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Impartial journalism in the age of social media

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Intellectual fashions in journalism, as in every other field of human endeavour, shift and change in cycles. One such cycle — central to the ethics of journalism — concerns the question of impartiality. In journalism’s earliest days, writers such as Erasmus of Rotterdam were polemicists and satirists as much as chroniclers. The pamphleteers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who included Daniel Defoe and Tom Paine, were passionate barrow-pushers.

 Main image: People on their phones (camilo jimenez/Unsplash)

As newspapers became industrialised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a breed of person we call the media mogul emerged, shamelessly using his (always his) newspaper to advance his commercial and political interests.

Journalists were what the founder of the Australian Journalists’ Association, Bertie Cook, called a ‘spineless, downtrodden crew’. He meant they could either toe the company line or exercise what Creighton Burns, editor of The Age from 1981 to 1989, called the ‘privilege of resignation’. If the mogul wanted something written or written a certain way, they had no choice but to comply if they wanted to pay the bills.

By the 1940s, the reputation of newspapers, journalism and journalists was so alarmingly shoddy that Henry Luce of Time, along with Encyclopaedia Britannia, funded what was called the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press. Its report, produced in 1947, had an immense influence on journalism practice.

At its centre were a number of core propositions, one of which concerned the media’s duty to supply the public with reliable and up-to-date information. From this, a central tenet of ethical journalism arose: the requirements to verify facts, to confine news reports to those facts, to separate news reportage from opinion and to label opinion clearly for what it was.

These last were reprising the famous dictum of C P Scott, the towering figure who edited and eventually came to own The Manchester Guardian (today’s Guardian): ‘comment is free but facts are sacred’.


'...it is now necessary to distinguish between the impartiality of the individual journalist and the impartiality of the organisation they work for.'


Nobly intended as this shift was — away from proprietorial diktat over news, towards editorial independence — it bred a sterile and narrow form of reporting. The facts were carefully presented but readers were left to figure out for themselves what the facts meant and what the consequences of them might be.

As a reaction to this, by the 1980s a new genre of reporting had emerged, still fact-based but more analytical, explanatory, and contextual. It set out to inform the readers, listeners or viewers in a rounded way that enabled them to make sense of events. The line between reportage and comment was re-drawn at the point where a reporter’s own value judgments might intrude.

Then in the first decade of the twenty-first century came the tidal wave that seriously destabilised this established order: social media. In their struggle to survive, many professional mass media outlets, especially newspapers, tried to keep up with the unending torrent of online content.

This melange of fact, half-fact, barrow-pushing, gossip, rumour, hate speech and sheer nonsense began to infect professionally produced news. It took even good newspapers more than a decade to regain their footing, to realise that their survival depended not on aping social media but on distinguishing themselves from it by reasserting the values of truth-telling, fairness, balance, open-mindedness and integrity that together make up the concept of impartiality.

But the landscape has changed, and there is no going back. Individual journalists are now integrated into the ranks of pundits, urgers and persuaders who abound online. At their employers’ behest, they blog, they podcast, they ‘engage’ as the current jargon has it, with those who post comments to their articles online.

Not uncommonly they get drawn into becoming participants in stories in ways that were never previously possible. They may develop positions on issues that it becomes impossible to conceal. They may come to promote these positions, sometimes to their great detriment.

In 2015, SBS sacked a soccer reporter, Scott McIntyre, over an Anzac Day tweet in which he suggested people remember ‘the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these brave Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan’. These were his personal views, made in his own time and not related to a story on which he had reported. Malcolm Turnbull, as prime minister, complained to SBS and McIntyre was gone. The stated reason was that McIntyre’s personal views breached the broadcaster’s code of conduct and social media policy.

So now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, we have a minefield to negotiate when it comes to distinguishing reporting from advocacy. Journalists can be as much individual publishers as are their employers. Employers encourage them to be active in public debate. And of course in their own time they have free speech rights like everyone else.

One of the complicating factors is that because their profile usually comes from their position in their employer’s organisation, this freedom has become subject to the employer’s view of what is or is not in the organisation’s interests.

For the same reason, it is now necessary to distinguish between the impartiality of the individual journalist and the impartiality of the organisation they work for.

Where partisanship is built into an organisation’s news coverage, as with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp newspapers and Sky News, tarring the individual news journalist with the bias of the outlet may be unfair, unless of course he or she is one of the company’s commentariat whose job is to promote the company line.  

However, in the more responsible elements of the media, the cycle of intellectual fashion has shifted so that impartiality in news coverage is once again ascendant, but it is being put to use by journalists in a world that is unrecognisable from the one that existed the last time it was in fashion.


This piece originally appeared in Eureka Street in 2021. 


Dr Denis Muller is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne and author of several books, including Journalism and the Future of Democracy (to be published in August 2021). He is a former Assistant Editor (Investigations) of The Sydney Morning Herald and Associate Editor of The Age.

Main image: People on their phones (Camilo Jimenez/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Denis Muller, media, journalism, media ethics, social media



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Existing comments

Distinguishing reporting from advocacy? The discerning reader can easily spot the difference. In this age of social media though do we, the readers, want to be stretched in that way. And, importantly, do news outlets want to change their landscape. In her 2014 essay “Shakespeare and Me - A Tempestuous Love Story” the acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood rose to the task of choosing a play by Shakespeare and revisiting it in the form of a prose novel. The play Atwood chose was “The Tempest” and her resulting novel was “Hag-Seed”. Other writers were involved in the same task. I’d like to think that journalists could rise to the occasion in the same way.

Pam | 27 July 2023  

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