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The Political Economy of Journalistic Objectivity


Sydney Forde (@SydneyForde) is a PhD Candidate in Mass Communications at Penn State University.

In the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, leaked emails from some of the nation’s largest newspaper organizations instructed journalists that they were not to take a position on the ruling. Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, reminded its staff that – as per the company’s ethical guidelines – they were barred from using social media “to take a political position” or “express personal feelings about an outcome or ruling” because “readers turn to us for unbiased coverage.” The New York Times sent a note to some of its staff explaining that “[i]f our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” Beyond the censorship impact on journalists—roughly half of whom had just been stripped of a fundamental right to bodily autonomy—the push for “unbiased” and “objective” journalism should concern all Americans who advocate for a democratic press. Often lauded as the cornerstone of American journalism, the ideal of journalistic objectivity enshrined in corporate newsrooms primarily serves the bottom line, rather than an informed public.

The Origins of Objectivity

What most conceive of as objectivity today—an idealist mode of journalistic production that separates the personal biases of reporters from a knowable “Truth” void of perception—has been a mainstay of modern American newsroom ethics over the past century and a half. Many have attributed this de-personalized style of reporting to Walter Lippmann, pointing to his advocacy for an “objective” and “professional” press in the 1920s. Yet this detached approach to journalism is perhaps the furthest thing from what Lippmann actually proposed. He stringently pushed back against many practices that have been normalized through the quest for a “naturalized science” application of objectivity, such as the blind adoption of “official” sources and the forced false equivalency of issues. He advocated for honest reporting that was courageous and held power to account—noting “there can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil”—and believed that the most important role of journalists was to provide an honest understanding of the world, rather than leave such rendering to commercial or partisan accounts. His emphasis on “professional” journalism alluded to the need to systemize these values into the profession that he believed was synonymous with a functioning democracy—a stark contrast to the desire to strip all human experiences from the profession in the name of remaining “neutral.”

If the supposed founder of “professional” journalism didn’t support the principles of neutrality that modern newsrooms aggressively abide by, how exactly did we get here? Until the end of the 19th century, journalism was largely a partisan affair. In 1850, for instance, census data found that over 95% of American newspapers were politically affiliated, a situation explained by the fact that revenue was almost entirely generated by the actual sales of papers, which gave newspapers a strong incentive to differentiate their product to consumers.

As the end of the century approached, newspaper organizations underwent a significant change in revenue stream and partisan reporting gave way to a neutered perspective. Rather than appeal to only the readers who align with a specific political perspective (an inherently divisive approach in America’s two-party system), newspapers began targeting a broader audience, one which would be maximally receptive to advertisers. As The New York Evening Post put it in 1898, strongly partisan newspapers simply could not sell advertising space. Or as renowned investigative-journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian explained, “newspapers neutralized information for fear that strong news and views pleasing to one part of the audience might offend another part and thus reduce the circulation on which advertising rates depend.”

In our current digital age, solely relying on these once lucrative commercial means of advertising or direct competition is simply not an option. While the shift online has ensured that larger audiences are exposed to a higher number of demographically targeted ads, those hosting the ads receive what scholars have described as “digital dimes over analogue dollars”. Compared to classified print ads that required a large investment to reach broader readers, digital ads can narrow in on only those who meet the outlined requirements of the advertiser, and thus only pay for select exposures. Further, massive platforms devour the bulk of digital advertising revenue, with Facebook and Google controlling over 70% of the total US online advertising market. As a result, over the past two decades, the industry has witnessed a massive decline in advertising revenue—from nearly $49 billion in 2000 to below $10 billion in 2020.

In an attempt to adjust to the collapse of the advertising model and the increased competition of the digital age, partisan media has seemingly made a comeback as a viable business strategy. As demonstrated by a recent PEW study, Republicans and Democrats operate in two nearly inverse news media environments. In addition to shifting back towards the partisan-based siphoning of news, many organizations have erected (often substantial) paywalls as an additional way to support the high cost of “hard”, investigative and democratically centred news. While one of the more effective ways to support the production of news (with subscription revenue surpassing ad revenue in 2020), this exclusionary approach limits good journalism to only those who can afford it, and requires a level of pandering to audiences in an increasingly competitive market – two tactics that cut against the democratic function of the fourth estate.

Organizations are thus clambering to piece together a patchwork of business tactics and revenue sources – partisanship appeals, advertising (including the troubling increase of native advertising), subscription models and, curiously, “objective” neutral reporting – as the journalism industry sinks further into a state of market failure. Even while the industry operates in an extremely divided state, the prioritization of maintaining an image of “unbiased” coverage meant to cast the widest audience net possible is, time and time again, prioritized over allowing journalists to do what they do best – investigate, critique, call out, and hold power to account. A mode of communicative objectivity can therefore be understood as simply an additional means for news organizations to maximize dwindling profits while serving the economic status quo. In other words, attempting to silence journalists from voicing opinions on a human rights issue that has been made partisan, large news organizations are neutralizing information so as to offend the fewest possible readers. In this service of offending no one, journalists eventually came to stop serving anyone, save the balance sheets of their owners.

The Democratic Function of News

While this emphasis on “unbiased” and “objective” journalism serves an important function in maintaining the bottom-line, it is worth reflecting on whether it effectively informs the American public. Scholars have emphasized that the role of public engagement in democracy should be to encourage debate, not to simply supply the public with information. The late C. Edwin Baker noted that, in this sense, “objectivity may be fundamentally at odds with democracy as a type of government and an approach to life.” Indeed, the standard has been increasingly criticized for presenting information in a way that does little to effectively educate or inform citizens, to the extent that the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) recently removed “objectivity” from its ethical code.

The solution to fixing the industry’s attachment to corporate-objectivity thus relies on addressing its driving force—the economic incentives of news organizations—which means acknowledging the current financial crisis of the American journalism industry. The United States has been described as “unique among western democracies in its near complete reliance on commercial media,” and consistently ranks as having the lowest per-capita public media funding amongst similar western democratic nations. This substantial dependence on commercial funding, in addition to impacting editorial content, has contributed to growing news deserts, a decline of trust in news, increased media consolidation, and a less engaged public.

Since the covid-19 pandemic accelerated the financial collapse of the American sector, congress has introduced multiple bills aiming to address the need to increase support for journalism. One of the bills—the Future of Local News Act—proposes an in-depth study of news environments across the country, including the exploration of new mechanisms for the public funding of journalism. Scholars have established the importance of strong public media spending on the democratic health of a nation, both of which the United States has recently struggled to secure. But it is important that a rethinking of journalism also involves a rethinking of what it serves.

American journalism that prioritizes democracy over profits would, ideally, focus on the truthful and thorough contextualization of news in order to inform and educate readers, a process that inherently includes taking into consideration the biases held by journalists as unique individuals, and addressing those biases wherever possible. The issue, of course, is that this form of reporting is both time consuming (thus expensive), and not particularly stimulating as compared to the fast paced, sensationalized norm within an industry trying to attract as many eyeballs as possible. The prospect of strengthening American public media through increased funding allocations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (as exceptionally articulated in one recent proposal) would in turn remove, or at the very least alleviate, the economic pressure journalism organizations are constrained by – including the stripping of all democratic meaning through a gauze of widely marketable “objectivity.”