Student guest post: Objectivity and its murky future

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kevin Mercer a reporting major from Chapel Hill. He is on the sports desk with The Daily Tar Heel, and he also writes for Southern Neighbor

It was Saturday, Feb. 13, and my friends and I had returned to our dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill from a night of ice skating in time to see the Republican debate on CBS News. Donald Trump, leading most Republican primary polls, said prominent Republican politicians should not allow President Barack Obama to appoint a new, ostensibly liberal, justice to the U.S. Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died earlier that day: “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”

Some in the dorm room were liberals, some conservatives. Some argued for the president’s obligation to appoint a new justice when a seat is vacated. Some argued that such an action would work counter to the president’s role as a representative of the American people. Neither debate solved much of anything. The dispute still rages.

For the rest of the night, I saw liberals and conservatives spar on Twitter and Facebook about the issue, using as ammunition news articles that align with their beliefs. An objective summary of the facts of Scalia’s life and death or of the appointment of new Supreme Court justices were not the articles getting shared, and therefore read.

It is no secret that the field of journalism has changed and continues to change. Traditional print media has lost favor with some, and social media is here to stay. Qualities that journalists used to hold dear — like the importance of specialization — are being pushed aside because of the evolving demands of media. Is political objectivity the next to go?

Don’t get me wrong. The importance of objectivity has been ingrained in me during my time in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH. There is still plenty of objective news in every journalistic medium, but increasingly there is a shift to subjectivity in favor of objectivity. Think of Fox News and MSNBC on television or “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on the radio, or The Progressive in print.

And it makes sense. The business model used by traditional media began to become less viable. Media organizations needed to adjust – and they have – but they now find themselves in a hyper-competitive field vying for consumers’ attention.

Media organizations have discovered that people are drawn to news presented in a way that reinforces their beliefs. A study from Ohio State University suggests that consumers spend more time with media that support their opinions. Media organizations have had to appeal to as many readers as possible or else get pushed to the wayside by the many news outlets more than willing to provide consumers with what they want.

Call me a cynic, but I think the journalism profession collectively would sacrifice almost any enduring tenet to remain profitable. The thought of sacrificing accuracy seems incomprehensible to every journalist I know.

But we’ve largely done away with objectivity.  Decreasing objectivity can increase readership temporarily, but how will someone trust any media organization if the stories they tell of the truth are distorted by political opinions?

Consumers will become disillusioned with media generally and eventually flee.  I think, however, there is a way to reconcile objectivity with the way in which media are now consumed.

News publications would disassociate themselves completely from individual journalists. Writers and videographers would build their own unique brands and market themselves to publications as freelancers, embracing and disseminating a political ideology.

To reach more of an audience, The New York Times, for example, would hire a known liberal writer and a known conservative writer to both cover the same story. The Times would maintain its objectivity while consumers would still get the slanted news they crave. An average person would read The Times’ brief synopsis of every pertinent fact of a breaking news story, but the synopsis would direct the reader to the longer and subjective material he or she would undoubtedly want to read.

Whether it’s practical or not is uncertain, but I believe something has to be done to curtail the abundance of biased media sources we have now.