'Objective' journalism? There's no such thing
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 May 2004)

Just before retiring as publisher of the Toronto Star on Wednesday, John Honderich remarked on CBC radio that the Star's coverage of Israel is "fair and objective" -- surely an outlandish claim.

As a careful reader of his paper, and a student of the Middle East, I'm as certain as I am of anything on Earth that the Star routinely gives the benefit of the doubt to Israel's enemies and denounces every flaw it finds in Israel's policy. Yet Honderich said he had "looked at our coverage" from this perspective and added that "I've had distinguished people like Janice Stein," a University of Toronto political science professor, also examine it. These distinguished people had agreed that the coverage is "in no way biased."

How could they say that? Aside from news stories, which in theory might be discussed on a case-by-case basis, the Star has a leading columnist, Haroon Siddiqui, who almost always expresses hostility to Israel's policies. Were the Star interested in fairness it would require, at minimum, a columnist of similar stature coming down just as often on Israel's side. The Star has no such writer; it's not conceivable that it could have.

More important, the word "objective," coming from a publisher at this late date, indicates a serious failure of self-knowledge. The principle of objectivity was unmasked long ago as a beguiling fiction. In the U.S., the Society of Professional Journalists eliminated the word "objectivity" from its ethics code in 1996.

That decision followed decades of frustration and hypocrisy. Once, journalists dreamt of becoming more respectable by emulating the objectivity that science achieves in the laboratory. Eventually, however, most of us discovered that describing human life without a point of view is impossible and probably not desirable. (Fairness, on the other hand, is necessary, and it's possible if writers understand their own biases.)

We all indicate our opinions simply by choosing what subjects to cover. For instance, when the late Richard Doyle was editor of The Globe and Mail, every reporter knew of his passionate concern with civil rights. They made a point of developing stories on that subject, knowing they would be especially welcomed.

After deciding what to report, we display our biases again by what we choose to emphasize. A few years ago The New York Times and the Boston Globe put the pedophiliac crimes of Roman Catholic priests on their front pages, day after day for months, making the church appear considerably guiltier than it looked elsewhere in the mass media. Those editors did nothing wrong, but they were expressing an opinion. I agreed with them but would never call their coverage objective.

Objective means (Oxford) "not influenced by feelings or personal bias." I've never met an objective journalist and wouldn't want to. Writers who separate their emotions from their work are inevitably boring. Hunter Thompson spoke for a whole profession when he said: "The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV set-up that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado."

The Star in particular is by self-definition not objective. It pursues social justice in the manner of its founder, Joseph Atkinson, who left behind "the Atkinson principles" when he died in 1948. That one fact determines the paper's automatic bias on many issues. Under an earlier publisher, John Honderich's father, I worked on the Star for eight years. I never once heard any member of the staff suggest for a moment that the paper was "objective" or wanted to be. In Canadian politics our news columns were either Liberal or liberal, or both, on every issue.

Quite aside from where we work or what views we hold, journalists bring certain prejudices to the job. Last year, in the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham outlined journalistic biases, good and bad, that have nothing to do with ideology: "Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy." The American sociologist Herbert Gans wrote in Deciding What's News about the half-conscious assumptions that shape the work of journalists. There's something of the reformer in every one of us, he said: "In reality, the news is not so much conservative or liberal as it is reformist."

Beyond these arguments lies a crucial point that Honderich didn't mention. Even if objectivity were possible, would the Star be right to apply it to the Middle East? Israel is the one democracy in the region (though its democracy is as flawed as Canada's) and various forms of tyranny are now trying to obliterate it by terror. In that situation, is there any decency in the position of a freedom-loving journalist who boasts about considering the two sides impartially? In the CBC interview, Honderich abruptly veered away from his own paper's attitudes and pointed out that the National Post lacks objectivity and actually favours Israel. I should certainly hope so.

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