September 22, 2006

Worthington: Objective reporting is not possible!

Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun has finally stunned me more than I thought possible.

After reading and responding to his columns in May and July, articles that I truly believe incited hatred and vigilantism towards responsible dog owners, my opinion of him as a balanced and fair journalist pretty well went out the window.

In his latest rant against the CBC, however, Worthington makes one of the most outrageous statements I have ever read. If ever there were even a glimmer of hope that he had not completely descended into tabloid fantasy, it died with this column.

"Objectivity is impossible in journalism."
— Peter Worthington - Toronto Sun - September 14, 2006
Yes, Peter Worthington believes that a journalist or reporter cannot report on the news without injecting their own personal biases.

My first thought, first question, one that Worthington does not address in any meaningful way, is "Why not?"

Why is it impossible for a journalist to report objectively, without bias? Cambridge's Dictionary of American English defines the adjective "objective" as "not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings; fair or real". The antonym is "subjective". Worthington even admits as much in the ending sentence to that same paragraph: "The reporter, subjectively, chooses what is newsworthy". He also states, "But while objectivity is impossible, fairness is attainable by all."

The definition of "objective" above includes the word "fair". They are one and the same. An objective reporter is, by definition, fair.

Judges act objectively and fairly every day. So do accountants, lawyers, tax auditors, systems analysts, business leaders, police detectives, and others. People whose occupations require them to receive, analyze, and act on facts and evidence, must, by the very nature of their jobs, be objective and fair.

I do not deny any of these people their own personal beliefs, opinions, and biases. They would not be human without them. But that is no excuse for lack of objectivity within the framework of their jobs.

What makes journalists so special? Why is Worthington so willing to allow them their subjectivity when, by all accounts, the purpose of journalism is to INFORM, not to persuade?

The Society of Professional Journalists, North America's most broad-based journalism organization with over 10,000 members, has a Code of Ethics. I quote parts of it here.
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

Journalists should:
- Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Clearly, the Society believes that not only are journalists capable of objectivity, but that it should be a standard towards which they should always strive.

Even though I agree with Worthington in his criticism of the CBC and in his support of Christine St-Pierre, I cannot and will not use her situation as an excuse for fatalism and lack of responsibility.

Just like everyone else in this crazy, mixed up world, journalists with character, integrity, and honesty must be objective. They are not perfect nor should we expect them to be. But they have a goal, a set of ethics, by which they try to judge every word that they write or speak.

Perhaps Worthington's attempts to justify bias and subjectivity reflect an underlying laziness, a "shrug of the shoulders", a lack of fortitude to put the time and effort into sifting through the chaffe. Perhaps this is why his earlier articles irked me. In those, it seemed to me like he just didn't care enough to even try to dig for the truth. Maybe now we know why.

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