We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Journalism: The Ethics Question

For decades, journalists have been considered to be neutral, precise arbiters of information. It is through journalists that we get our information about what is happening with the rest of the world, but as time goes on, the question of the true neutrality of journalism has come into further discussion.
News is the lifeblood of our social consciousness, the one way we are able to be constantly connected to events happening throughout the globe. (Photo Credit: Sillerkiil, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

What is news? 

On the surface, it’s easy to answer. News, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is “information or reports about recent events.” News is everywhere, describing anything from the mundane to the extraordinary. 

Of course, unless you live in an incredibly tiny, isolated town, your mother’s newest obsession with coffee tables isn’t likely to make any headline. It won’t be in the paper news or even in the lifestyle section on television. While news does encompass so many different aspects of life and various different events, there’s a general rule: not every piece of news is newsworthy, or likely to strike the heart of public consciousness. 

In journalism, there are six questions to determine whether a piece of news is newsworthy: who, what, where, when, why, and how? These questions are designed to get to the heart of a journalistic matter, to dig deep and figure out what makes news, well, news. Journalistic reporting of news armed with these questions are known far and wide for being impartial. Journalists look for the nuance hidden in each situation they report on, fairly presenting each side to an argument, whether it is about the presidential election, or the conflict unfolding in a war zone, and seek to relay their findings in as neutral terms as possible. 

Journalism is considered to be an immensely important career, aimed to bridge the gap between different countries and open us up to the world. Journalists are lauded as heroes – brave and tenacious enough to report on the truth – no matter how much danger their life may be in. It is considered to be an incredibly deadly job in many parts of the world, with journalists facing threats of imprisonment, extortion, or even death. The lucky ones live to survive, and even in the midst of all these threats, they carry on. 

It is through journalists that the public is informed about the latest political and/or socio-economic events throughout the world. Stock market crashes, presidential assassinations, famine – all the work of journalists, at home and abroad, coming to you with the latest developments. Turn on the television, switch to a news channel such as CNN, FOX, or NBC, and find news reporters arguing on screen with a politician or some other official. Open up an online paper you’ll run into the musings of a professional reporter as they analyze the world around them. 

Journalists have been around since, at the earliest, Rome, circa 59 B.C., in a publication called the Acta Diurna. The Tang Dynasty had bao’s, reports which were circulated between government employees to inform them of current events throughout the country. England saw the rise of the Weekly Newes in 1622, and in 1722 the first paper designed for public daily consumption due to rising literacy rates, the Daily Courant, was created. 

The notion of journalistic objectivity — the concept of journalists as neutral observers in the grand scheme of things — didn’t rise until the late 20th century, though it was already in place in the 1890s. The term was coined by Walter Lippman, an American writer and reporter, in response to the rise of yellow journalism. This term describes the journalistic writing of the 1890s, when reporters used sensational headlines and exaggerated retellings of phenomena in order to pull in readers and establish themselves as the top paper. 

Lippman proposed the theory of journalistic objectivity to counter what he saw as a rise in sensationalist and predatory reporting, riddled with bias and falsehoods. He proposed using the scientific method in gathering evidence, viewing it as the most impartial method to use in order to craft news stories. Before, newspapers were expected to endorse partisan viewpoints, but after Lippman’s theory became more widespread amongst the middle class, an emphasis on neutral reporting was placed. 

While Lippman’s theory never directly said that journalists were sources of neutral information — in fact, Lippman himself said journalists would never be free of their own personal biases – this is where the modern view of journalism has emerged. All journalists, in the public imagination, are free of bias the second they receive a notepad and have some semblance of facts at their disposal. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that sensationalism has disappeared completely from journalism. Eye catching headlines and intriguing photos are part of a journalists arsenal in order to get people to read their work (it is a job after all), and for T.V., news reporters will often court as much controversy as possible in order to increase viewership. Yet, our idea of reporting still relies on the insistence that the news we consume has been carefully cleaned of every and all bias, with Lippman’s process of melding the scientific process and journalism still in place. 

But an important conversation springs forth from all this talk of neutrality and objectivity. Can a journalist ever truly remain neutral? 

In theory, the answer is yes. It shouldn’t be too hard after all: just report the facts as you see them. It is the interpretation of those facts, however, as well as the dynamics of the journalist to the subject matter, which throws a wrench in this theory. 

The second we are born into this world, we are bombarded with opinions: political opinions, from our family members and the media we consume, to social opinions, on what is polite and what’s unseemly. Our opinions on relationships, how to communicate with others, what’s a “good” way to live your life, is all enforced by the views of others and the society we live in. 

Our socialization, whether it is political or social, bleeds into how we experience the world around us. No matter how many times we may pretend our worldview is the only “normal” one around, free of bias or prejudice, it doesn’t truly rid us of our bias in the first place. Scientific inquiry with these biases in place does nothing to rid us of them; it only serves to allow them to fly underneath the radar, never questioned and always believed as the objective truth. 

According to the Press Gazette, out of 15 of the world’s most popular news sources, 13 of them are from the West, five being from America. Only two of the news sources on that list are from a different sphere of the world, and those newspapers have only very recently become popular; they certainly aren’t something that Westerners would read religiously. CNN, FOX News, The BBC, all news sources consumed throughout the world, dominate the media sphere. 

The way we think is based on how we hear certain situations talked about. Our view on the conflicts taking place in various other countries can vary based on how the information is conveyed to us. When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, viewers pointed out the incongruity in which Western news outlets covered the invasion versus how they would cover similar conflicts in the Middle East. When it affected Ukraine, a country with a white, Christian majority, European and American news reporters reflected just how shocking it was that a country “like that” could be invaded. As one reporter said, quite memorably, “these types of things just don’t happen here.” 

As Sirajum Munira ’24 put it, “I think journalists are human as well, and journalists, more than any other people, are surrounded by news. During my internship at NBC, what I found was that journalists were, 24/7, surrounded by the news. They’re so exposed to it, that it’s impossible to not form an opinion about it. So, sometimes their own biases will leak into their opinions, and since they’re the people who transmit the news to us, in turn our own biases will form. Sometimes I feel that we forget that journalists are human too, and it’s wrong to think that they’re not going to be shaped by others and their experiences.”               

This response is a world away from how news journalists belonging to large Western companies reacted to, say, the war in Sudan. It was covered for an extremely short time and with varying degrees of apathy, now being almost all but forgotten by reporters and the humanity of the Sudanese people stripped. This presents in the same way for Gaza: when Israel began its invasion of the Gaza strip, mainstream reporters would portray Palestinians as less than human. 

Journalism has never been free of bias, no matter how much we’d like to pretend it is. It can serve as a way to uphold certain political agendas, push bigotry and hatred, and, as many have pointed out as a past, serve as an outlet for neo-colonialism. 

Is there any way for us to completely rid journalism of bias, and should we even want that? That is for the future to decide. 

The second we are born into this world, we are bombarded with opinions: political opinions, from our family members and the media we consume, to social opinions, on what is polite and what’s unseemly. Our opinions on relationships, how to communicate with others, what’s a “good” way to live your life, is all enforced by the views of others and the society we live in. 

About the Contributor
Nehla Chowdhury, Staff Reporter
Nehla Chowdhury is an Editor-in-Chief for 'The Science Survey,' as well as a Social Media Editor. Nehla enjoys researching topics for their articles, as well as sharing their observations with large numbers of people. One thing they find appealing about journalistic photos is how they can tell stories to people without using words. Some interests that Nehla has are reading, researching various cold cases, and listening to music. Nehla intends to focus on history in college, as well as pursuing women's, gender, and sexuality studies.