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FOX News, MSNBC and Journalistic Objectivity

The Difference Between Objective Reporting and Reporting Opinions

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This is a confusing time for journalism students. Professors stress the importance of objectivity in reporting, but some of the most prominent journalists in the country - the hosts of cable TV talk shows - are anything but objective.

So what's going on?

What's going on is that two of the three main cable news channels - FOX News and MSNBC - have discovered that opinion-based talk shows get high ratings. High ratings mean more money for these networks, so there's little incentive for either FOX or MSNBC to change their formats any time soon.

FOX, on the one hand, is the conservative alternative for people who believe the so-called mainstream media have a liberal bent. Its shows, led by ratings king Bill O'Reilly, offer viewers a steady diet of right-of-center commentary delivered with plenty of attitude and verbal sparring.

MSNBC, meanwhile, has in recent years positioned itself as the liberal alternative to FOX. Indeed, its primetime host, Keith Olbermann, often targets O'Reilly in his show's "World's Worst Person" segment.

There's a reason O'Reilly, Olbermann and their ilk are popular - they're entertaining. But their shows, along with others on both networks, have little to do with objective reporting.

What is Objective Reporting?

Objective reporting is a bit like science. Just as a scientist starts with a theory, then subjects that theory to experimentation to see if the theory holds up, a reporter starts out with an idea for a story, then gathers facts - reports - to see if that idea passes muster.

A good journalist knows that while she may start out with a preconceived idea about a story, she'll have to toss that idea aside if her reporting indicates that something else is going on.

An Example

Let's say a reporter is working on a profile of the town's mayor, a popular figure with a natural charisma who projects an image as a down-to-earth family man. The reporter starts out her reporting expecting to find just that. She may even share the mayor's political views and have voted for him.

But as she does her interviews this reporter discovers a very different reality: Behind the scenes, the mayor is a brusque and obnoxious taskmaster who belittles his underlings and political opponents.

Obviously, the story she produces must paint a very different picture from the one she expected to portray, one that's different from the image the mayor would like to project. But that's what objective reporting is all about.

Cable news talk shows, on the other hand, have very little to do with objective reporting. Instead, they feature heated debates between guests with strong opinions on everything from foreign policy to the economy to gun control and abortion. Objective facts - about, say, whether a particular policy or program is actually effective or good for the country - rarely enter into these discussions. It's more about who can shout their opinions the loudest.

Again, the shows can be very entertaining. Viewers often get a vicarious thrill at seeing one combatant out-debate another, but they rarely learn very much objective information about the topic in question. The debates shed more heat than light.

Objective reporting should be about getting at the truth of the matter, whenever possible. Is the policy effective or not? Would the legislation improve the lives of the citizens or not? Usually, the truth is complicated; a policy or program may help some while hurting others.

But objective reporting is about putting aside one's own political leanings and finding those answers. It's not about echoing the thoughts of ideologues whose entrenched opinions will never change, even in the face of evidence - reporting - that contradicts those opinions.

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