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Published on July 15th, 2012 | by Dr. Jimmy Wall

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The Untold Truth About Objective Journalism

“If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list.  H. L. Mencken was not objective.  Mike Royko, who just died.  I. F. Stone was not objective.  Mark Twain was not objective.  I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism.  Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”

This was said by Hunter S. Thompson in an interview with The Atlantic, criticism of the obsession with objective journalism I fully support.  As a journalist it is, of course, very important to be objective, or as I prefer to call it, balanced, especially when you first approach a story for the first time.  That approach is, however, different from what is now thought to be objective.

This obsession with objectivity is becoming rather unhealthy and dangerous. It is now less about true objectivity and more about being perceived to be objective; to seem more trustworthy than other journalists.  If an article is deemed objective, then it is presumed by default to be infallible and its objectivity should not be questioned – a very dangerous path to head down, which can further harm journalism.

There is however another danger with this so-called objective journalism.  Being subjective is seen as a bad thing.  It is too often treated as if you are too biased, lying or hiding something from the reader, which can result in an editor deciding not to publish an article, in fear of being perceived to not be objective enough, which is something I would consider to be withholding information, a big no-no in journalism.

We seem to forget that it is the journalist’s job to filter out incorrect information and provide to the public what is truthful and honest.  However, omitting information is a dangerous path to head down.  Something which unfortunately happens with objective journalism, but not often talked about, because of the attitude that you can’t or shan’t question objective journalism.

Ignoring that sometimes there is only one side to a story – this is when objective journalism loses its objectivity and in reality stops being objective.  It is tempting to almost say, as Dr. Thompson said, “it’s flat-out lying” to the public.  Journalists have the responsibility to provide information to the public and be honest about it, even when it comes to opinion columns.  Withholding information is not objective and should not happen.

Hunter S. Thompson claimed that objective journalism was to blame for letting Nixon win the election.  “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point.  It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen.  He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism.  You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

Before you decide that objective journalism is the only true kind of journalism out there, think again, dig a bit deeper in the “objective” piece you might read this morning in the newspaper while drinking your coffee.  It might have seemed objective, but was it?  Did it have all the facts?  More importantly, was the journalist honest with you?

It might be a bit risky admitting that I agree with Hunter S. Thompson 100 percent regarding his view on objective journalism, because as I see it, this religious obsession with objectivity is still out of control.  It’s so bad I often trust opinion pieces far more often than those write-ups pretending to provide me with all the picture perfect facts, under the guise of showing all sides of the story.

Just keep in mind what Dr. Thompson said, “Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”

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About the Author

Dr. Jimmy Wall — journalist and columnist. Drawn to journalism thanks to Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism. He shares the good old doctor’s disdain of objective journalism, as he too sees how it can be easily used to either not uncover the truth or pretend you have reported the truth. The good old doctor said it best, “I don't quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”



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