New information is constantly surrounding us each minute in all corners of the world. Whether it is a terrorist attack, a new president elected, or a conference between countries, we are regularly informed of the hottest topics worldwide through television networks, radio stations, internet sites, and newspapers. As a critical part of modern western politics, hard-news journalism is a means for publicizing recent events and occurrences.
Today, human beings living in liberal democracies continue to grant journalists the right to print and release information that will educate us about various facets of society. We rely on newspapers and a wide range of media sources to provide us with up-to-the-minute news at home and around the world. For the most part, these investigative journalists are expected to hold a standard of neutrality when presenting relevant facts to their readers and audiences.
But should journalists be expected to remain neutral when dealing with controversial subjects who represent intolerance in some way or another? For instance, what would tolerance and intolerance be for a journalist? That is, must journalists tolerate those who express intolerance in either their words or actions? Should journalists be expected to report on individuals who are perceived as unacceptable and offensive in the eyes of the public? Does neutrality provide journalists with this sense of toleration for all people and allow journalists to include instances of intolerance in their work? Therefore, are journalists upholding neutrality automatically considered tolerant people?
Along with this issue of neutrality, the distinction that journalists make in classifying actions of tolerance and intolerance presents us with additional questions. How do journalists understand what is radically different and intolerant in particular? Would a journalist’s understanding of toleration enhance or violate his ability to uphold neutrality? In other words, does a journalist need to know what toleration is if he wishes to hold a neutral stance? Even further, should the public tolerate journalists that do not demonstrate neutrality?
Each of these proposed questions is important for us to consider in understanding how journalists shape our own conceptions and perceptions of toleration-the choices that journalists and reporters make influence what we think should and should not be tolerated.
I argue that journalists should uphold a neutral stance even when reporting information about an intolerant person, group, or organization. In preserving the ideals of hard-news journalism, the job of the media is to present all sides of the issue in a fair manner, allowing the public to form its own opinion and ultimately determine what constitutes something as offensive or acceptable. Reporters are responsible for documenting only the facts without demonstrating a bias toward one side or the other. While some members of the media find this difficult to execute at times, members of the press must not delve into their own moral principles and political views in order to convey a sense of neutrality and journalistic integrity.
Journalists must not only be neutral when they conduct their work out in the field, but they must also convey a sense of neutrality when displaying their findings to the public. Neutrality must be preserved in all facets of hard-news journalism: observing the event, interviewing the subjects involved, and reporting the information to the rest of the community. This does not mean that journalists are indifferent about issues and events that they cover. Being in front of the action, they care deeply about what they report, yet withhold their emotions to inform their audiences objectively.
Without this standard of unbiased, neutral reporting, journalists will not only be failing to do their job, but certain members of their audience could, in return, become intolerant of them. Such intolerance might lead the public to begin ignoring the media, feeling a general sense of hostility for reporters, or even the most extreme circumstances that could include physical harm. By and large, the respect and credibility that the media once gained from the public could quickly deteriorate if journalists deliberately favor one side or the other in their work. If such public distrust forms due to biased reporting, people will become suspicious of the information that they are receiving.
Furthermore, these people could soon no longer have a viable source for acquiring information about local community efforts, domestic issues, and international relations. Without such knowledge, the world begins to become a more distant place for all of us as we will quickly lose contact with those on the other side of the globe.
In understanding the role that the media plays in liberal democracies, one must first recognize neutrality as the central element of hard-news journalism. As an ethical standard of journalism, neutrality expects journalists never to favor a particular side even if they disagree with one’s policies and find it more offensive than the other. The journalist’s tone or the amount of emphasis placed on a particular person, group, or policy can be clues for distinguishing between biased and neutral reporting.
In its simplest terms, neutrality recognizes the actions and beliefs, whether offensive or non-offensive (appropriate or inappropriate) in the journalist’s own mind, of others in an equal and evenhanded manner. For reporters to hold a neutral stance when writing an article on a controversial subject, they should present the information in a truthful, and equally important, even-handed manner.
This notion of evenhandedness refers to the media providing equal representation of all views, whether tolerant or intolerant. For example, newspapers and other publications should be expected to devote the same amount of space on the page for both Democratic and Republican platforms when covering presidential election campaigns.
Aside from giving equal amount of space to each side, a journalist must be evenhanded in representing his subjects. Therefore, the Green and Reform parties should receive the same amount of attention as the Democrats and Republicans. This method applies to other facets of news reporting where journalists have to decide what particular sports (i.e. baseball, basketball, football, hockey, tennis, and golf) and teams (i.e. Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Eagles, and Chicago Bulls) to cover. If a journalist places too much attention on one political party, sport, or team, the public will quickly notice and denounce such favoritism. Consequently, not only will the writer’s reputation and credibility be tarnished, but his job could also be put at stake. A journalist who does not place himself in a state of neutrality will often face criticism from one side or the other.
Similarly, television networks and radio stations must give equal weight to liberal and conservative perspectives on recent debatable issues that might include same-sex marriage, abortion, and the war on Iraq. With technology and the media world continuing to grow, the Associated Press and other corporations have helped to control this problem by establishing a network of reporters around the world to specifically report on a political party, sporting event, or team. Still, by equally representing both the marginal and critical sides of a subject, the press demonstrates a commitment to upholding neutrality.
Furthermore, neutrality removes the possibility of personal biases flooding the whole story. Such a neutral stance offers the audience the ability to form their own opinion on a multitude of topics, such as local news, domestic politics, and even sports.
Along these lines, political theorist Jeremy Waldron argues for a similar conception of neutrality that embodies this sense of fair-mindedness and equal representation. In his essay on “Legislation and Moral Neutrality,” Waldron explains that neutrality represents a contest between two or more sides-people, parties, teams, nations, religions, policies, and ethics-and revolves around a third party that attempts to achieve neutrality. This third party can not take part in the contest between the two sides if it wishes to remain neutral.
Even so, Waldron explains that a wide range of actions can still be performed by legislators without participating in the contest or distorting the events that transpire. It is finding this balance between involvement and non-involvement that journalists must focus to attain in overcoming the ethical dilemmas that arise in the field of legislation. The author informs the reader that a legislator must remain neutral in forming policies for a populace so that one’s own political morality does not form a bias within the governing system. Waldron states, “It is not wrong for someone to favour a particular conception of the good life, but it is wrong for her in her capacity as legislator (and presumably as voter) to favour such a view.”
Even though Waldron’s focus remains on political legislators upholding neutrality, journalists are expected to follow a similar course of action. Waldron presents his own understanding of neutrality: “Neutrality is itself a value: it is a normative position, a doctrine about what legislators and state officials ought to do.”
The same remains true for the media. A journalist should be allowed to hold his opinions about certain issues, but it is crucial that these biases do not leak into and disrupt his reporting.
Individual beliefs and practices should always remain private and not affect the work that a journalist conducts. Even if a reporter disagrees with the subject or finds it to be intolerant, neutrality should at all times remain present in the final product. The public deserves the right to know each side of the issue and decide for themselves which actions constitute tolerance and intolerance-whether they tolerate these actions or not in the end is their own choice.
Objectivity is a comparable practice under hard-news journalism that often becomes intertwined with this concept of neutrality. Although neutrality and objectivity are often used synonymously, journalists must distinguish between them as the field of print and broadcast journalism continues to evolve during the twenty-first century.
With that being said, objectivity is a part of neutrality. Whereas neutrality particularly focuses on equally displaying instances of tolerance, intolerance, and other things for public view, objectivity is achieved when a journalist avoids incorporating his own opinions, beliefs, ideologies, and perceptions that, in effect, alter the factual information being documented. These prejudices that the reporter may have can persuade the audience to agree with the position being conveyed.
Biases, whether rather apparent or subtle, are often difficult to remove even when only presenting the facts. Because of the inevitability of cultural context, it is human nature for our emotions and opinions to play a role in the way we assess a situation.
Even though we think we can convince ourselves that objectivity is possible at certain moments, personal choice and bias are constantly affecting our decisions each second. No matter how much we try to remain objective in our views, our social standing, family life, and private beliefs influence the way we see the world outside of our own minds. These cultural standards and personal beliefs that we develop during childhood and adolescence often interfere with our ability to produce independent, unbiased judgments later in life.
Hypothetically, objectivity can only become a reality when a person remains completely removed from the world. That is to say that a journalist must never have had human contact with the current world if any objective viewpoint is to be obtained.
Anthropologists who study aboriginal and indigenous cultures across the globe aim to remain objective in their fieldwork, but often fall short due to their affiliation and familiarity with western cultural norms and practices. These social scientists have trouble eradicating their traditional habits, behaviors, and beliefs while examining foreign cultures; they often compare these primitive people to themselves, studying them because they believe them to be unusual and different from their own way of life.
The cultural context that we know automatically skews our ability to study these unknown people objectively. Therefore, we can not understand these people without our own perceptions of the world coming into play. This narrow-minded outlook that we have makes us intolerant of different lifestyles and practices and represents intolerance in the journalism world too.
In the same way, a journalist can offer an equal amount of attention to either side of an issue, but he can not fully separate his own beliefs from his perceptions on the matter at hand. The way human beings view and understand situations around the world is very different from one person to the next. Diversity among human perception is inevitable. As political theorist Albert Weale clarifies, “Forms of life will differ markedly from one another in any complex modern society.”
People hold different opinions on a variety of affairs, examining each subject matter through their own set of cultural lenses; it is a part of human nature that we each hold a pair of these cultural lenses. For example, a Chinese journalist reporting on the United States’ relations in the Middle East will make sense of the situation and present information differently from the American press.
Whether listening to the President speak at his inauguration or watching Barry Bonds hit a homerun in the World Series, journalists at home and abroad interpret their observations independently of each other. All journalists understand the events that they cover in different terms. Interpretations of the subject differ in their reading because journalists only represent one particular angle of the story.
Because human nature grants each person the ability to see events around the world in his or her own way, members of the media also can never completely detach their own individual perceptions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior while reporting pertinent information. These cultural lenses that each journalist possesses do not present the audience with the freedom to clearly define toleration in its own terms. Thus, objectivity is impossible for reporters to ever completely achieve in their work due to these intangible conditions constructed by human nature.
We must also realize that, in theory (or in a vacuum), a journalist can remain objective and unbiased in his reporting without upholding neutrality at the same time. In other words, a reporter has the potential to remain impartial if he explicitly reports only the facts of a person or group, but this still does not necessarily make him neutral in his stance.
An evenhanded report that includes all relevant sides of the issue evenly would be representative of neutral journalism, assuming that the facts presented are accurate. The specific evidence along with the quantity of information that is presented decides whether or not the press is actually neutral. While neutrality theoretically requires objectivity to function properly and effectively, objectivity does not actually need neutrality in the same way.
For example, a journalist could report solely on the policies and actions of George W. Bush that have had negative consequences, yet still remain truthful in the description of his subject. This disproportion of fact, however, does not tell the whole story. Presenting only negative aspects of his life does not represent President Bush or any other human being in an evenhanded manner. Rather, it distorts his image, leaving the public only aware of his flaws and imperfections, which may be just one side of the story.
Portraying both the positive and negative images of a subject is a fundamental element of neutral reporting. Despite the fact that we can never fully expect a journalist to remain completely objective throughout the entirety of his work, neutrality can always be accomplished through the integrity and attentiveness of the media. It may be impossible for a journalist to avoid interpreting facts in his own way, but the media can always make sure that every side is represented equally and depicted truthfully for the most part.
The journalist’s ability to understand and identify with both sides of an issue contributes to the necessary ingredients for retaining a neutral perspective. In other words, the journalist’s approach to the work being performed provides the foundation for seeking neutrality. In representing both sides of an issue, the journalist holds two options: he can either distance himself from his subjects or instead become a participant of each side.
While the journalist who becomes a member of each group gains a greater level of understanding for both tolerant and intolerant attitudes, doing so increases the chance that a sense of evenhandedness will be violated or lost altogether. This sense of neutrality will be lost because each side can coerce or persuade the journalist to agree with their position more than the other’s.
More importantly, a reporter who empathizes with each point of view is more likely to form an opinion that represents one side more than the other. In essence, equal empathy is not possible. Such one-sidedness does not allow the journalist to play the role of eyewitness, but instead represents a corrupt form of journalism. This approach is not accurate because human emotion and experience often become intertwined with the actual facts.
To avoid this quandary, the journalist should take the outsider’s perspective rather than the insider’s. More precisely, the media must remain outside the realm of either side while examining a state of affairs. A journalist has a much easier time remaining neutral when he does not become a participant of both sides. While reporting from a distance may not give the journalist as much insight on a particular person or group, the journalist can still provide the essential information accurately and truthfully.
Furthermore, a distanced view of the situation assures the public that one perspective is not being favored over the other. Being an outsider, the journalist can spend equal time on both sides without becoming emotionally attached to one that coincides with personal beliefs. Hence, this isolated viewpoint allows for the most impartial, neutral reporting.
While journalists should pride themselves on keeping their reports impartial at all times, the effect that their work yields for an audience remains central to this notion of neutrality. When hearing the news on television or reading a newspaper article, the public often has a response to the information being reported. Whether it is the Bush administration privatizing social security or the crash of a Japanese railway, news watchers respond with or experience an array of emotions and judgments when learning of the latest happenings.
While journalists can expect to receive a response from the information presented publicly, they should not concern themselves with the effect that their reports have on an audience if they have remained neutral from the very beginning. Journalists can not control the way people interpret information and thus, the effect that it creates should not be their responsibility.
On the other hand, journalists are accountable for the effect that their work creates if they do demonstrate a bias. The press has the ability to remain neutral and leave individual emotions and perspectives out of their work. By including one’s own personal beliefs and opinions or presenting one side more than the other, the journalist should expect to receive a certain response from his or her audience.
Some journalists that sway their audience through prejudiced language hope that the majority of people will have a similar reaction and opinion equivalent to their own. These journalists craft their work in this particular way in order to garner a desired effect. In the end, this tactic leaves the journalist partially responsible for the public’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are subsequently produced. A neutral reporter can not be held responsible under the same circumstances, however.
With these issues in mind, I further believe that journalists should not acquire a conception of toleration if they wish to uphold this standard of neutrality. Without an intelligible sense of toleration, members of the media will be more capable of removing their personal beliefs and biases from the information that they present on a daily basis. Lacking an understanding of tolerance and intolerance presents the media world with a better opportunity to remain neutral when reporting on such subjects as the Nazi party and the Klu Klux Klan-groups and organizations that the majority of the public perceives as intolerant because of their racial, religious, and ethnic prejudices.
Those journalists who happen to acquire an understanding of toleration have a greater chance of assessing the actions of others through their own perception of what is acceptable and unacceptable. This perception ultimately defines what we consider to be toleration. More often than not, this practice creates one-sided, slanted reporting in the eyes of many.
It is important for us to remember that the job of a journalist is only to educate the public-not to convince individuals to agree or disagree with certain positions of argumentation. Neutral reporting offers each reader, viewer, or listener the opportunity to decide for themselves which stance to take on a given issue being deliberated. In this way neutrality does tolerate all views, tolerant and intolerant, by not siding with one in particular. Biased reporting demonstrates a sign of intolerance in the field of journalism by favoring one perspective over another.
For example, by writing that the beliefs and actions of Hitler were criminal and unjust, the journalist commits himself to a particular perspective of toleration. A journalist does not have to accept Hitler’s actions and lifestyle as legitimate but is still obligated to report on him.
It is not the job of the journalist to promote a sense of tolerance or intolerance within his audience. Rather, the public can decide on its own how it wishes to define such actions and beliefs. That is the beauty of neutrality-it does not exclude the formation of certain opinions and attitudes by the public. But since journalists act as a third party situated in between two opposing sides, lacking an intelligible conception of toleration represents the most effective method for promoting neutrality in the media world today.
While it is the duty of journalists to sustain a neutral approach at all times in their professions, discriminatory and unbalanced reporting occurs today on a regular basis. In September 2004, CBS Evening News came under fire when anchor Dan Rather reported falsified information about President Bush’s National Guard service. The documents, allegedly forged, used for the “60 Minutes” segment explained that the President was receiving preferential treatment to escape his Guard commitments. Rather, referred to as “the hardest working man in broadcast journalism” has been accused of demonstrating a liberal bias in his reporting by many conservatives in America.
Even if Rather and CBS did not purposely use this information to discredit President Bush and his administration, this error would not have occurred with the reinforcement of neutrality. The network did not produce an accurate report because their sources were not balanced-CBS went on the air having heard only one side of the story. It is the responsibility of all journalists and media corporations to seek out sources of multiple perspectives before informing the public of its conclusions.
Another instance of biased reporting in modern-day society features journalist Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. In an interview on his nightly show “The O’Reilly Factor,” O’Reilly repeatedly ridicules his guest Jeremy Glick because of his liberal perspective on the events of September 11, 2001 and his anti-war protest against the Bush administration. After relentlessly insulting his guest for several minutes, O’Reilly finally orders Glick to “shut up,” cutting the segment short because of Glick’s opposing political views on the terrorist attacks and their forthcoming implications.
A neutral journalist would have not conducted this interview with the same approach. Rather, an unbiased anchor would have invited a second guest to represent the conservative perspective and left himself as the mediator to ask both sides questions.
Still, this is not the only instance where either Rather or O’Reilly has stepped outside the position of eyewitness. Both of these examples demonstrate that even recognized and celebrated journalists across the country lack impartiality in their work. For this reason, it is important for journalists in all societies to get back to the standard of presenting both sides of an issue in an equal manner so that personal biases can be omitted consistently.
With certain biased journalists defying the ethics of hard-news journalism, the position of the public must be called in question. Should such unjust and prejudiced work be accepted by its audience? I assert that the public should not be inclined to tolerate journalists who do not present a neutral perspective in their work. It is the duty of the journalist to acknowledge the perspectives of all people as legitimate ways to live by instituting neutrality when reporting on any newsworthy topic.
By giving equal weight to subjects on all sides of the issue, the journalist portrays an image that respects and recognizes the concerns and ideas of all people. The media can not expect to gain the approval of the public if this standard is not required and enforced.
As I have stated earlier, the public deserves the right to interpret information under its own circumstances-human beings should be given equal information from all sides and subsequently allowed to choose which one in particular fits their own mind-set most appropriately. If a journalist eliminates this civic right through one-sided reporting, his audience should not continue to support such efforts.
For example, the public should not be expected to tolerate the misleading and intolerant reporting of Dan Rather or Bill O’Reilly until they remove their biases and represent both political ideologies fairly. Therefore, this theory that we know of as the “golden rule” even pertains to the field of hard-news journalism.
That is, if the press does not respect each of its subjects by remaining neutral, its audience will not offer reporters an equivalent esteem in return. Journalists should always be granted the respect of their audiences if they remain neutral in their work consistently.
The press has a powerful and compelling impact upon our society. As we constantly gain more information about the world each day, the decisions of the media continue to have a profound impact on each of us. I have argued that the media must remain neutral even when discussing issues about intolerant people, groups, and organizations.
It is only fair under the standards of hard-news journalism that reporters remain evenhanded in deciding which the issues to cover along with the amount of weight and space that they give each topic. Therefore, it is important for journalists to value the importance of neutrality when unveiling pertinent news.
Moreover, the public should tolerate journalists that follow through with neutrality in their reporting. Communities around the world should accept neutrality as the standard of ethical journalism and the work that conveys such a stance. By playing the role as eyewitness rather than participant, impartial journalism breeds toleration from all sides of the issue, whether right or wrong.
Yet by no means is neutrality a clear-cut concept that can be understood superficially. While attaining absolute objectivity may be impractical for reporters due their own individual perceptions and relative understanding of various situations, neutrality is still a lofty goal for journalists to achieve. Nevertheless, I still contend that including only the facts and the opposing sides of the issue remains essential for preserving the ethics of hard-news journalism.
Neutrality is not a temporary solution to the dilemma that the media faces on a daily basis. Rather, journalists must always be mindful of their own position in politics, sports, and other areas of interest as they strive to incorporate this ideal perspective into all of their work.
In this study, my deliberation and explanation of neutrality serves as a paradigm for all journalists to share and promote. As the world continues to expand to greater heights and lengths, neutral reporting becomes even more of a necessity for modern-day journalists to advocate and execute. But only the media can decide for itself whether that path will be neutrality.