LASICS .::. Open Conference Systems, IAMCR 2010: Communication and Citizenship

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A Short History of the History of Objectivity

Mark Winston Brewin

Last modified: 2010-07-05


The paper is a study of how U.S. communication historians have treated the matter of objectivity over the past 30 years. Work done in the late 1970s, notably by Michael Schudson and Daniel Schiller, focused on the ways in which objectivity was socially constructed as a response to various pressures (political, economic, social) on the public life of the nation. Conducted in some sense in response to the “whiggish” interpretations of American journalism history, these narratives were skeptical of journalists’ claims to objectivity. They were also often suspicious of the way in which American journalists used objectivity to present a “common-sense,” supposedly biased-free account of current events. Particularly in the work of Schiller, the myth of objectivity was seen as an ideological ruse through which the news media excluded radical voices in the public voice and thereby attempted to present a consensual view of the world extremely favorable to status quo institutions and ruling classes. This early historical work set a new paradigm for the study of objectivity, with later historians either challenging or supporting the earlier claims. Like Schiller and Schudson, later critics were often suspicious of the notion of a news culture free from bias; however, they also tried (and mostly succeeded) in complicating the narrative as it was originally proposed. This has set the stage for a third shift in interest, with the rise of multi-media sites and the decline in traditional news organizations’ power. Historians need to realize that the current moment no longer calls a simple critique of objectivity, since even its defenders no longer accept the naïve realist assumptions of an earlier generation of journalists. Recent changes, notably the rise of new media forms like blogs, have changed the social context for objectivity, and thus may lead to a re-evaluation of its past role, as well as its potential future as a model for “good” journalism, not only in the United States but more generally.

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