The Holy Grail

Graphic Julia Wolfe

Broken sentences, long pauses, rambling responses, and a slew of different answers are probably all you’ll get if you ask a bunch of journalists what they think about objectivity.

While their thoughts on the subject may be initially inarticulate and rather jumbled, journalists have lots to say about the term that has been ingrained in their brains since their first days of J-school.

The Unreachable Standard?

Despite objectivity being a much-idealized and longstanding pillar of journalism, many of Montreal’s practicing news writers and editors admit that reporting on the news objectively is, well, not even possible.
“It’s a little bit like a holy grail,” said Patrick Lejtenyi, news editor of the Montreal Mirror. “It’s not really achievable and, at worst, it can be disingenuous.”

It has been over 15 years since the Society of Professional Journalists scrapped “objectivity” from its code of ethics, and the word is nowhere to be found in the Canadian Association of Journalists’ list of ethical guidelines.

Queen Arsem-O’Malley, news editor of The McGill Daily said objectivity is an unfeasible standard to strive for, simply because reporters are human— just like sources, just like readers. “Everybody has some type of background and position that influences the way that they think about things,” she explained, “even if you don’t consciously recognize that you are thinking about them that way.”

Marc Lalonde, news editor of the West Island Chronicle agrees that absolute objectivity is impossible, but that hasn’t stopped him from demanding his reporters to strive for it—as much as possible—within the parameters of the story they are working on.

“I always demand fair comment,” he said. “I ask that [my reporters] present all sides as fairly as possible, taking into account circumstances and everything else.” He added that knowing how much objectivity is “enough” is a skill honed by experience.

Michelle Richardson, city editor of The Gazette, on the other hand, does think journalistic objectivity is possible.

“I think that it is something that reporters and editors take quite seriously,” she explained, adding that objective reporting is a value upheld by both The Gazette and Postmedia, the national news agency that owns it, in keeping with the standards of good journalism.

Subjectively Objective

According to its dictionary definition, objectivity requires one to make judgments based on observable phenomena uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.

But regardless of how detached and impartial journalists can be while observing and recording events, they have no choice but to make hundreds of subjective decisions throughout the course of their day’s work.

Arsem-O’Malley explains that, as part of production, news editors and writers decide what to report on, who to talk to and where to do research for the stories they will then write. She points to all of these small but essential choices as necessary flaws in the theoretical framework requiring reporters to produce a purely objective product.

Richardson furthers this point by acknowledging the potential sway a journalist’s choice of language can have on the reader.

“[Objectivity] is not just trying to talk to all people and get all sides of the story—it’s making sure that the article is written in a way that strips pejorative terminology that takes away anything that could lead people into a sense of what a story is and isn’t,” she said.

Richardson explained how crucial it is that journalists understand the weight of words in their writing. This is something Arsem-O’Malley said The McGill Daily is extremely conscious of, so much so that she questions whether it has become detrimental to the quality of their reporting.

“We take out words in almost every story, and we will take out any adjectives about people—instead of saying someone
‘expressed’ or ‘demanded’ something, we will change it to ‘said.’”

She explained that this way of writing allows for people to draw their own conclusions, but wondered, “Really, which one is more objective: to let the reader draw something from a quote, or to try and convey an environment in which it was said?”

The Currency of Credibility

Objectivity surfaced as a core journalistic value back in the nineteenth century, with the advent of mass-circulation newspapers and the penny press. It made its appearance initially as a financial strategy—neutrality meant a broader range of possible readers.

Today’s newspaper reporters, though the majority of them would simply laugh at the idea of a growing readership, haven’t considered the lack of financial incentive a reason enough to let the concept bite the dust just yet.

For Richardson, being objective is simply a matter of ethics and doing her job fairly. For Lalonde, it is a way to ensure his publication remains credible.

“As a newspaper all you have in terms of your capital is your credibility,” he said, explaining that he views objectivity as a key factor in earning the public’s trust.

Yet an academic criticism of objective reporting is that it prevents reporters from looking further into issues.

Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review argued, “Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is ‘both sides of the story,’ that’s often good enough.”

Richardson disagreed. “I think that there is a way to probe and to do deep and nuanced stories that are still objective,” she said, adding that even analysis can be impartial.

Lejentyi also highlighted the importance of delving deeper into stories and not simply letting the sources talk.

“You should always take everything that anyone in a position of authority says with a huge grain of salt and try to find holes and find arguments in it—I think the ones that have stopped questioning people with authority have really lost their way as journalists.”

New Journalism, New Fundamentals

Journalism is a field that is rapidly evolving, hustling to keep up with the quick and constant advancements in technology. The way people produce and consume the news isn’t the same as it was just a few years ago.

Both Richardson and Lalonde argued that while we are certainly living in a ‘new journalistic world,’ the fundamentals haven’t, and shouldn’t, change.

“A more competitive market is more of an incentive to be more rigorous about our standards and our practices,” Richardson said, explaining that new methods of coverage are no reason to stray from the commitment to objectivity.

Lejentyi sees things a bit differently. “From the Mirror’s perspective—we are a strange kind of creature, being a hybrid between a newspaper and a magazine—we have worked hard to establish an editorial voice which makes us different from The Gazette or from CTV.”

He believes that having a strong editorial stance is something that can be done while maintaining the basic tenants of journalism, despite occasionally offering a more suggestive version of the news. He also said this is a growing trend that might be worth watching.

“I think more people might be trying to tailor their coverage to appeal to an audience that agrees with them,” he said, pointing out that the new mushrooming of media outlets provides readers with many options—and many will seek out reporting that reinforces their values and preconceptions.

“As long as it’s not based on insanity and the opinions are strong and can be backed up with facts and arguments, I think that there is a place for that,” he said, “and it could arguably be growing.”

But Really, It’s Up to You

News reporters are trained to serve a very specific function in society—it’s their job to inform the public of what’s happening in the world.

“If you are presenting a story as ‘this is what happened,’ you have a responsibility to present it from a viewpoint that people can look at and make their own judgment and own decisions,” said Lalonde, a sentiment reiterated by Richardson.

Arsem-O’Malley explained that The McGill Daily’s mandate is to represent marginalized voices, and represent those often silenced by the mainstream media. She said there’s always going to be a dominant voice, both in society and the media.

“By seeking out those other groups, we recognize that part of objectivity is in what you cover, and maybe that is not being 100 per cent objective,” she said. “But is it worth it do give up a little bit of objectivity in favour of trying to find voices in society that aren’t heard from? It is something we grapple with.”