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The Case Against Neutrality

A monthly column focusing on research, data and context in journalism.

GLOBAL PRESS HQ — Historically, journalists were trained to be objective.

More precisely, they were trained to assess information and determine the facts. Personal opinion was never supposed to be part of the equation in journalism.

The standard has eroded in recent years among Western news agencies. Increasingly, journalists ask this question: Can we produce articles that aren’t imbued with personal opinion?

This is an issue with which Global Press reporters have grappled for years. Can a journalist in Uganda set aside her personal opinions when writing about President Yoweri Museveni, who, on more than one occasion, has forcibly kept media outlets from operating when he feared that they would not support him? Can a journalist in Mexico report without bias when people in her profession there are at risk of being jailed or worse, if she writes about an unethical government or military action?

Even as news agencies increasingly settle into partisanship, it’s our goal to hold the line of objectivity. We believe it is possible to meet this goal and that it’s critical that we do.

Here’s why:

Objectivity does not necessarily require neutrality. Objectivity might at times demand statements that are forthright to the point of combative – and anything but neutral.

Objectivity is the quality of finding facts and determining what they mean. If a journalist’s goal is neutrality – the quality of simply reporting the facts – then her job is reduced to acting as a scribe for current events.

Since its inception, Global Press has had an internal style guide. This document provides rules for which words to use and when to precisely describe objective truths. The guide is the result of an ongoing collaboration between reporters, editors and everyone else on our team, and the guide aims to ensure balanced news coverage for a global audience.

For example, Global Press Journal stories do not use the word “slum” to describe poor neighborhoods, because that word conjures different images for different readers. Instead, we insist on more precise descriptions: What do the homes look like? What is the neighborhood’s density? What is the median income of people who live there?

Those descriptors are simple facts, simply stated. They are objective and neutral.

Some words carry a weight heavier than their dictionary meanings.

In the country that is now Zimbabwe, before it gained independence, the education system was tailored to ensure that black students would never get the training needed to, for example, join the board of directors at a bank or to manage a technology firm.

It was a segregated system. That’s an objective statement.

It was a racist system. With the veneer of neutrality peeled away, that statement is more precise than the one above. The word “racist” brings to mind for many readers a systematic intent to oppress a group of people based on skin color. That’s valuable information for readers.

A key challenge with neutrality in journalism is that core conclusions are left to experts, including situations where experts are geographically or culturally far from the relevant situation.

As a million or more people (estimates still vary widely) were slaughtered in Rwanda in the early 1990s, international bodies declined to authoritatively use the word “genocide” until the violence was largely over.

If a local journalist is armed with a clear definition for the word genocide, then that journalist is obliged to use it, if sources on the ground verify that such a thing is occurring.

The neutral, impartial approach would be to wait for a consensus among outside experts. The result? Flimsy reporting that lacks truth and might even prolong violence.

When focusing solely on neutrality, objectivity might be lost.

Journalists must be more than scribes for world events. We must draw objective conclusions.

Does this mean that we believe journalists are the final arbiters of truth? No, of course not. We always need to engage with local sources as well as seasoned experts to determine the crux of any story. But as journalists who hold to the traditional standard of objectivity, we are uniquely trained to seek balanced perspectives in complex scenarios, honing our reporting and writing processes until our personal opinions no longer have mastery over them. This skill takes practice, but it is the core of what sets journalists apart from pundits.

Accurate descriptions, presented boldly with precise words, aren’t always neutral. But they are, by definition, objective.

This is the ultimate form of truth-telling.