The Need for Objectivity in Journalism


In Journalism Studies, Brian McNair argues that “the concept of objectivity can and must be re-evaluated in the digital era, if such a thing as a globalised public sphere, able to support further democratic progress in the decades ahead, is to be built from the “cultural chaos” of the internet.”

Researchers have persuasively argued that objectivity is a socio-economic construct  linked to the marketing of “quality” journalism and the commodification of news.  Recalling Schudson’s (1978) Discovering the News, McNair contextualises objectivity in terms of the nineteenth century need to provide “measurable standards of quality” within a competitive information market.

For Schudson, the key distinction of a competitive marketplace for news, in which speed, accuracy and thus reliability are key, is objectivity. Only accurate information has any value to the merchant or industrialist, or politician or banker, who relies upon it to make judgements about business or warfare or the appropriate terms of trade with an overseas partner.

McNair argues that although journalistic objectivity requires revision, it is an increasingly valuable principle for distinguishing “honest discourse from lies and fabrication or fakery”.

If the concept of objectivity in journalism arose and was established in the nineteenth century’s growing demand for authoritative, reliable information in an increasingly complex, globalised world, that logic applies even more to a digital media environment of millions of providers and billions of users.

Notwithstanding the decline of faith in the possibility of an absolute journalistic objectivity, and of trust in journalism more broadly, emphasising professional adherence to the practices and principles associated with [objectivity] can be an important way in which news organisations differentiate themselves from the myriad online players now competing in the information marketplace.

The journalistic search for credibility of sources, and scrutiny of what those sources say, without fear or favour, has never been more important to the health of liberal democracy. Objectivity will continue to be a key pathway to the mobilisation of trust in journalism, but in the post-factual world where powerful sources brazenly assert the Truth of their demonstrably untruthful versions of events, objectivity must include a determination to challenge “authoritative” sources as never before.

At the same time, journalists claiming objectivity must make even more visible and transparent the limitations inherent in their own processes of truth and meaning-making. … When procedural transparency and journalistic self-reflection are presented to audiences as being as much part of a news story as “the facts”, they can decide whom to believe, based on their individual perspectives, experiences and judgements.