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  • Jountol of Moss Media Ethics Vol. 10. No. 1, pp. 5-22

    Copyright 1995 by Lawrence Erlbaurn Associates, Inc.

    Existential Objectivity: Freeing Journalists

    to be Ethical By Kevin Stoker

    Universfty of North Carolina at Greensboro

    0 fournnlists enjoy unprecedentedfreedomfrom government interferenc~ to gnfher factsfrom sources, but journnlistic tradition and custom restrict thefreedom of jom- nnlists to report fact as they see it. Tllis study m'ticnlly examines the concept of objcc- tivity and pmposes an alternative philosophy for encournging ethical belmvior. The first section of thearticlefocuses on the ideologic01 and ocorpalionnl origins of objectivity nnd idenfifes the conflict between these two perspectives. Next, the study reoiews contemporn y literature in rqard to objectivity, showing how the concept has molved, and why objectivity as II journnlistic norm needs remnllmtion. Third, the study pro- poses linking the ocnrpntional norms and standards of objective journalism with a "subjective existentialism," which is more consistent with H I E ideologicnl definition of objectimty. Finally, the study proposes that jmrrldists improve ethicnl behnvior by developing an existentinl ethic emphasizing individunl responsibilihj.

    Michelle Caruso had covered enough crime news for the Boston Herald to recognize that the Stuart murder case was a bit too unusual (Lydon, 1990). From the beginning, she noted that it did not make sense that a gun- man would shoot and kill Carol Stuart and then shoot her burly, ex-foot- ball player husband in the side and leave him alive. Her doubts increased as she listened to the 13-min tape of Stuart's emergency call to 9ll. "I said to myself, 'Buddy, there's something wrong here"' (p. 57). More investiga- tion convinced Caruso that Charles Stuart should have been the lead sus- pect in the killing. But law enforcement officials apparently bought Charles Stuart's story and arrested Willie Bennett, a Black man identified by Stuart. Boston papers reported that Bennett was the chief suspect. Quoting un- named police officials, Boston Globe columnist Mike Bamicle trumpeted the police's case against Bennett (Bamicle, 1990). He also would later defend the police investigation after Bennett was exonerated.

    Meanwhile, Caruso failed to find evidence that the police investigation had considered the husband as a suspect. Without a credible source, the Herald refused to publish her story "We came one inch away from writing a story about all the doubts I had" (Lydon, 1990, p. 59). Caruso wanted a

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  • 6 Existential Objectivity law enforcement or forensic expert to cast doubt on the case. The public doesn't understand, she lamented, that "a reporter can't writehis own opin- ions" (p. 58). In essence, the rules of objectivity moved Camso from actor to spectator. Guided by p u p norms, Camso was relegated to what existen- tialists would term an "inauthentic existence" (Copleston, 1985, p. 347). Glasser (1984) said the rules of objectivity create amoral journalists because those rules prohibit them from making decisions based on their moral obli- gations to humanity. This is equivalent to asking journalists to relinquish their individuality and humanity. "To fail to be human would mean to slip into nothingness," declared Karl Jaspers (1975) in a 1941 lecture (p. 168).

    Caruso's humanity-her own instinct to perceive objective truth- proved accurate. On January 4,1990, after Stuart's brother l i e d him to the murder, Charles committed suicide. C m s o still questioned her own

    ability to draw conclu- sions based on the evidence she had gathered. She said, "What if we'd been wrong?" But she ad- mitted that the Herald probably would have

    printed her suspicions if an official source, speaking on or off the record, had backed up her story. The official sources, however, bought Stuart's story and the press passed that information on to the public. The accuracy of the information was measured by the credibility or official status of the source and not on the individual investigation of the journalist. Journalists may enjoy unprecedented freedom from government interference, but they restrict their own freedom to report fact as they see it.

    The Origins of Objectivity In the 1830s, the emergence of the Penny Press changed the face of jour-

    nalism. Penny papers appealed to the masses with affordable prices, inno- vative distribution techniques, and snappy writing. Editor~wners, such as James Gordon Bennett, recognized that news helped to sell newspapers (Mott, 1961). The Penny Press planted the seeds for the separation of fact- based stories from editorials. By the end of the century, news moved to the forefront, and opinions retreated farther back in the paper.

    The introduction of the telegraph, press associations, and professionalization of journalists influenced the development of objectiv- ity as a guiding norm for news coverage. Schudson (1990) noted that, in the 1890s, reporters beganpridingthemselves in their devotion to the facts.

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  • Stoker 7 Reporters, Schudson said, "believed that facts of themselves, once revealed, would lead to right thought and right action" (p. 25). By the late 1800s, Stensaas (1986-1987) found one third of the news stories in a sample of metropolitan newspapers adhered to the tenets of objectivity. After World War I, that number doubled. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, 80% of the news stories reflected objectivity.

    The compatibility of objectivity and improved news coverage was re- flected in the transformation of The New York Times. In 1904, Adolph Ochs gave Carr Van Anda a free reign over the paper's news operation. Van Anda expanded the newspaper's coverage of new technologies and sci- ence ("Cam V. Van Anda," 1945). Irwin (1942) said Van Anda also applied an empirical, scientific approach to news gathering and reporting. Van Anda said too much literary quality, including humor, blurred the reader's con- fidence in the "reliability of what he was reading" (p. 114), and Van Anda suppressed "all traces of witty or humomus writing" (p. 114). It was said that "the Timesemployed copy readers for the sole purpose of xuininggood copy" (p. 114). The Times became known as the world's greatest dull paper. Testifying before a Senate committee, Van Anda said reporters are not al- lowed to express their opinions or take sides in news copy. "They may state the facts, but inferences are to be left to the editorial page or to the understanding of the reader" (Fie, 1968, p p 74-75). The success of the Times, combined with its position as a trendsetter for the US. press, helped validate objective reporting.

    During the 1920s and 1930s, however, two distinct definitions of objectiv- ity emerged--one based on theory and ideology and the other on rules and pragmatism. Two of the most influential opinion leaders of these disparate definitions were New York World's editorial editor Walter Lippmann and jour- nalism educator and textbook writer Nelson Crawford. Lippmann (1931) described reporters as well-trained professionals who did not serve any cause, but used objective realities to explain and interpret the news. Crawford (1924), on the other hand, labeled the dissemination of objective facts as the primary role of journalism. Crawford said that no matter how objective people try to be, they are likely misled at critical moments by their own philosophies and private interests unless "guided by some defi- nite standard" (p. 101). Thus, to ensure fairness and balance, Crawford wrote, news organizations should establish and maintain "specific rules as to what sort of news must be printed" (p. 101).

    In contrast, Lippmann (1931) expected objectivity to emancipate joumal- ism "from hidden control" and "subserviency to the whims of the public" (p. 440). Thus, objectivity would place more responsibility in the trained intelligence of reporters and editors. This implies that the individual jour-

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  • 8 Existential Objectivity nalist would have the freedom not only to uncover the facts but also the intellectual tools necessary to make objective judgments. Objectivity also would protect journalists from the increasing influence of public relations practitioners, whose numbers multiplied greatly after World War 1. Schudson (1990) said, "Public relations threatened the very idea of fair reporting" (p. 252). Lippmann's mentor, Frank 1. Cobb (1919), editor of the N m York World, said postwar newspapers became tools of the public relations people and propagandists. Newspapers, he added, skim the surface, failing to drive to "the heart of things," and a reporter rarely "gets under the skin of great events" (Cobb, 1919, p. 147).

    In Public Opinion, Lippmann (1922) compared reporting to "the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision" (p. 229). This definition focuses on the individual obligations and mponsibilities of the journalist to give the reader background, evidence, causes, interpretation, and explanation. This defi- nition is espoused but not necessarily practiced in America's newsrooms. Argyris and Schon (1974) found that what managers say they do is often unconnected to their actions. Newspaper editors may perceive objectivity as rational, open, and democratic, but the concept is more often governed by competition, c

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