Is "Objective Journalism" Possible?

TAU researcher compares US and French models to find varying standards and definitions

Unceasing accusations of media bias surround reporting on controversial events. The last American Presidential election and the latest confrontation between Israel and Gaza are recent illustrations of the phenomenon. This kind of public response seems to demand a better definition of professional journalistic standards, says Dr. Sandrine Boudana of Tel Aviv University's Department of Communications — but geographical implications make that a challenge.

To understand the practical standards of professional journalism, Dr. Boudana surveyed French and American journalists about the values that guided their professional practice, especially regarding war reporting. She then analyzed articles produced in the media in both countries during periods of conflict. While both French and American journalists expressed similar guiding values, including accuracy and fairness, she found that the journalists had different ways of practicing these values, influenced by each country's unique culture and politics.

Dr. Boudana's work has been published in journals including Journalism and Media, Culture and Society.

Weaving a tale

Dr. Sandrine Boudana
Dr. Sandrine Boudana

Since objectivity emerged as a standard of American journalism in the 1830s, it has constantly been contested and redefined to better serve the journalistic quest for "truth," she explains. Though originally associated with non-partisanship and neutrality, the notion of objectivity has evolved to mean detachment and balance. More recently, journalists have begun to reject objectivity as an unrealistic or undesirable goal, but no consensual standard has emerged to replace it. This is what motivated Dr. Boudana to conduct interviews with practicing journalists.

While journalism in the US is more information-based, French journalism relies on an opinion-based model, she says. For example, American journalists put more emphasis on fact-checking, while their French colleagues pay more attention to writing style and the development of a narrative.

She found that French journalists often employed conventional storytelling methods, including constructs such as heroes and villains. For example, in French articles covering the second intifada, Israel was presented as the villain and Palestinians were presented as victims. The idea of peace became an innocent "princess" that the turmoil surrounded.

This doesn't mean that French journalists are being unprofessional, argues Dr. Boudana. Instead, they adhere to different professional standards rooted in political and literary traditions. In order to evaluate the work of any journalist, it is crucial to understand the professional values they are working to uphold and the culture from which they spring.

Reading into bias

In evaluating bias, readers must approach journalism critically, Dr. Boudana suggests, remaining aware of their own prejudices and those of the media outlets they rely upon. "If you approach an article with an ideological slant similar to yours, it will always reinforce your perspective. If it criticizes people or values you support, you will probably think it is biased. If it supports your views, then you will consider it fair or balanced," she explains. This doesn't mean that journalists should ignore criticisms emanating from the public, but rather that the justice of accusations should be measured by professional standards.

In terms of Israel's recent Operation Pillar of Defense, media analysts believe that foreign journalists showed less bias against Israel, likely due to a change in circumstance rather than a change in ideology, Dr. Boudana says. Because Hamas is not seen as a constructive influence, it's difficult to support the regime — and French journalists were more cautious about naming heroes and villains. If Israel had launched a ground operation, however, journalists might have produced more "biased" articles because of the cultural tendency to favor weaker factions, she suggests.

Next, Dr. Boudana plans to research journalism from the perspective of readers or viewers, determining what their expectations are and what journalism means to them. It's important for the audience to be involved in the journalistic process, she counsels, because the more they are aware of the strategies and tactics employed in contemporary journalism, the better they will be able to view the media with a critical eye.

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