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Objectivity – the quality of being able to make a decision or judgment in a fair way that is not influenced by personal feelings or beliefs[1]

A controversial term in modern day times that is much easier to define but noticeably not so easy to attain in practice.  The ideal of journalistic objectivity has existed for centuries, with reporters all over the globe constantly seeking to be objective in their work and to refrain from biasing. Nevertheless, as Jürgen Habermas noticed in his work “The Public Sphere”, that ever since the second half of the eighteenth century the media shifted from being “mere institutions for the publication of news” to “vehicles and guides of public opinion as well, weapons of party politics”[2]. More importantly, Habermas underlines the consequences of the beginning of commercial press in the 1830s: a “transformation from the journalism of writers who were private persons to the consumer services of the mass media” in which private interests and selling rates usually overrule the strict reporting and compiling of the facts.

In addition, along with this revolution in news reporting, a new function was born: editorial. In Habermas’ words, “[the newspaper publisher] from a seller of new information became a dealer in public opinion”[3]. The editorial function is nowadays a well known concept among media consumers, we are aware that such a piece of “news” is highly subjective and includes more opinion than facts. However, the problem materializes when the editorial function starts to overlap when reporting the facts; when objectivity gives way to subjectivity and the piece exhibits bias. This affects journalism itself, the way the news is reported, what type of news get published and, ultimately, it affects the public agenda and public opinion.

Richard Hofstetter, a political scientist quoted by Timothy Cook in Governing with the News[4], states that there’s three types of bias: political, situational and structural. To my mind, it’s a fair categorization but it’s quite confusing especially when trying to identify them in a piece. Without discrediting his work, I may suggest that I find it easier to divide bias into two categories. The first is the bias and partiality that is present in everything anyone writes, disregarding it’s political, emotional, etc. It’s the one that philosopher Immanuel Kant talks about with his “red tinted glasses”. This “glasses” that everybody has on, limit the way we perceive reality, inevitably we always do so through our own filters of subjectivity. We see “our” world based on the knowledge we have of it, including experiences, emotions and political preferences. This bias augments when the reporter or journalist mixes the facts with editorial or his personal opinion, even if they don’t mean to do so or at least not consciously. With this being said, this type of bias is constantly present in anyone’s piece of news, writing, or account of the world in itself. This mixture of subjectivity and facts is better explained by Eleanor MacLean, who suggests in her book Between the lines that “When a story does not distinguish clearly between its author’s interpretations and the facts being reported, it is a biased or slanted report.”[5]

Apart from this, the other bias journalists will inexorably exhibit is selectivity. When picking one piece of news over another, regardless of the news values they’re trying to comply with, they’re always shaping reality. In other words, us citizens guide ourselves and define our worldviews according to what we read and see in the news. If journalists choose to leave a story or an event out, we will simply not know it even occurred. And this may sound simple and obvious, but it’s really important and crucial mostly when it comes to political campaigns. News outlets, their editors and reporters have great power and influence on elections results. Depending on what they reckon is newsworthy is what we’ll also think is paramount. They can choose whether to help a candidate by publishing certain news or not, even if this decision is unconscious or involuntary. That’s why it’s so important to have many varied media outlets, and why high concentration of media ownership should be avoided and regulated by the government. If there are only a few voices speaking, we’ll trust them and think that’s the only account of reality. When there are many voices, not only we’ll have a wider variety of media to choose from, but also it would regulate the media business and news quality by itself. If there are plenty of media outlets (with different owners) all of them will have to inevitably publish most of the events that are newsworthy, even if they don’t help the candidate they support, or if it’s not profitable according to their targeted audience. And this is not only for news content and distribution; it’s a well known and proved fact that it works like that in the market as well. The exact same rules are applied: whenever there’s an oligopoly, 3 or 4 companies can decide at what price to sell, generally an unjustifiable high price, and even provide a bad quality of product because the competition is low and the demand is high. But when it comes to a perfect competition market with plenty of sellers, all of them will try to provide the best quality at the best price possible to be able to beat the competition and gain their consumers approval and loyalty.

Summarizing, it’s important for journalists to be aware and know that their objectivity may and will always be more or less stained by their subjectivity. Bias is utterly unavoidable, and audiences should also know and accept that fact. In order to be better citizens we should be able to read critically and discern when a piece of news is not being as objective as we would expect it to be. After all, we are humans, and journalists are no exception.

[1] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/es/diccionario/ingles-de-negocios/objectivity

[2] Habermas, Jürgen. The Public Sphere. page 402

[3] Ibididem

[4] Cook, T. 2005. Governing with the News. The University of Chicago Press. Page 88.

[5] Extracted from https://titiesel.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/hackett-robert-a-e2809cdecline-of-a-paradigm.pdf

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