The Impossibility of Journalistic Objectivity


1. Introduction             

1.1 The dilapidated ‘fourth estate’           

1.2 Approaches to objectivity

2. The tripartite reason for the impossibility             

2.1. Socio-philosophical and psychological impediments             

2.2. Linguistic obstacles             

2.3. Practical hindrances

3. Conclusion              

3.1. Concluding remarks and possible solutions


The dilapidated ‘fourth estate’

Since journalism is often described as the ‘fourth estate’ in a democracy where the other estates are not necessarily objective, it seems to be of paramount importance that journalism is objective in order to establish an equilibrium of power. Therefore, most journalistic outlets claim – or at least aim – to be objective.

In this paper I will argue that objectivity is for several reasons a quixotic ideal that can be approached in a Sisyphus attempt, but is for various reasons never reached. Initially, I will briefly look at the manner in which different media outlets treat the concept of objectivity. Thereafter, my first argument will focus on the impossibility of objectivity from a socio-philosophical and psychological point of view. After continuing to argue against objectivity by means of semiotics and the nature of language, I will focus on economic and practical issues that are impeding the concept of objectivity to be realised in journalism. Finally, I will address in my concluding chapter some alternative models or possible solutions, which could make journalism more objective, although never entirely so.

Approaches to objectivity

According to the Oxford Dictionary (Soanes and Stevenson, 2006, p.985) objectivity is defined as being “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” Besides the emphasis on feelings and opinions, it is noteworthy that objectivity relies, at least to a certain extent, on facts. Keeping this in mind, it is also important to note that different news outlets treat the concept of objectivity in various ways. While the Press Complaints Commission (n.d.) and the National Union of Journalists (2011) focus on fairness, the BBC (2012) aims at “due impartiality”, whereby “due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints.” The BBC goes on to define ‘due’ as follows:

“The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.”

This reveals already two aspects of journalistic objectivity: firstly, most news outlets already imply that objectivity depends on other influences, such as the expectation of the audience, and are therefore unlikely to be ‘truly’ objective; secondly, objectivity in news has a miscellaneous character, which reaches from impartiality to fairness to balance. In order to facilitate my research, I will treat the term objectivity as defined above by the Oxford Dictionary and concentrate on the notions of influencing opinions, feelings, and the possibility – as well as the compromising – of facts, since all these characteristics are crucial whether we focus on fairness, balance, unbiasedness, or other approaches to objectivity.

Socio-philosophical and psychological impediments

The possibility of objective knowledge is debated and often doubted from a philosophical point of view, due to problems such as induction, the mind and body problem, and other metaphysical as well as epistemological challenges. It is often argued that ‘journalistic objectivity’ does not encounter these problems, since it is rather concentrating on balance and unbiasedness. But as long as journalism is concerned about facts it postulates “that there is believed to be a “world out there” with an inner truth,” (Altheide, 1976, p.17) which is untrue according to different sociological and philosophical theories.

For example, according to the theory of cultural relativism, “human knowledge of the world is socially constructed,” (Baldwin, et al., 2004, p.9) and hence our views of the world and its events are partial. Thus, one society would see the 9/11 attacks as an act of terrorism whilst a different society would not. While this creates problems on an international level, there are also different truths coexisting in the same society, since the ‘inner truth’ may also differ according to class positions. This creates, as Brent Cunningham (2003) sees it, bias in newsrooms where “the lack of socioeconomic diversity” is given through an overrepresentation of the middle-class. Poststructuralism even goes so far as to argue that “culture consists of multiple realities which are never understood in their entirety.” (Baldwin, et al., 2004, p.40) Lastly, even individuals in a certain stratum of society possibly create diverging truths, and henceforth there are, as guardians of perspectivism (e.g. Friedrich Nietzsche) or radical constructivists such as Paul Watzlawick (2005, p.7) argue, indeed myriad perceptions of reality.  This comes close to a Buddhistic simile, where different blindfolded men attempt to describe what an elephant looks like based on touch and end up fighting about what they believe to be the true form of the elephant, for each of them touched the elephant at a different part.

Even if journalists have to admit that there is not one truth or reality, they would still be able to vindicate their concept of objectivity by focusing on balance and fairness. Consequently, they might claim to be objective, since they construct reality by considering multiple views on the event. They would describe the elephant by listening to each of the blindfolded men, so to speak. This methodology of recreating facts through ‘intersubjective agreement’ could come close to objectivity, yet never reach it, unless all views from every position at all times could be considered to recreate the totality of the event and thus its veracity. Unfortunately, this is logically impossible and so reality will only be recreated with elements of the whole. (Starkey, 2007, p.1)

Finally, a journalist will not even be able not to be influenced by his personal feelings or opinions. Everybody, whether the source or the journalist himself, will construct the biggest part of the world in his imagination because of the vastness of the world, the intricacy of situations, and the scarcity of messages, which make it impossible to reconstruct an external world without the requisite ‘imaginative glue’. (Lippman, 2004, p.37) According to Walter Lippman (2004, p.68 and p.93) this has two consequences for journalists: on the one hand, “real space, real time, real numbers, real connections, real weights are lost… the background and the dimensions of action are clipped and frozen in the stereotype;” on the other hand, “he will reënact it[story] in his own way, and transfuse it with his own feelings.” Thomas Nagel (1986, p.86) summarises the problem as follows:

“First, we are finite beings, and even if each of us possesses a large dormant capacity for objective self-transcendence, our knowledge of the world will always be fragmentary, however much we extend it. Second, since the objective self, though it can escape the human perspective, is still as short lived as we are, we must assume that its best efforts will soon be superseded. Thirdly, the understanding of the world of which we are intrinsically capable … is also likely to be limited.”

Moreover, stereotypes and the limited access to the real world are not the only problem. Since information concerning an event has to pass the journalist, it will be filtered. Whether this filtering process consists of the choice of sources, the omission or contextualisation of information, it will always be influenced by emotions, as Lippman argues above, unless the filtering medium is a robot.

Dan Ariely (2009, p.164) displays in his book, Predictably Irrational, with a simple exemplum how our predilections and our subconscious determine almost every aspect of our life: during an American football game two friends, who each support an opposing team, dispute over an alleged foul, whereupon each friend sees the incident on the field, depending on which team he supports, unsurprisingly either as a foul or not. And this is, at least to a certain degree, not different for a journalist, who has convictions about politics and other matters of life. Researchers and scholars are not sure how strongly our subconsciousness and / or emotions influence our decisions, even those we opine to be perfectly rational. Ever since Sigmund Freud  multitudinous hypotheses have evolved, such as Antonio Damasio’s (2003, pp.170-177) theory of somatic makers which states that our optional decisions are based on prior experiences by use of positive and negative emotional reactions, or the theory of neuroplasticity (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2005) which seeks to prove that the nervous system, or more precisely the connections between the neurones, and thus everything that we have perceived, is being changed with every new experience we make. Not to mention Benjamin Libet (2004, pp.123-157) who supposedly discovered what Arthur Schopenhauer argued in a different manner centuries before: that we cannot will what we want. Libet showed with his experiment that decisions are made in our brain before we are even aware of making any conscious decision, leaving only narrow space for an autonomous will.

Linguistic obstacles

The medium by which means the journalist conveys information is language, whether in broadcast, print, radio, or most other media outlets. This evokes another problem, for language is not objective on several levels.

According to Stuart Hall’s (1980) theory of semiotics, transmitted language undergoes a process of encoding and decoding. The media encodes information and creates intertextual meaning according to their own ideology and social identity. The audience, then, decodes this information but does not necessarily read the encoded messages as they were intended by the media, because these codes are now possibly read from a different social position. This “aberrant decoding”, as Umberto Eco (1965, p. 131-50) calls it, leads Hall (1980, p.130) to the conclusion that “production and reception of the television message are not, therefore, identical, but they are related.” Hall differs between hegemonic, negotiated, and counter-hegemonic reading, whereby the reader shares the same code, if information is read hegemonic, less so, if it is negotiated, and not at all, if read counter-hegemonic. This implies for objectivity, that even if it was possible to encode objective information, it would not be guaranteed that information would be decoded in the same manner, for, as we have seen, information may be distorted in the decoding process.

Whilst Hall argues that the encoding and decoding process could be similar with a hegemonic-reading, I would go still further and argue that encoding and decoding processes might be almost identical, but never entirely so, for words are no stable entities. In semiotics, words consist of denotations and connotations; the former stands for the literal meaning and the latter are emotional or underlying associations which we attach to a particular word. For instance, while the word right has several denotations such as the direction, the notion of authorisation, or the correctness of something, it has a cluster of connotations, such as association with conservatism, fascism, or superiority, which are fluctuating and not tentatively transfixed by any dictionary. These connotations, which influence our interpretation of a word, may be quite similar, especially among individuals of the same social background, yet, very unlikely identical for the entire vocabulary of every individual. Hence, the decoding process will most likely differ, because the journalist can certainly not consider every emotional or underlying association of a word. Again, putative objectivity is likely to be deformed.

I have to stress the word putative here, as language itself might be objective in its own sphere but will always fail to portray events and objects of reality accurately. Language has to transfix a world that appears utterly intricate to us, after which the complexity of real objectivity gets lost. Now even the remnants of objectivity will not last, as “language, typically, is immersed in the ongoing life of a society, as the practical consciousness of that society. This consciousness is inevitably a partial and false consciousness.”  (Kress and Hodge, 1981, p.6) In other words: an ideology.

The above-mentioned term ideology and hegemonic aspect of language already insinuated that language undergoes a perpetual struggle for power in order to create ‘inner truths’ and a reality according to one’s own perception. Scholars such as Norman Fairclough (1989), Edward Herman (1994; 1999), and Noam Chomsky (1994; 2002) argue that language is socially determined and undergoes a incessant struggle for power, whereat the dominant class attempts to control language simply to keep the social structures intact and to implement language in accordance with their needs. According to Gunther Kress and Roger Fowler (1979, p.63) this struggle for power commences already with a normal interview:

“In interviews, the participants are obviously differentiated by their individual purposes, their differences in statues, their roles, so that this mode of conversation exhibits an inequality, a skew in the distribution of power.”

A corollary of this is that ostensible objectivity is very likely to be contorted in the inchoate state of information gathering due to unequal distribution of power and the pursuit thereof.

After the process of gathering information, objectivity may even be further transfigured through choice of words, overwording, euphemisms, nominalisation, modality, structure, etc. (Fairclough, 1989, p.109). Tony Trew (1979, p. 97) gives a striking example of how easy merely the sentence structure and the choice of words alter the meaning and simultaneously serve the ideology of the media outlet. While The Times used the header “Rioting Blacks shot dead by Police as ANC leaders meet” on the second of June 1975, after an altercation between the police and protesters in South Africa, The Guardian ran the headline: “Police shoot 11 dead is Salisbury riots.” Undeniably the discrepancy between the implementation of active and passive and the words “rioting blacks” and “11” evoke different readings. This is a problem of notable gravity for objectivity, because language does not only leave very limited space for a neutral interpretation, but journalistic writing has certain idiosyncrasies that encumber neutrality even further.

For example:

  1.  It is common practice to write in active form, which mostly stresses the act and the actor.
  2.  Similar to a last remark, a last quote tends to be more influential.
  3.  Journalists disregard the Archimedean point and have to make the most interesting or entertaining aspect of the story their pivotal point, whereby other facts may lose focus. Gaye Tuchman (1999, p.302) even claims that “this [inverted pyramid] is the most problematic aspect of objectivity for the newsman.”

It is open to debate to what extent “the media operate as a means for the expression and reproduction of the power of the dominant class and bloc.” (Fairclough, 1989, p.51) I just want to highlight how simple connotations of a word may be changed in order to serve a dominant ideology. According to Edward Herman (1999, p.197) “the bias and propaganda service of the mainstream media” is most severe when it comes to the word terrorism or terrorism itself. Herman (1999, p.198 and p.284) writes that this term, which was once used as “reign of terror” to describe the state of violence during the French revolution, was reinstated in the Reagan Era and is today, according to Noam Chomsky (2002, p.80), misused, since its denotative definition comes closer to American policies than any other and misinforms who terrorists are. However, if most people of us contemplate about the word terrorism today, the association of Islam and Muslims will inevitably emerge – even if unwillingly so.  The term undergoes a surreptitious process of “standardization”, as Norman Fairclough (1989, p.56) labels it. So to speak, the word terrorism, like many other words, undergoes Gramsci’s (Baldwin, et al., 2004, p.37) three categories of ideology5 until it becomes an unquestioned part of our ‘inner truth’.

Thus, we are not only confronted with blindfolded men who attempt to describe an elephant from their position, but also with men who describe what they perceive with a subjective and ideology-shaped language that evolved in its intricacy far beyond the incipient, troublesome Babylonian days.

Practical hindrances

Ultimately, journalistic objectivity faces difficulties as it is subject to an economy that not only shapes the process of information gathering and distribution intrinsically, but also extrinsically. The modern capitalistic economy has developed a competitive business environment for the media that has a propensity for profit-focus and monopolisation. Thus, in  order not be excluded from the market due to lack of “effective demand”6 (Herman, 1999, p.14) and to accomplish maximum revenues, media outlets are prone to adapt their business model to the demands of the market, even if that implies the loss of other values, such as objectivity.

In order to increase profits, media outlets have to reach a broad audience and this “need to build and maintain audiences and circulation figures leads editors to prioritise stories within popular themes.” (Starkey, 2009, p.10) The urge to make news more appealing to the masses does not only provoke an unbalance in the choice of stories but “may also change the meaning and significance of events” to make it fit for public consumption. (Altheide, 1976, p.27) On top of all, since revenue models are more advertisement driven nowadays, media outlets try to assimilate their news stories and topics increasingly to advertisements, making them more appealing to advertisers – a process that reinforces capitalistic ideas. (Chomsky and Herman, 1994 p.14) Henceforth, as John McManus (1999, p.189) concludes, “news rather than the ‘reflection of reality’ becomes a commodity to fit the market demands of a collection of special interests.”

Further, cost reduction is imperative to increase profits. Naturally, availability, suitability, proximity, reliability, articulateness, authoritativeness, relations, and other factors that could have financial impact will influence decisions on what stories are chosen and how these are treated. (Gans, 1999, p. 238) This means, to be pecuniary effective, journalists will attempt to produce as many cheap stories as fast as they can, by using safe, proximate stories which do not need a lot of research and which are backed up by sources that are already liaised, because it is immensely time-saving to relapse on already existing connections. Preferably, these sources have authority and should be fast and easily accessible which will reinforce the opinion of those who have already established their position in society (e.g. politicians). Finally, to be even more efficient, journalist attempt to routinise7 the entire profit-saving procedure. Consequently, we witness a decrease of foreign correspondence as well as a derogation of diversity of topics and working conditions for journalists that automatically promote the dissemination of unchecked information and ‘churnalism’, so that, according to Nick Davies (2009, p.52), 88% of the UK “quality-print” stories are either copied and/ or from a PR, or wire-copies, or have untraceable sources, leaving just 12% original material. Under the bottom line “this suggests that events are newsworthy for practical reasons and not for their objective character.” (Altheide, 1976, p.123)

Simultaneously, media-monopolies are being built and news outlets are being bought by non-news media companies. Chomsky and Herman (1994, p.14) argue that the interests of such big firms, consisting of cooperations, banks, governments, and media, are “interlocked”. This has numerous effects. Firstly, capitalistic ideas are once again reinforced. Secondly, such heterogeneous companies are likely to promote whatever values and stories are in the interests of the entire company. A perfect example is the US market, where entertainment companies, such as Viacom-Paramount, Disney, or AOL-Time Warner, have created a “Micky Mouse Economy,” as Herman (1999, p.43) titles it, through their acquisition of many important media outlets. In his book, News as Entertainment, Daya Thussu (2007) argues that as an aftermath of this development especially broadcasters are veering towards “infotainment”, neglecting thereby the unentertaining truth for the sake of entertainment. Thirdly, because monopolies function predominantly in a strict framework of hierarchy, where the distribution of power has an oligarchic and plutocratic character, single people have potentially a lot of influence and the proclivity to make use of it. It is unclear to what extent, for example, Rupert Murdoch abuses his power for his political or rather his business interest (probably they go hand in hand), but many people claim that Murdoch influences plenty of editorial decisions. Besides business interests and “press-party-parallelism” (Seymour-Ure, 1974, p.157-159) from a single person or the media outlet as a whole, objectivity will also be limited by the hierarchy on lower levels, as hierarchy always implies that a single person makes the decision for all other involved people (e.g. the editor).

There are other practical hindrances that I will not be able to expatiate at this point. For example, pictures which are chosen to accompany published stories are predominantly so called ‘active pictures’ that aim to make the article more vivacious and entertaining. Such an active picture is always non-objective, as it emphasis the action and does not portray the entire truth which a picture cannot do per se, because it always has an angle. The choice of sensation-focusing angles also has an impact on the objectivity of the articles themselves. Altheide (1976) describes in his book, Creating Reality, how especially in broadcasting journalism truth is distorted though angles, since angles are decided upon beforehand and stories are later researched to fit the previously chosen angle. In addition, “the concern to make the stories fit together thus became the angle for the story.” (Altheide, 1976, p.75) On the other hand, the mere juxtaposition of stories itself and the consequent, new interconnected meanings could alter the original message of a single story and thus its objectivity. (Starkey, 2007, p.106) Another threat for objectivity is the rigid dependence of war reporters on the military, and henceforth the strong governmental influence on the writing of the reporter who may be denied access or protection, if he or she refuses to cooperate and promote the army’s interest.

This means journalists are blindfolded people, who attempt to describe an elephant with a subjective language in an environment that gives them less time, sources, and monetary options.

Concluding remarks and possible solutions

As I have argued above, journalistic objectivity is not possible for socio-philosophical, psychological, semiotic and practical reasons. Fortunately, many news-outlets have already admitted the impossibility of journalistic objectivity and are rather talking about a utopian ideal that is aimed at but never reached.

Still, media outlets are reproached by scholars, such as Gaye Tuchman (1999, p.301), to hide their own opinion behind a scientific term of objectivity, by using apparently objective quotes in order to express their own clandestine opinions. Henceforth, Brent Cunningham suggests that journalists should not live in a fictional world where objectivity exists but rather accept their biases, work against them, and maybe declare their personal stand on the issue in advance. In addition, he argues that open non-objective journalism would promote, in order to back up once arguments, the search for truth, because temporarily journalists are “allowing the principle of objectivity to make [them] passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

Finally, many pundits demand (and not solely for the media) that one should “move against multiple ownership and semi-monopolies – which inevitably limit diversity and create links between already powerful media.” (Sampson, 1999, p.207) The BBC is one successful model  that illustrates how an alternative financing method may increase the quality and objectivity of news. Yet, it will be a challenging endeavour to try alternative models, because it would take almost an entire world-economy to move from monopolies to increased shared ownerships or alternative models.


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* Picture: Joe Lencioni

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