No discussion on the ethics of journalism is complete without some examination of objectivity. From this consideration spring questions about impartiality and the truth. One of the primary motivations for requiring that journalists be objective is that citizens depend on the news gathered by journalists to make well-informed decisions in civic and political life. In some ways, this obligation elevates journalism above the fray: the so-called “Fourth Estate”. But because of this elevated status, journalists may be afforded special privileges in order to hold the powerful to account. Perhaps this is why press freedom seems so essential to liberal democracy.

However, critics argue that bias is inherent in humans and to attempt to require objectivity is not only unrealistic but also deceptive. Some even hold that there is a distinct moral value to subjectivity in journalism as it allows judgments and perspectives to be conveyed. Indeed, to prevent journalists from participating in civic and political life is to prevent some of the most well-informed voices from being heard.

Transparency about these journalistic practices is intertwined with the public’s trust in the integrity and credibility of the news they consume. If citizens trust journalists and news organizations, they may be less likely to fall victim to misinformation. But with the barrage of widely accessible and available television, social media, and online news, maybe the problem is the sheer amount of information rather than just the content of it. While the public may have a duty to stay informed, it may also have a duty to know when to turn off the news and put down the phone.

There seems wide agreement that the role of journalism is to seek the truth. But what the truth is and how journalists should go about discovering  and reporting it are up for debate.

Ready to Dive In?

We categorized our classroom resources into six main ethical themes to help focus your discussions. Related to these themes is the Society of Professional Journalist code of ethics, found here.