UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 10 | Nov.
The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity
By Stephen J. Ward (McGill-Queen's University Press)
In his new book, Stephen Ward, an associate professor at
the the School of Journalism, examines journalism ethics through
philosophical and historical lenses. The following is an excerpt.
This book brings a philosophical and historical perspective
to the study of journalism ethics. As a work in the philosophy
of journalism, the book is a systematic attempt to understand
the editorial standards espoused by journalists since the
printing press. The result is a theoretical framework for
conceptualizing the evolution of journalism ethics and a new
concept of journalism objectivity.
I call the framework a rhetorical theory of value change
The model explains the ethical assertions of journalists
as forms of persuasive speech, which employ the strategies
and objectives of rhetoric. The aim of ethical statements,
and the norms they assert, is to establish or maintain the
credibility of reports, journals and new forms of journalism.
The rhetorical modelsees journalism ethics as arising out
of the relationship between journalist and audience. The assertion
of a journalism norm is a normative response to criticism,
competition, government censure and reader expectations. Alterations
in that relationship are prompted by changes in journalism
practice and changes in the ambient culture. Only by examining
how this relationship responds to journalistic practice and
society can we comprehend how norms arise, become dominant
and decline. To gain such insights, an interdisciplinary approach
employing philosophy, ethics, science and social history is
necessary. A full understanding of journalism ethics requires
that we plunge into the complex history of our culture.
I became entangled in the web of ideas that surrounds objectivity
as a foreign reporter for the Canadian Press News Agency based
in London during the first half of the 1990s. During this
period, I began to question my adherence to traditional objectivity
as I read the criticisms of objectivity.
My reporting on war, ethnic hatred, social injustice and
radically different cultures raised questions about the universality
and appropriateness of objectivity in journalism. At the same
time, I was disturbed by an apparent increase in non-objective,
irresponsible journalism. It seemed to me that abandoning
all pretense of objectivity would only exacerbate journalism’s
problems and open the door to more biased reporting. In this
manner, the difficult theoretical and practical questions
surrounding objectivity began to occupy me. I realized that
they called for philosophical analysis. That analysis became
a journey down the corridors of history to ancient Greece
and back to where we stand today. My research has only scratched
the surface of this issue.
I hope this book encourages others to deepen these reflections.
The book pays special attention to the evolution of one
of [journalism’s] dominant norms, the ideal of objectivity.
It exposes journalism objectivity’s long roots in our
culture, as far back as ancient Greek philosophy and early
modern science. Having set out this history, I develop my
theory of journalism objectivity, called “pragmatic
objectivity.” I defend, without apology, the concept
of journalism objectivity, but the concept that I defend is
not the traditional idea of objective reporting as a neutral
description of “just the facts.” Instead, this
book proposes a theory of objectivity that stresses the testing
of journalistic interpretations in various contexts. The upshot
is a conceptual reworking of the familiar notion that journalists
should be objective by providing accurate, balanced and unbiased
news, without fear or favour . . .
A reformulation of objectivity is important because the
traditional notion of journalistic objectivity, articulated
about a century ago, is indefensible philosophically. It has
been weakened by criticism inside and outside of journalism.
In practice, fewer and fewer journalists embrace the traditional
objectivity, while more and more newsrooms adopt a reporting
style that includes perspective and interpretation. Traditional
objectivity is no longer a viable ethical guide.
Pragmatic objectivity will not satisfy the extreme viewpoints
that fuel the debate surrounding objectivity. No doubt, academic
skeptics of objectivity will regard my proposal to invigorate
objectivity as too little, too late. For these writers, several
decades of trenchant criticism of the “myth” of
objectivity in science, law, ethics and journalism is proof
enough that the concept is entirely discredited, or in irreversible
retreat. For adherents of traditional objectivity, my theory
of pragmatic objectivity, with its leniency toward interpretation
and value judgments, will appear to be an abandonment of objectivity.
Nevertheless, I believe that my reformist position is the
path to follow.
We cannot return, conservatively, to traditional notions
of objectivity constructed for another news media in another
time. Nor is abandoning objectivity a viable option. Journalists
continue to need a clear, vigorous norm of objectivity to
guide their practice. The best option is to reform objectivity
so that valid criticisms are met and important practices of
objective reporting are preserved. Without a thoughtful reform
of objectivity, we risk losing a much-needed ethical restraint
on today’s news media.
What we need is a progressive and philosophically sophisticated
notion of objectivity that corrects stubborn misconceptions
that have historical roots, and reflects our current understandings
of knowledge and responsible inquiry. The ideal of objectivity,
properly understood, is vital not only for responsible journalism
but responsible scientific inquiry, informed public policy
deliberations and fair ethical and legal decisions. The peculiar
Western attempt to be objective is a long, honorable tradition
that is part of our continuing struggle to discern and communicate
significant, well-grounded truths and to make fair decisions