Impartial or point-of-view

A fundamental question for journalists is whether their reporting will follow the “impartial” — or “objective” — model, seeking to be impartial toward any political or social beliefs, or the “point-of- view” model, where their journalism proceeds from certain core beliefs.

Why choose impartial journalism?

Since World War II, the more traditional journalistic approach has been objectivity or impartiality. Supporters of this tradition feel it is the most honest form of reporting, attempting to lay out all sides of the issue fairly so that readers can make their own decisions. Reporters and editors following an objective model generally conceal their personal political beliefs and their opinions on controversial issues.

Objective journalism does not require so-called “he said, she said” reporting that just cites the arguments or each side without seeking to draw any conclusions. Objective reporters can judge the weight of evidence on various sides of a dispute and tailor accordingly the amount of space they give various opinions. There is no need to provide “false equivalence” — treating every opinion equally.

News media following the objective model may express opinions in clearly labeled editorials, commentaries and cartoons, but those views should not affect the organization’s news reports.

Why choose point-of-view journalism?

Opponents of the objective model say no one can be totally objective, and that journalists do no favor for their audiences by trying to hide their opinions. The opinions come out anyhow, they say, either “between the lines” or in the very selection of stories to cover.

The most popular alternative to the objective journalism model is often known as point-of-view. It holds that journalists may have and express a point of view, and seek to inspire action or change. With that in mind, they must be transparent with the reader about what they believe and why, and disclose links they may have to organizations and individuals with similar points of view.

Some issues to consider

There is still a line, however, between point-of-view journalism on one hand and outright advocacy and propaganda on the other. Even a point-of-view journalist should honestly report facts and opinions at variance with her point of view. Often the biggest distinction between an impartial and point-of-view journalist is in the subjects each writes about. Impartial journalists adhere to an idea of “newsworthiness” that covers a wide range of topics; point-of-view journalists often choose stories that serve to validate their own interests or perspectives.

In some countries or cultures, point-of-view journalism may extend to a belief that a journalist’s job is to advance the interests of a nation, ethnic group, religion or social cause. Journalists can still report honestly, but they proceed from the position that the cause they favor should be encouraged and respected.

Your answer as to whether you want to be “impartial” or “point-of-view” will heavily influence your ethics code. Among other matters, it will help determine how you address issues such as:

One size will not fit all on these points. Even if a journalist has a particular point of view, he may still not want to overtly back a specific party or candidate, or to influence the outcome of every issue. The key thing is to clearly define what your policies will be and be public about them.

The ethical choices for deciding between impartial and point-of-view journalism are in the related post “What is the Nature of Your Journalism?

This essay was written by Tom Kent.