A publication of the World Editors Forum


Fri - 19.01.2018

Press neutrality: a journalist's Catch-22?

Press neutrality: a journalist's Catch-22?

The free press; the backbone of every strong democracy and a concept that all journalists hold dear to their hearts. What makes the press free? Surely we all know the answer to that - a plurality of voices, the chance for everyone to have their say and above all, a dedication to uncovering the truth.

Well, here's the sticking point: not everyone seems to be able to agree on what the truth actually is. Opinion tends to get in the way. This is why the press aims to be neutral.

Many journalistic institutions stake their name on neutrality. For example the BBC, which is supported by public revenue obtained from the Television license fee, is fiercely neutral and it's coverage is regularly examined to make sure it stays that way. CNN, the American news network, has also founded its reputation on neutrality as the foundation of their journalistic ethic. This is great, right?

Jay Rosen recently penned a piece that pointed out how the 'CNN leaves it there' policy of absolute neutrality is not always a workable option. He dares to suggest that the equation 'neutrality=good' might not be as water-tight as most would imagine.

Is absolute neutrality always good for the press?

The recent war of words between Fox News and Gawker is definitely illustrative of what happens when opposing journalistic ideologies collide. Amongst other things, both accuse the other of having political leanings - i.e. the wrong political leanings, as they see it - and maintain that this makes for bad journalism.

Is this simply petty bickering? Does this argumentative mindset distract from the true journalistic intent of telling the absolute and objective truth in order to inform an audience?

On the other hand, are differing voices good - is this what makes a free press? Is it necessary to accept that public opinion is not uniform and the media must cater for this diversity of opinion?

There are some opinions that should never be expressed for the simple reason that they are prejudiced or incite prejudice. Take for instance the case of Sud Radio, a French station that had just expanded into Paris, with the help of public media subsidies. As Le Monde reports, Sud Radio recently posed the question to its listeners: "DSK est-il soutenu par les Juifs ?", translation: 'Is DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) supported by Jewish people?' The managers of the radio station are to be brought before the French regulatory body the Le Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel on 7 September.

Institutional neutrality is a tricky issue, however, it is ultimately defined by the mission statement, the brand and the judgement of the news organisation itself. Individual neutrality is an issue that affects every journalist and which is becoming ever more pressing in the digital age.

Contrary to popular belief, journalists are people. People have opinions. So what happens when individuals are expected to quash their opinions in the name of professionalism, in the name of the press, which ironically enough is the very vehicle that is supposed to be the guardian of opinion and freedom of speech?

The New York Times highlights how young journalists on the campaign trail are fighting with the issue of neutrality. Obviously, there is a stylistic difference between commentary and coverage, as Lindsey Boerman points out: "we're not providing commentary, we're providing coverage. And you've got to find that line." This line is a question of journalistic style, tact and judgment.

However, The NYT recounts how journalists themselves are under ever more intense scrutiny. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and all variety of digital media can be the cause of potentially severe embarrassment or even possibly the end of a career. Octavia Nasr, senior editor for Middle East affairs at CNN, was fired for tweeting 19 words which expressed sadness at the death of a Hezbollah leader. When neutrality is key, can journalists express personal views and reactions via social media, which so often blends the personal and the private? David Weigel made disparaging comments about conservatives in private email messages that The Daily Caller decided to publish online. The controversy caused him to leave his job at the Washington Post. These are but a few examples.

When the message to young journalists is "People are watching you", should the press reconsider what neutrality means on an individual level? Is journalistic profession becoming ever more Orwellian? Or is it important that journalists maintain a distinction between private opinion and professional neutrality, even if technology makes that ever more difficult to achieve?

Sources: The Independent, Jay Rosen's PressThink, Le Monde , The New York Times , OWNI.eu



Katherine Travers


2011-09-01 14:31

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

© 2015 WAN-IFRA - World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Footer Navigation