When I was studying journalism at university, we were taught to write all news stories with impartiality and objectivity. At the time, impartiality was viewed as the cornerstone of high quality, credible journalism.
Our job was to deliver comprehensive coverage of news and current affairs without colouring the story with our own personal prejudices or biases. It was important; we were told, to report a wide range of options and perspectives fairly and accurately, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
Today, the value of an impartial or objective approach in contemporary journalism is increasingly being questioned.
New York University academic Jay Rosen is critical of impartial journalism, describing it as the “view from nowhere”. Rosen said: “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.” 1
Transparency, it seems, is the new ‘black’. Silicon Valley CEO and academic at Berkley Journalism School Alan Mutter argues impartiality should be replaced with “a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting”. 2
Others question if impartiality is even achievable. In his paper, Delivering Trust: Impartiality and Objectivity in the Digital Age, Cardiff University’s Professor of Journalism, Richard Sambook asks: “Does a neutral voice hold the same value today as it did a century ago? Is the emphasis on impartiality in news actually an impediment to a free market in ideas? And with technological convergence is?”
So is the decreasing relevance of impartiality in journalism purely an academic debate? Taking a look at recent newspapers headlines, it seems that the proof is in the pudding. We are continually bombarded with newspaper headlines that are proudly free of objectivity. One recent example is The Courier Mail’s coverage of the Gerard Baden-Murder trial in Queensland. The newspaper published a series of headlines objecting to Baden Clay’s successful appeal for his murder charge to be downgraded. One headline proclaimed: The Law is An Ass.
The Daily News in the United States has also taken a strong stance against the pro-gun lobby. Following a number of mass shooting in California, it has printed controversial and now infamous headlines such as Blood on Your Hands; Same Gun, Different Slay; Shame on U.S. and God Isn’t Fixing This.
Given the declining circulation of newspapers3 and the need to produce eye-catching and ultimately saleable headlines on a regular basis, it seems likely that impartiality in journalism will take a back seat for a while.
Navigating this new era of journalism will be tricky. Writing high-quality articles that deliver transparency over impartiality will require finesse; they will need to be built on a strong foundation of solid journalism. Facts will still need to be sourced, attributed and double-checked for accuracy. News articles featuring strong viewpoints may be the future of journalism – whether good or bad – but let’s avoid the trap of creating click-bait style headlines that are controversial for controversy’s sake.