Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Should Journalists be Impartial?

Recently, Lewis Wallace was fired for republishing a blog article that he was ordered to take down. Lewis is a radio journalist for the National Public Radio show Marketplace, and also writes a blog on Medium. On his blog, he declared “neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too.” Marketplace’s ethics code requires impartiality, or remaining neutral and not interjecting your own opinion on a subject. They are required to avoid being political, not only in their pieces but also in their lives; they cannot go to rallies, donate to candidates or publicly support a candidate. This is designed to take away their partiality, or at least, the appearance of partiality. Few, I suspect, would argue that they don’t have opinions. Is Lewis right and is it impossible for these opinions not to spill over in some way?

The traditional view of impartial journalism is globally influential. The Media Ethics Charter from the Journalists Trade Union in Poland’s requires journalists to report on different viewpoints and to report independent of one’s own views. Similarly, the Media Alliance Code of Ethics from Australia disallows personal beliefs to influence the journalists reporting.

How much does impartiality matter? It affects more than just a particular newscaster or author; it affects the entire institution and the public’s perception of them. The New York Times’ code on Ethical Journalism states as its first introductory point that news must be covered “as impartially as possible.” It’s overarching goal is to protect the reputation of the New York Times. Thus the appearance of impartiality matters as it serves to protect an institution’s reputation. However, despite the widespread dedication to impartiality in journalism, many people will look at any given news source and say they are “liberal” or “conservative.” Different takes on this could include: news sources are not being impartial enough, there is an inherent limit on our ability to be impartial, or people's perception of these sources as partial is wrong.

Can impartiality even truly exist? A different way of presenting news is to embrace partiality and to acknowledge it. Journalism can still seek the truth and make clear distinctions between fact and opinion while also having opinions. The Journalists’ Ethics Codes from the National Association of Hungarian Journalists declares that journalists can both have and express their opinions; they can be openly partial. However, it makes clear that these opinions should not discolor the facts of the news such that the audience misinterprets them.

Is this modality of news presentation better? Should we acknowledge our biases and openly admit them, or should we strive to remain neutral and present both (or more!) sides of any given case? And on the point of different sides, must an exact opposite view be found for a larger issue and given credit, even if it is only held by an extreme minority? (Such as the 3% of scientists who deny climate change, and often have clear personal motive towards promoting oil industries.)

Feel free to add your own comments and peruse for more sources on journalistic ethics. There are many more interesting ethical codes on the Ethics Codes Collection website.

The Ethics Code Collection is managed by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. Look forward to a new and improved website come September!

Written by Alice Amell and Tabitha Anderson

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