How PR pros should approach objectivity in news
“The traditional notion of objectivity has lost its power to define the highest standards of journalism.”
Tom Corfman is an attorney and senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group.
Journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said: “There is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
Fifty years later, a former Washington Post executive editor and a former CBS News president agree.
What’s almost as surprising is that some public relations people still cling to the notion that a reporter’s job is to state facts, not draw conclusions. Let the audience members make up their minds, as the saying goes.
Yet for PR people, such expectations result in frustration and disappointment, working against the trust that’s essential to success. It’s time to change their tactics – and adjust their clients’ expectations –to a development that’s been in the works for years.
Leonard Downie Jr., who retired from the Post in 2008, and Andrew Heyward, who stepped down from CBS in 2005, describe the current state of journalism this way: “The traditional notion of objectivity has lost its power to define the highest standards of journalism.”
Their 54-page report raises valid criticisms of the news business although its conclusions have been challenged in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Our concern is less about who’s right and who’s wrong and more about what PR people need to do about it.
“Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms” is based on more than 75 interviews with journalists, news executives and academics. It was published by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where both authors are on the faculty.
Their solution? Reporters should “strive not just for accuracy, but for truth.”
“Accuracy starts with a commitment to verifiable facts, with no compromises. But facts, while true, aren’t necessarily the whole truth,” the report says. “Therefore, your journalists must consider multiple perspectives to provide context where needed.”
In sum, reporters should draw conclusions ― the “truth” ― if they believe those conclusions are based on information that is accurate and can be confirmed, the report says. While obliged to consider both sides, reporters are not required to give them equal weight.
Their proposal actually is not that dramatic. Their critics bemoan a change that began in the late 1960s when journalists became dissatisfied with traditional reporting.
Even the Society of Professional Journalists, hardly known as an advocate of Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, acknowledged the transition more than a quarter century ago. The organization dropped “objectivity” from its ethics code in 1996. Reporters no longer were expected to seek “the truth.” Instead, they simply seek “truth.”
Traditional reporting emphasizes the first four of the 5 W’s: “Who, What, When and Where.” More recently, reporters stress the fifth W and an H: “Why and How.”
To better connect with their audiences, journalists have adopted storytelling techniques: focusing on a protagonist, finding the point of tension in a story, explaining what a story means and why it’s important. They include analysis and interpretation. Sometimes, reporters describe why what’s happened is bad or, less often, good.
Even if a story is supported by “verifiable facts,” such conclusions expand the opportunity for disagreement and accusations of subjectivity.
“This new understanding of objectivity attempted to draw a line between journalists’ professional judgments (O.K. to include in a news report) and their personal opinions (not O.K.),” Mathew Pressman, a journalism professor at Seton Hall University, wrote in 2018.
Point of view
Some folks would call this approach “point-of-view journalism,” although there’s no formal definition. One telltale sign is a nut graph, a paragraph near the beginning of a story that explains “in a nutshell” what the story is about. Borrowed from magazine profile stories, the nut graph has become a common feature in business reporting.
Downie and Heyward blame a belief in objectivity for recent flaws in reporting on climate change and election fraud claims. Moreover, they say objectivity has been defined by white men, who for decades ran newsrooms and still have significant influence there. While not mentioned in the report, business journalism has not escaped criticism.
“The business model for mainstream news publications, where most consumers and business owners get their business news, is broken not just from a financial standpoint but from a coverage standpoint and from a trust and bias standpoint,” Chris Roush, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University, wrote in a book published last year.
We’re compiling our list of tips to help PR folks adapt to point-of-view journalism, such as: educate your reporters, ask more questions and acknowledge the change. While the list isn’t done, the most important tip is likely to be this: Build relationships with the reporters that cover your organization.
Thompson denied the existence of objectivity in his groundbreaking chronicle, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” At the same time, he noted “the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations.”
Anybody who’s picked up a newspaper lately knows those are disappearing, too.
Approach with caution. If you aggressively speed ahead with too much bravado, it can cost you too much of your money. Plus your job and some of your self respect.
The judge of whether something is libelous may be a jury, not you.
Go to those PR Daily conferences and listen to every word instead of enjoying the abundant social life available with many others in PR above and below you (so to speak).