Can journalism and bias ever be separated?

Over media

As a journalist you can be objective - without having to be neutral.

The column

Samira El Ouassil is a newspaper scholar, but earns her living with acting and political ghostwriting. She is also a lecture traveler and, together with Christiane Stenger, does the philosophy podcast “Say never Nietzsche”. She has been writing about media, politics and communication every week at Übermedia since 2018.

Both are different values ​​of the craft journalism. And in some cases you can't be neutral about what is being reported if you want to preserve your journalistic integrity. In order to do their job justice, journalists should of course be partial: they always have to be on the side of the truth.

Take, for example, cases of corruption. Let's take this one current one about a young CDU MP. Journalists uncover this and are automatically not neutral in this story simply because of their stance that “corruption is bad”, but that doesn't make their reporting any less objective.

Another example is the case of the opinion leader of the "New York Times" James Bennet, who left the paper because under his responsibility a text by a Trump supporter was published, which the military march against the Black Lives Matter protesters demanded. The departure of James Bennet prompted Spiegel author Philipp Oehmke to comment on "Present and future of journalism: the time of neutrality is over".

Equal distance to everyone? It does not work.

Philipp Oehmke argues for overcoming the dogma of neutrality and consults media scientist Jay Rosen, who says the following about journalistic neutrality:

“Neutrality becomes a problem when it promotes an incorrect balance: classifies and represents two positions as being equivalent, although they are not. The claim to absolute neutrality also lifts journalists onto a stage that is freed from opinion and ideology. The journalist says to the media consumer: I don't have an agenda, I'm just telling you how it is - and you have to believe me, because what I'm saying is a fact. People no longer trust this concept. "

The idea of ​​journalistic equidistance, which allows all positions on the market of ideas to be “fair and balanced”, no longer works if not all market participants can agree on a democratic and socio-political consensus that defines the limits of their differences of opinion. A newspaper cannot, just to maintain its alleged neutrality, give a Ku Klux Klan supporter at all or as much space as a black activist, because we have agreed in the democratic social contract that racism is not an acceptable opinion, which we would have to allow for the sake of fairness.

Remain neutral when attacking democracy?

It is the same with political statements that can be attributed to anti-democratic propaganda. Or as Jay Rosen says:

"If democracy and journalism are attacked, then the citizens of a democratic society and the media should not be neutral in terms of content."

Michelle Goldberg writes in her column in the "New York Times" after the publication of the controversial "Send in the Troops" text:

“Before Donald Trump became president, most of the newspapers' opinion sides attempted to present a range of politically meaningful opinions and arguments, and they largely succeeded in curbing extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined this model because there is generally no way to defend the government without being either bigoted or dishonest. "

The dilemma of the “Spiegel” critics

Neutral journalists from completely impartial media such as “Tichy's Insight” disagreed with Oehmke, and some also assumed, somewhat dramatically, that “Spiegel” had finally said goodbye to neutrality.

Incidentally, the discussion reveals a nice catch-22 situation of media criticism: To say that it is wrong for Oehmke to take this judgmental perspective, because in good journalism all different perspectives must always be depicted without value, contradicts the required claim, all perspectives to allow value-free.

Or one explains that there are perspectives that are nonsense and do not need to be addressed - but that would agree with Oehmke again.

The work must be verifiable

With the reply to Oehmke by “Spiegel” author Florian Gathmann, criticism also came from within himself: He starts from the premise that there is no such thing as neutrality that has to be overcome because we could never be completely neutral, and he argues that it is nevertheless, or precisely because of this, necessary “as a journalist to approach the world as impartially as possible”. You have to try harder to be as neutral as possible.

Both are true. Because neutrality does not actually exist, I would also replace it with the standard of intersubjective objectivity. Because while neutrality has aged badly in the course of media history and, as already indicated above, rather difficult to maintain in a post-factual era, intersubjective objectivity as an identity-creating value of journalism is universal, timeless and above all creates one thing: verifiability.

The central idea of ​​neutrality thinks reporters as impartial recorders of reality, as chroniclers of the now, who should completely depict reality to the best of their knowledge and belief, since any omission would already represent an influence.

Show what's right

In the course of newspaper research, this idea of ​​neutrality was criticized as a pure collection of facts by journalists, and academics also questioned the existence of neutrality as such.
Digitalization ultimately favored journalism, which did not even proclaim to be neutral, for developments in society but also for economic reasons.

In a climate of post-factuality, it is perhaps more important than ever that journalists not only depict what is, but also show what is right about it - conveying convincingly that their agenda remains the pursuit of truth.

In their research on communicators, the communication scientists Hans Mathias Kepplinger and Wolfgang Donsbach come to the conclusion that objectivity may never be achieved, but that the will to objectivity should never be given up as a maxim for action, since this inner endeavor protects the reporter from doing it willfully out of self-interest act. In fact, it is enough to honestly try to be as unbiased as possible.

Transparency is the new objectivity

And that in turn contradicts neither Oehmke nor Gathmann. The decisive factor is not wanting to uphold a neutrality that is a fiction anyway (or means objectivity) - the much more relevant factor is transparency when trying to achieve this objectivity.

The philosopher David Weinberger claimed that transparency was the new objectivity.

According to Kepplinger and Donsbach, one strives, in the best case, to report as objectively as possible, but does not pretend to ever achieve neutrality. Instead, you reveal how your own journalistic work came about, create possibilities for verifiability - and thus allow the recipient to form a critical judgment about this world in a non-educational way and without wanting to manipulate him. The intersubjective objectivity is ready.

The hug

The journalist Alena Jabarine describes an example of this in her ZEIT lightning-fast lecture “Journalists, take off your masks!”. There she reports on one of her reports in which she documents the escape of a young man named Basel. In one scene you can see the journalist hugging the protagonist of her play before he escapes. “Because I didn't know if I would see him again,” she explains the gesture.

The scene, read as an expression of journalistic lack of distance, caused criticism, as Jabarine reported in her speech:

“Colleagues in particular found this problematic. The hug, they said, we should have cut it out. That could be misunderstood. There was talk of fraternization. From activism. As if we, the reporters, had carried our protagonists across the border ourselves. "

Even Jabarine does not perceive herself as neutral in the farewell, but struggles with the dilemma of the dogma of objectivity.

“To claim that, as a journalist, I would not have any aversion to interviewing participants in a neo-Nazi demo, that would be a lie, for example. And I don't want to lie just to be taken seriously as a serious journalist. On the contrary. I became a journalist precisely because I am empathetic. Because I get upset about injustices, because I want to make the world a better place with my stories. [...] Because as reporters we are never invisible. As much as we withdraw, keep our distance, we are there and thus become part of the story. We should admit that. And deal with it very openly. "

Take world events personally

According to Jay Rosen, journalists have to explain how they come to their conclusions. Why is a certain topic reported? Why they let someone have their say - and why not someone else. They should be transparent about their own position and take a position if they see fit.

"People trust this transparency much more than a pretended neutrality that doesn't exist."

If journalists want to tell about world events, they have to be able to take it a little bit personally.