Objectivity, Subjectivity and Journalism: Then and Now

For the better part of the 20th century, journalism was rightfully anchored by the need to report news the way it happened. But what started as a professional ideal in the 1920s slowly eroded as journalists by and large by the 1940s and 50s had become mere stenographers – reporting what the ones in power said or did. Such “he-said-she-said journalism” lacked context and deeper analysis.

But we now live in an age where leaders lie brazenly in public, where citizens stand more polarised than ever before and where even genuine protests against exclusionary power structures are dismissed as motivated and partisan.

In this post-truth era, where it is increasingly difficult to sift between truth, myth and outright lies, how does one determine the facts? Moreover, is what one considers gospel really what another would accept at face value?

The nature of the news media today requires journalists across different mediums to maintain an online presence to leverage the power of social media to enhance the reach of their writings.

But this also requires them to engage with others on those platforms – and they end up expressing opinions and taking stands on different issues.

Most regular readers or viewers are thus already aware of where journalists stand, or are just a Twitter profile away from being enlightened. Every opinion passes through sepia-tinted or saffron-tinted lens, so any and all efforts to portray objectivity – even when restricted to simple reporting – are impacted.

Also read: How Does a Young Journalist Navigate This New State of Journalism?

Objectivity attempted to ensure consistent means of news gathering, but it is unrealistic to presume that journalists can shed their inherent biases and prejudices all the time. Like Hunter S. Thompson, the ‘gonzo’ journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, wrote in his book covering the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign:

“…there is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

British conservative journalist Peter Hitchens was also quite prescient when he wrote:

“[The] supposedly impartial interpretation of the news has become one of the most powerful tools of modern propaganda.”

Thus, the only way forward is to acknowledge the situation on hand and admit that there exist opinions which might either be adversarial or pro-establishment in nature.

Subjectivity should therefore take precedence, and media outlets have a responsibility towards their audience to represent diverse views. To put things in perspective, anything newsworthy requires interpretation on part of the journalist and therefore, the interpretation should be done on reasoning and logic, regardless of the conclusions.

Of course, this presumes that news outlets indulge in fact-checking before presenting readers with their stories. The emergence of in-house fact-checking teams to combat fake news suggests that media houses are concerned about the integrity of their reportage and public perception – a welcome trend.

Such subjectivity takes into account different points of view and is far better suited to the realities of the times. 

As Roland Barthes once said:

“The lures of subjectivity are better than the impostures of objectivity.”

Abhinav Chakraborty is a student of print journalism at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Featured imaged credit: David Werbrouck/Unsplash