Journalism: "Objectivity"

Will hypertext compromise journalism? That question rests on the possibility that stories told in the manner described here will be less fair, less credible — even less factual — than traditional print journalism.

Journalists often use the term "objectivity" as a shorthand to represent all matters concerning fairness, credibility, and accuracy. Many argue that "objectivity" went out of fashion in the mid-20th century as intellectuals conceded that all people (including journalists) have biases, sometime after Merleau-Ponty rejected the Husserlian construct of bracketing one's lived experience. Journalistic objectivity, nevertheless, retains currency as an ideal and sometimes as a competitive weapon (Mindich, 1998).

To approach the question of objectivity in hypertext, it will be useful first to determine the journalistic practices in which objectivity might apply. Gauthier (1993) reasoned that:

  • Objectivity can be applied only to "straight news reporting" (e.g., not to opinion pieces, advocacy journalism, analysis, or commentary);
  • Objectivity does not apply to news gathering (a news story "cannot ... be an exact replica" of events); and
  • Objectivity does not apply to the "formal and material constraints affecting the press" — while such constraints can and do hamper journalists, they do not make objectivity impossible.

Having eliminated those aspects of the practice of journalism, there is one more to be considered, which concerns the basic relationship between the journalist and the facts reported — "the way the journalist processes information" (Gauthier, 1993).

The practices of the journalist in selecting (and omitting) and presenting (or ordering) information — the practices of authoring — constitute the situation in which objectivity might be applied.

According to press critic Jay Rosen, "What is insidious and crippling about objectivity is when journalists say: 'We just present you with facts. We don't make judgments. We don't have any values ourselves.' That is dangerous and wrongheaded" (Glaberson, 1994).

The structure of a news story is largely determined by the values of the journalist and journalism institutions; these values affect the decisions made in the act of authoring. Because a hypertext structure is multilinear — a collection of linked components — the standards of fairness and balance, and implications of bias and influence, will be manifest in the links themselves (Fredin, 1997).