Redefining objectivity in journalism: it has to be much more than “just the facts”

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As new forms of journalism take root in the rapidly evolving digital media landscape, standards for objectivity in reporting must evolve too, writes Stephen Ward, director of the journalism ethics program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, for MediaShift. The tradition that holds “just the facts” reporting as a journalistic ideal — with no interpretation or opinion from the reporter who has gathered those facts — should be abandoned and redefined.

“Objectivity is not about perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation,” Ward writes. “Objectivity refers to a person’s willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies. Objectivity as a method is compatible with journalism that interprets and takes perspectives. Every day, scientists adopt the objective stance when they use methods to test their hypotheses about phenomena. The same stance is available for journalists.”

To deal with shifting expectations for opinion and objectivity in new forms of journalism, Ward proposes that educators develop “best practice” guidelines specifically tailored to the demands of each new journalistic form, such as live-blogging or use of social media.

NPR is in the process of updating its ethics code to incorporate guidelines for using social media in reporting.

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