Environment in Crisis

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The Media

Sphere of Objectivity

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Often the requirements of objectivity lead journalists to leave out interpretations and analysis, which might be construed as personal views, and to play it safe by reporting events without explaining their meaning and keeping stories light and superficial so as not to offend anyone (Ryan 1991, p. 176) Bagdikian relates how:

News became neutralized both in selection of items and in nature of writing. American journalism began to strain out ideas and ideology from public affairs, except for the safest and most stereotyped assumptions about patriotism and business enterprise. It adopted what two generations of newspeople have incorrectly called 'objectivity'. (Bagdikian 1983, p. 181)

Journalists who accurately report what their sources say, can effectively remove responsibility for their stories onto their sources. The ideal of objectivity therefore encourages uncritical reporting of official statements and those of authority figures. In this way the individual biases of individual journalists are avoided but institutional biases are reinforced (Ryan 1991, p. 176).

Professional codes ensure that what is considered important is that which is said and done by important people. And important people are people in power. TV news thus privileges holders of power...Its focus on individual authority figures as privileged spokespersons reflects the ideologies of individualism and elite authority. (Kellner 1990, pp. 113-4)

The occasional environmental journalist finds the pretence of objectivity goes against their conscience. The producer of CNN's program Network Earth, Teya Ryan, wrote "As the air in Los Angeles grew browner, more debilitating; ... as the destruction of the world's rain forests became widely known; and as everyone wondered where to put the trash—particularly the plutonium—I wondered if 'balanced' reporting was still appropriate". Others see it as necessary for their credibility: "The peril is that if readers perceive journalists as having become advocates rather than reporters, then they won't trust anything they read or say." (Quoted in Lyman 1994, p. 39)

The appearance of objectivity is so important that some media outlets don't even let their journalists take part in public political activity, such as marches and demonstrations, even as individual citizens in their own time. Journalists at the Washington Post, for example, received a memo stating: "It is unprofessional for you... to take part in political or issue demonstrations, no matter on which side or how seemingly worthy the cause." (Kurtz 1993, p. 148)

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Bagdikian, Ben H. 1983, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press: Boston).

Kellner, Douglas, 1990, Television and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press).

Kurtz, Howard, 1993, Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers (New York: Times Books).

Lyman, Francesca, 1994, Mudslinging on the Earth-beat, The Amicus Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4.

Ryan, Charlotte, 1991, Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing (Boston, MA: South End Press).


© 2003 Sharon Beder