The media - The crisis of subjective objectivity

On the face of it, the theme of this article sounds like a counterintuitive paradox. To many discerning individuals, journalistic objectivity remains an unflattering oxymoron. Lest you are perturbed, relax; I do not intend to subject you to a gruelling yakking by reducing this article to a prosaic, uninspiring and anti-press jeremiad.

However, we need an objective-centric press that subscribes to the abiding norms of accountability, accuracy, impartiality and autonomy.

On average, we are spoiled to more than one local weekly newspaper each day. We have a wide pool of journalists. Is there a positive correlation between the quantity and the quality though? Is the fidelity of some of our journalists solely towards conventional journalistic practices, some of which might unwittingly fuel the public’s diminution of trust, or have all the members of the Fourth Estate tended to slant towards unbiased reporting? I enter this space acutely aware of this fact; there will never be a consensus on who has the right to serve as the final arbiter on journalistic quality and objectivity.

Do journalists necessarily have to take sides? Lately the media space has been abuzz with reports of emerging factions and internal wrangling apparently bedeviling some political organisations. If a journalistic stethoscope could be used to assess the objectivity of some of the articles, it would reveal high-powered subjective palpitations and subdued, almost imperceptible, objective beats, owing to the half-hearted effort taken to balance the storyline by failing to impartially share views from rival factions.

Some of the stories hid behind the ambiguous rhetoric, ‘reliable sources say...’ and, ‘this paper has it on good record that...’ Of course, sources must be protected, but can anyone explain what prevented the journalists from calling the implicated individuals, demanding to hear their side of the story with a view to feeding the nation with the truth? Of all the reports I have read, not a single one ever mentioned that, despite having been given ample time to respond to a questionnaire, the concerned parties failed to respond in time. Journalists, as discerning consumers of your content, we are not impressed by the emotional crutch of magniloquent prose if it carries a huge price tag of inaccuracy.

Worldwide, rogue journalists hide behind notorious expressions to peddle deep-seated opinions as truth. This is attributable to unacceptable journalistic indolence. When editors demand articles, in the interests of meeting tight deadlines and maintaining a form of relevance in their media-house, ill-disciplined troops of duty-shirking rapscallions would quickly whip up an unsubstantiated storyline that would send a subset of the nation into a tizzy. Another commonly abused phrase is, ‘by the time we went to press, Mr. X’s phone had incessantly rung unanswered.’ While this could be true, one can’t help but wonder, if this is always an agendaless refrain! Sharp editors are normally quick to pull in the reins on their errant colleagues!

News must be true, and the truth has everything to do with facts. No journalist needs to be reminded of the fact-checking obligation that is consistent with the non-partisan and accuracy principles harped on by elementary journalism lecturers. It is perversely preposterous for professional journalists to stretch the truth by couching dubious opinions as newsworthy facts. In the process of navigating tonnes of information in the printed and digital media platforms, it is essential for all sentient consumers of media content to apprise themselves of the difference between news and opinions peddled on the Internet or widely-read printed newspapers.

Views of all forward-looking individuals coalesce around the central theme that hot-button issues in the mainstream media space (MMS) must, at all times, pulsate with balanced content, radiate trustworthiness, spew an admirable ethos of candor, uphold ethical balance, preserve impartiality and commit to either local or global relevance. Can we objectively say this applies to our media landscape? Over the years, has the local media made great strides in their battle to serve as champions of the rights of the masses? Have our journalists matured into informed critics of abuse of power by corporate titans and individuals of notable net worth?

When contending with mounting pressure from sponsors, a journalist worth his salt would confidently absorb it by creatively finding a way of making news and exposing rot by cracking the seemingly impenetrable wall of silence, normally meant to protect the privileged few. He would go out on a limb and fearlessly address issues of national importance ignored by the MMS. The converse holds for semiautonomous and puppet journalists.

Shouldn’t shrewd consumers of media content demand that, much like physicians have no qualms in owning the two-and-half millennial old Hippocratic oath, journalists should subscribe to a binding media oath? In taking the long Hippocratic oath, physicians pledge allegiance to an ethical code, which is best summarised into, “I swear to exercise sound judgement in treating all my patients and shall respect their privacy. I shall at all times refrain from comporting myself in an unethical fashion. Should I violate this oath, I must be barred from practicing my art.” This oath has been revised several times, but the broad principles remain applicable.

I suggest the following oath for all journalists, “I solemnly swear to be fearless, impartial, independent, bold and honest in discharging my role. To vehemently ward off potential for compromising journalistic integrity and to share accurate information. To maintain an ethical comportment that is not shaped by biased political leanings or absolute loyalty to the society’s high and mighty.” This does not suggest that journalism should be heavily regulated like other professional industries. But it reinforces the view that the media space cannot be reduced to a chaotic marketplace of ideas.

Can journalists maintain objectivity amidst an environment that thrives on sensationalism? Would we be asking too much if we implored them to rise above deception and cut on the plethora of articles that underdeliver despite being anchored on overpromising inflammatory headlines? The temptation to overwhelm, attract and retain readers through frequent bursts of emotion-triggering and adrenaline-pumping headlines shrouded with only a flicker of objectivity tends to conflate objectivity with subjectivity.

At what cost would objectivity come? How individual journalists answer this question would to a large extent determine whether they would pursue a subjective or objective career path. Quite instructive is this observation that was made by a 20th century media magnate named Henry Luce two years short of a century ago, “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective, and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.” The view of this man who founded Time, Life and Fortune magazines is quite telling. Though seemingly demonising all journalists, and casting aspersions at the integrity of his own cousins, Luce highlighted how hard it was for players in the media space to circumnavigate the circuitous subjectivity route. After all, journalists suffer from the same frailties that are common to all humans. They may fall foul of journalistic rationality by clutching at classless views and might firmly grip onto strong opinions that, once distilled, would not pass the muster of objectivity.

Owing to pressure to align their reports to prevailing preconceptions and misconceptions, perhaps on the back of deliberate deception, bigoted manipulative media practitioners often pivot towards stoking the flames of misinformation. Unfortunately, these dynamic avatars of incompetence are often placed on a pedestal while the principled journalists are denigrated for playing outside the circle filled with a flurry of grotesque exaggerations.

Independent-minded editors, who are not too keen to ‘save face’ by lubricating the wheels of their careers in a compromised environment, would reject the top-down pressure from sponsors and shy away from forcing senior and junior journalists to toe the indecent line of bias. This can only happen in ecosystems where newspapers do not have a secret agenda to promote. However, this might be a big ask in establishments where media houses are regarded as a business, and the winning business model happens to be anchored on pandering to selfish interests of shareholders even if that comes at the cost of compromising the truth.

What about editorial and opinion pages of newspapers? It is perfectly acceptable for journalists and other individuals to share their opinions with readers. What is important though is not one’s obsession with dogmatic views that are clearly bereft of logic. Readers legitimately expect these articles to stay within the guardrails of the power of reasoning and the art of persuasion. In the same vein, satirical pieces can be refreshing. Perceptive readers normally appreciate the mirthful drollery infused in them to leverage dissemination of key thoughts. A caveat is in order here; authors of satire should carefully steer clear of reducing themselves to senseless comedians by peppering their articles with cheap near-the-knuckle humour.

While I would concede that a reasonable dose of subjectivity may add value, I would hasten to add that, for as long as sponsors selfishly meddle in the MMS, this space would remain a murky and undignified confluence of self-serving uninformed opinions, half-truths and facts.

Editor's Comment
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