Objective reporting seems to be on its way out as news outlets such as Fox and MSNBC News unabashedly deliver the news with conservative and liberal slants. But I don’t think it was ever there in the first place – once a story is uncovered and reported on, it ceases to have potential for indisputable truth.
Philosophically speaking, for something to be an objective truth, it must be mind-independent. It must be able to stand alone, outside the structure of the human mind. Our beliefs and thoughts register and process what we see and hear as substantially as our senses do.
This is true also of journalists, who are not immune to essentially human pitfalls. Journalism does not propagate objective truths, but rather expresses schools of thought that aim to report and explain domestic and foreign politics. Therefore, the only truly unbiased news report is the one that is never given – news cannot be delivered without an underlying agenda.
The speed at which news is heard and the number of sources it originates from makes streamlined, single-source news difficult to produce. The landscape of accessibility created by advanced technology and communication means people are constantly bombarded by information. The average news-watcher or reader may not be adequately equipped to take in and sort through the information, much less without ample time and education; he or she may not be prepared to fully comprehend the issues that reporters are well-versed in.
Agenda allows reporters to overcome these challenges and bring the news into the public consciousness – news presenters outwardly present and explicate their stance on a particular subject or event, deconstructing it and focusing on particular aspects that merit attention and play to their partisanship. It is not bias – bias is excluding or including facts or manipulating what is presented to intentionally lead the viewer to one particular conclusion. The difference lies in explicitly presenting the political agenda through supplementary commentary, as opposed to hiding it under the veneer of supposed objective truth.
Commentary with an agenda is one of the strongest expressions of the freedom of speech and the power to hold politicians accountable that journalists have at their disposal. The automatic dismissal of all seemingly partial news is simplistic. On the other hand, not all agenda in news is of equal intellectual worth.
A study conducted by researchers at the Fairleigh Dickinson University found that Fox News viewers answered 1.04 questions on domestic politics correctly out of a total of five. People who reported not having watched any news answered 1.22 questions correctly and NPR listeners answered 1.51 questions correctly.
These are statistically significant findings that seem to indicate that Fox News’ conservative reporting style actually decreased viewers’ overall knowledge of domestic affairs. This demonstrates that it is not the mere presence of a committed agenda but the intellectual quality and depth of that agenda that counts.
Megyn Kelly, a Fox News reporter, spent airtime last year arguing that the ‘actual’ skin color of Santa Claus is white. Considering that Santa Claus is a fictional character, this is not a credible, conservative agenda to be presenting to viewers.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, on the other hand, was one of the first reporters to cover the story of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s controversial closing of select lanes on the George Washington Bridge. It could be said that Maddow spent an inordinate amount of time covering the Republican politician’s scandal, but she contributed original, thoroughly researched theories that sparked debate over the governor’s intentions.
Thus, the lack of intellectual viability and pertinence in the conservative reporting style may have contributed to NPR listeners’ superior knowledge of domestic politics, as compared to devotees of Fox News.
The heart of journalism does not rest with the TV personality. The significance of news comes from the meaning and implications of world events, not necessarily the events themselves. We are interested not in elusive truth that by itself says little, but in why it is as it is and what will be as a result of it.
Agenda should not merely be grudgingly tolerated, but harnessed. A reasonable, intellectual agenda can contribute to journalistic freedom and exploration, initiating conversation and thought on current events. Reporters may be more able to establish credibility with viewers and stimulate discussion by utilizing their agenda as a vehicle than by on trying to prove a truth beyond all doubt – and, inevitably, failing.