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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 10 | Nov. 4, 2004

The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond

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 in journalism.

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 in society.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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