “objective” within the context of news and journalism must be seen in a different light than the common understanding of the term.

I know this sounds like a contradiction: “Doesn’t the term of objectivity itself become non-objective if it can change depending on context?”

Well, yes, and no. The term itself does not change, just the subject judged by it.

Although choosing the perspective or angle of a topic to write from is an important step in writing an article, it should not be the focus of judgment or the deciding factor for whether an article is objective or not.

A common misconception I’ve often encountered is the belief that a story angle is the take or the “side” the reporter writes an article from. The true definition, however, is defined by Tony Rogers, former deputy national editor for the New York Daily News, as “the point or theme of a news or feature story.”

One of the most important purposes for choosing an angle is to focus on aspects of a bigger picture. For example, a writer reporting on a grant received by a high school may choose to focus on the amount of money the grant is, if that is a surprising factor, or what the grant money will help achieve, or even feature an individual who will benefit from the grant in a unique or heartwarming way.

Choosing a specific angle could very well put into light some aspects of the news and not others, but is a necessary step.

Because it cannot be avoided, including this step in the scrutiny of an article will almost always result in a conclusion of bias or one-sided reporting, leaving the question of news objectivity pointless. Rather, judgment on objectivity should focus on how a writer presents the ideas, information and events disseminated in an article, regardless of the story angle chosen.

Opinion should only be presented when relevant to the story and attributed to sources used for the article – never, of course, by the reporter of the news article. To go even further, I believe for a reporter’s work to truly be considered “objective” by a journalistic perspective, the reporter must make every effort to represent all sides of the argument in an equal light, using sources from each of those sides to do so.

As a journalist, I can attest this can be especially difficult to achieve. Even well-seasoned professionals are caught using sentences, especially in the leads of articles, that sound too one-sided to stand without source attributions and be considered common knowledge rather than bias. Unfortunately, this is seen far too often in journalistic news.

One good way to check that articles are objective is to ask whether each article gives all the information necessary for a reader to see the entire picture and all sides of the story and decide for themselves what they believe, especially if the article is political or controversial in nature.

If the objectivity of news articles is judged in this new light, perhaps the common, now distorted, definition of “fake news” will be rectified, and more journalists will focus on keeping their reporting objective by not only ethical standards but realistic ones.