J500 Media and the Environment

The eyes of journalism by cindyol
July 8, 2009, 11:15 pm
Filed under: J840 Week 4, Society + Media | Tags: , , ,

We are not blank pages when we start writing a story.

Here’s my problem with the term “journalistic objectivity.”  Nobody, no matter how hard they try, can see through eyes other than their own. No journalist is a tabula rasa on which the facts of a story can be written. We write through cultural filters, and we can’t help it.

Our culture defines who we are and how we see things. Two people raised in two different cultures can draw completely different conclusions on the exact same set of facts. And in their cultural setting, each would be correct. In 1991 researchers Markus and Kitayama concluded that culture “can influence and in many cases determine the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion and motivation.”

This research is becoming real to me as I get to know the father of my granddaughter. I am the product of married, middle-class, college-educated, Caucasian parents, and grew up in the suburbs of a city in the northeast. He is African American, and grew up welfare-poor in rural southeast Kansas. His mother was 14-years-old when he was born, and he was raised by his grandmother. Both he and his father have spent time in jail. Last summer he lived with us for a few weeks. In that time my eyes were opened to a completely different way of thinking. I found my jaw dropping into my lap quite often, as he routinely spoke of things that I consider criminal/anti-social/reprehensible as a normal way of life. Most memorable was the time he spoke of a friend who “disappeared” after he cooperated with the police in the investigation of the death of an acquaintance. It was just another every-day occurence for him. I hope he couldn’t see how mortified I was.

If, as Markus and Kitayama concluded, culture is deterministic on our cognition and the way we interpret facts and events, how can we hope to be objective in journalism, or any kind of communication?

Cindy Olsen


2 Comments so far
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We can’t be truly “objective” in journalism. It’s an impossible goal. But one definitely worth pursuing.

You said it best, “Two people raised in two different cultures can draw completely different conclusions on the exact same set of facts.”

It’s the journalist’s job to supply this set of facts – as unfiltered as possible. Readers then have the opportunity to “unobjectively” draw their own conclusions. Protecting such freedom to think critically is crucial to democracy.

Yes, we are human. Cognitively, we’re set up to categorize our environment. But we “can” help it. We can be trained to question even our own perceptions. Good journalists learn how to do this. They aren’t perfect, but they get as close to the “truth” as they can. And it makes a difference.

Besides, what’s democratic about letting others do our thinking for us?

Cheri L.

Thoughts on objectivity from BBC Global News Director Richard Sambrook: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/speeches/stories/sambrook_poliak.shtml

Comment by CheriL

Thanks for sharing the BBC speech. I found that I share two beliefs with Richard Sambrook. First is that journalistic objectivity has its downside. He states, “…objective news may be part of the problem, providing more threats and questions rather than answers.” Too many “unfiltered” facts without the guidance of interpretation becomes overwhelming and even paralyzing.

The other thing I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with him on is the requirement for transparency in journalism. Transparency in news journalism helps build a relationship with the audience, and can become a filter through which the audience can learn to trust how a reporter is presenting facts. You can be trained all you want in how to present the facts objectively, but you’ll never be able to be truly free of bias. Placing your biases out front and center allows the audience to understand and work through them with you.

Cindy O

Comment by cindyol

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