You hear it all the time – reporters should be objective and fair. Some news organizations even use these terms in their slogans, claimed that they are more “fair and balanced” than their competitors. But what is objectivity, and what does it mean to be fair and balanced?
Objectivity means that when covering hard news, reporters don’t convey their own feelings, biases or prejudices in their stories. They accomplish this by writing stories using a language that is neutral and avoids characterizing people or institutions in ways good or bad.
But for the beginning reporter accustomed to writing personal essays or journal entries, it can be hard to keep one’s own feelings out of one’s stories. One trap beginning reporters fall into is the frequent use of adjectives. Adjectives can easily convey one’s feelings about a subject, subconsciously or otherwise.
The intrepid protesters demonstrated against the unjust government policies.
Just by using the words “intrepid” and “unjust” the writer has quickly conveyed his feelings on the story – the protesters are brave and just in their cause, the government policies are wrong. For this reason, hard-news reporters usually avoid using adjectives in their stories.
Fairness means that reporters covering a story must remember there are usually two sides – and often more – to most issues, and that those differing viewpoints should be given roughly equal space in any news story.
Let’s say the local school board is holding a public forum examining whether to ban certain books from the school libraries. Many people from the community are in attendance, and there are citizens representing both sides of the issue.
The reporter covering that event may have strong feelings about the subject. But regardless of his feelings, he should interview both those citizens who support the ban, and those who oppose it. And when he writes his story, he should convey both arguments in a neutral language, giving both sides roughly equal space in his story.
A Reporter’s Conduct
Objectivity and fairness apply not only to how a reporter writes about an issue, but also to how he conducts himself in public. That means a reporter must not only be objective and fair but also convey an image of being objective and fair.
Let’s go back to that school board forum. The reporter may do his level best to interview people from both sides of the argument, but if, in the middle of the meeting, he stands up and starts spouting his own opinions on the book ban then his credibility is shattered. No one will believe he can be fair and objective once they know where he stands on the issue.
The moral of the story? Keep your opinions to yourself. For more on this, you can find a reporter’s code of conduct here.
A Few Caveats
There are a few caveats to remember when considering objectivity and fairness. First, such rules apply to reporters covering so-called hard news, or straight news stories, for the main news section of the newspaper or website. Obviously they don’t apply to the political columnist writing for the op-ed page, or to the movie critic working for the arts section, both of whom make a living giving their opinions on a daily basis.
Second, remember that ultimately, reporters are in search of the truth. And while objectivity and fairness are important, a reporter shouldn’t let them get in the way of finding the truth.
Here’s an extreme example: Let’s say you’re a reporter covering the final days of World War II, and are following the Allied forces as they liberate the concentration camps. You enter one such camp and witness hundreds of gaunt, emaciated people and piles of dead bodies seemingly everywhere.
Do you, in an effort to be objective, interview an American soldier to talk about how horrific this is, then interview a Nazi official to get the other side of the story? Of course not. Clearly, this is a place where evil acts have been committed, and it’s your job as a reporter to convey that truth.
In other words, use objectivity and fairness as tools to find the truth. That’s your goal as a reporter.