Reading the guide to Editorial ethics for Twitter journalists on the Media Helping Media site this morning I saw the old but extremely important chestnut about impartiality featured quite strongly. MHM says “journalists need to be objective and impartial and keep their own opinions firmly under wraps”, especially where “controversial” issues are concerned.
I’ve always said the idea of journalistic impartiality is a myth – the very designation of an issue as “controversial” involves making a value judgement after all. My approach has always been to make clear what is opinion and what is fact, to declare an interest where I think it could significantly impact on how I see something, and to argue for diversity in order to allow different views to be aired.
Get things in perspective
I’ve always found the NUJ Code of Conduct a much better guide. It says a journalist should “differentiate between fact and opinion” and should strive “to ensure information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair”. Some might say looking to a trade union for guidance on this sort of issue is in itself a value judgement. I make no secret of my support for progressive trade unionism, but those simple clauses were constructed through the experience of working journalists and, as such, I would argue they provide a much better guide than a questionable notion of impartiality.
There are those among my colleagues who get very annoyed about this, but I’ve always seen this notion of ‘the impartial journalist’ as something of a conceit. We cannot, any more than any other human being, be entirely neutral about what we see. The information we select, the angle we pursue, the conclusions we draw, the connections we make, the perspective we adopt – all of these things are informed by our own feelings, opinions and experiences.
Neutral is not a colour
So to pretend that journalists are somehow able to suspend all of that and approach a story in a completely neutral manner is, I believe, a nonsense. Of course, we must be careful to try and ensure we really are “honestly conveying” information and “differentiating between fact and opinion”. I often find this process is helped by declaring an interest, a perspective or a point of view so that readers are left in no doubt that there is some element of the subjective in what I write.
All this is important for a number of reasons. Efforts to be “impartial” lead almost inevitably, in my opinion, to the forming of a consensus around establishment views, or the status quo if you prefer a less loaded term. While I am a supporter of the idea of public service broadcasting and the BBC, for example, I’ve never felt the corporation was anything other than a voice for the establishment. I still go to the BBC as a trusted news source, but I will also read other media – particularly if industrial or political issues are being covered. Those other media have a more upfront point of view, and I don’t always agree with them, but taken together the various sources help to form a picture.
This is not, I know, a new argument. One of my earliest heroes – a description I am sure he would shudder at – is John Pilger, a journalist who has argued this point much more eloquently than me. He says: “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it.” Pretending any of us can be impartial actually increases the possibility that opinion is presented as fact. It helps to push the idea that one subjective view of the world is in fact ‘the truth’, and in so doing reinforces the status quo rather than questioning it. It marginalises rather than includes.
It also creates problems for journalists. The idea that no journalist should really have a point of view, and certainly should not be politically-engaged, is another that is strongly held. And yet it could be argued that the nature of journalism is far more likely to lead a person to form opinions about what they see, and to seek to influence the world they interpret. Good journalists such as John Pilger are dismissed in some quarters because they are politically engaged – itself a value judgement. And the view that ‘good journalists’ should not have any point of view that could remotely construed as ‘political’ has led to some ugly exchanges in the current ballot for the editorship of the NUJ magazine.
New urgency in the debate
An example of the kind of knots the trade ties itself in while pursuing this impossible ideal can be seen by reading through the BBC’s 12 guiding principles to impartiality. You can see what the BBC was trying to achieve, but what emerges is a rather too literal interpretation of Boyzone’s observation that “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”.
As the debate over the impact of new forms of creating and consuming media calls into question the very concept of the journalist, this old debate is given new urgency. Because there are a set of values and a framework of awareness that can be applied to gathering and disseminating information that can and should be applied in order to distinguish journalism from what is simply communication. (And note that I am not arguing that one is always or necessarily better than the other – that’s another article). One of the most important is that the myth of impartiality hinders, rather than helps, us.