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Impartial journalism in the age of social media



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.



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

...great article, but I'm not sure if you plead the forlorn case for the journalist torn between their integrity and a pay check with deliberate closure or if you just didn't think it through. Surely one in that position is not a cub reporter and they know the both the history and agendas of their employer well before enlisting and perhaps some time in advance of the story that troubled them to ponder cash or copy. Gimme a break; no senior journo is so naive they didn't know which mast head spins left or right while they were still in uni. Media organizations know their target audience and allegiances (that's what they sell to their advertizers) and the rate of twist they can apply to any event to churn butter. If you're unfortunate enough to drive a Porsche, filming someone dying is public outrage in Victoria but in America you can spend 9 long minutes in a crowd behind a similar camera, not intervene and be considered a public defender. ABC once known as "Auntie" is now more U.N.C.L.E. as it pushes its own agendas for law reform and enforcement; it too wants to convert the public audience to individual subscribers status to "log in" to watch; Orwell, eat your heart out.

ray | 10 June 2021  

Why mention SKY? Why not mention the ABC? The most biased commentariat of all.

PHIL | 11 June 2021  

The ABC has been regarded for decades as setting the benchmark for good journalism, but many thinking freinds have all but stopped listening to its news. An ABC instutional option to preference journalists from minority groups seems to have led to a preponderance of 'opinion' being offered as news with little supporting data or logical argument. I find this trend sad and militates against what might be termed 'authentic news'.

Charles Rue | 11 June 2021  

Good article but mainstream or legacy media is in decline along with traditional advertising and other businesses due to digital disruption (as maybe the culturally specific media types reflecting the same types in the LNP, and Labor), but targeting the most influential voter cohorts i.e. oldies and baby boomers rusted onto legacy media or 'captured' with no centre nor center left print media. We observe in Australia like elsewhere, how governments and parties of the right become beholden to powerful sponsors and influencers, then being expected to indulge in much narrow political PR and agitprop informed by radical right libertarian socioeconomics with eugenics in the background. For this messaging to be effective also requires any alternative voices or dissonance to be silenced hence, defamation suits, shouting or ridiculing and inquiries directed at e.g. ABC, independent outlets, and individuals without the resources to defend themselves; a form of autocracy seen in UK, US and less developed nations......

Andrew J. Smith | 11 June 2021  

What is good in the ABC is very good. What is bad is atrocious. Fair comment is fair comment. A brainfart in public, as Scott McIntyre's was, has consequences. IMHO he deserved the consequences. My father and grandfather served in WW 2 and WW 1 respectively. War isn't a Sunday school picnic. Men killing other men isn't. What is, or isn't a war atrocity? Rape certainly is. I do not think the majority of Diggers in WW 1 or 2 disgraced themselves. I have no skin in this. Grandad was British Army, Dad an officer in the British Indian Army. What would possibly offend the squeamish and politically correct is the number of brothels and their eager use by servicemen. This should bring the woke generation down on me! BTW my now sadly deceased WW 2 RAF & RAAF friends, when not risking their lives to save democracy, were screwing themselves silly. It happens when you could die tomorrow. Suck it up woke generation!

Edward Fido | 25 July 2021