Neutrality versus Objectivity

According to Judith Lichtenberg in an article, In Defense of Objectivity, she proposes that objectivity is often confused with neutrality. Balance is often the way that objectivity is ‘operationalised’ within the news media. However neutrality often prevents the reporter from determining the truth.

For instance stories can be so balanced that it may be impossible for the reader to draw a conclusion from the story. The reader can see both sides of the argument, and their attempts to understand the truth are subsequently thwarted. This can lead to skepticism and frustration.

Concern with balance can also undermine true objectivity. Lichtenberg explains – “leaving two opposing points of view to look equally plausible where one has the preponderance of reason and evidence on its side is a charade of objectivity.” For this reason a reporter must start out neutral and then attempt to arrive at the truth by considering all aspects of the argument. The journalist’s mission is to determine the truth, not to appear neutral.

For example giving equal credence to the Klu Klux Klan in a story regarding racial issues will not help reflect the reality of a situation. Reporting an extreme point of view can also result in sensationalizing the issue. Journalists need to show judgment when writing a story. If a stance can be discredited through evaluation of the facts, then this must be the conclusion drawn by the media. It is poor journalism to write a story that gives consideration to a stance that journalist knows to wrong from his evaluation of the facts. Drawing a conclusion in a story that questions a politician, an organization or an ideology can appear partisan and instead journalists hide behind neutrality.

Journalists afraid of appearing biased adopt neutrality over objectivity. According to Lichtenberg, it is very difficult for the reader to determine if a journalist has started with preconceptions that will skew the conclusion of the story and when a journalist has started with a neutral frame of mind and has delivered the truth based on the evidence. Both stories will appear to take ‘a side’, however one will be based in fact and the other biased. In order to avoid this confusion, journalists mistakenly seek to write balanced stories and therefore cannot be accused of being biased (however this also means they may fall short of telling the truth).

Objectivity and neutrality are not interchangeable terms. A journalist must start a story with a neutral position and hopefully conclude with the truth. Journalists must evaluate the evidence in order to determine what happened, the truth, and not just present all sides of a debate with equal credibility.

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