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‘Objectivity’ is out, contextualization is key

By Luis Teodoro Published Jul 29, 2022 5:00 am


Because they fear that the press has been remiss in providing the public the information it needs for democracy to flourish, some academics and social scientists have proposed the “reinvention” of journalism so journalists can report not only the bare facts of an event or issue, but also interpret what those facts mean.

The proposal is also being made in the context of the rise of social media and blogging as major sources of the disinformation that has hindered the making of an informed public.

But as valid as the bases for that suggestion are, it isn’t so much a matter of “reinventing” journalism as of recalling its fundamental responsibility of interpreting the meaning of the news.

In a time when both news and disinformation travel at lightning speed, journalists must look beyond just the facts in order to build an informed and critical citizenry.

Much of the reporting of the Philippine press is descriptive. Most reporters provide the answers — “just the facts” — to the questions the conventional “five Ws and H” ask. This has become standard practice as a result of the emphasis on “objectivity” in the country’s journalism classrooms and media newsrooms.

Journalism as description has survived wars, economic crises, and plagues also because it is the operational expression of the “objectivity” the Western news agencies advocated after World War II as the supposedly foolproof guarantee of unbiased reporting. “Objectivity” in the news became a widespread benchmark in the late 1940s also in reaction to the wave of propaganda unleashed by the bureaucrats and apparatchiks of the contending powers during and after World War II.

Getting the facts is indispensable in journalism, but is only the beginning of every journalist’s task. They must provide not “just the facts” but also their meaning, and the only way they can do that is to contextualize the news and subject it to explanation and analysis.

The demand that news reports be “objective” is at the very least debatable. All communication involves interpretation and selection. The place of “objectivity” in journalism is at the onset of fact-gathering, when the journalist must get as much of the facts of a given issue as possible, so he or she can sort out from these findings a reasonable appraisal of their meaning.

Whether you're getting your news from the papers, radio, TV, or online, journalism's role in upholding democracy and truth remains constant.

Like every other form of communication, journalism is an interpretive enterprise. But it is nevertheless about fact-based truth-telling. Its professional and ethical standards assume that “the truth is out there” and that the journalist can find it, thus the emphasis on getting the facts and verifying them by consulting as many knowledgeable sources as possible as well as relevant documents.

The responsibility of truth-telling is what makes journalism the handmaid of democratization, and it demands that, having verified what is fact and what is fabrication, the journalist recall the history of which an issue, an event of public significance, a statement, or a government policy is a part.

Getting the facts is indispensable in journalism, but is only the beginning of every journalist’s task. They must provide not “just the facts” but also their meaning, and the only way they can do that is to contextualize the news and subject it to explanation and analysis.

It is to enable the public to understand what the news means that journalism has always been interpretive to begin with. The age of descriptive journalism has also passed; it has quite correctly been dismissed as of little value in understanding what is going on. The world is becoming more and more complex as its populations surge and its problems multiply, thus making knowledge of it more urgent today than at any other time in the past.

If more journalists reported on how climate change adversely affects our country by the day, more citizens would be moved to action and inspired to make a difference.

No one need go beyond the country’s borders to validate the necessity for interpretation, analysis, and explanation in news reporting. Climate change is a global threat against all of humanity. Its impact is evident in the number of increasingly violent typhoons that have smashed into the Philippines. But it has not been adequately explained, analyzed, and given context so that ordinary people can understand why typhoons have become more frequent and more intense. A citizenry armed with such knowledge could demand a coherent State response to the global and national crisis driven by that threat.

Critical as well is the need for citizens to gain some understanding of the occurrences that impact their lives and fortunes: not just the typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and other disasters, but also the government policies, crime, corruption, and the thousand and one other issues and events whose complexity defies the understanding of millions.

It is crucial, for example, for them to understand why the Anti-Terrorism Act is a threat to their freedoms; what government has failed to do to check the spread of the COVID-19 contagion; why the economy is in recession, its impact on the future and what can be done about it. That cannot happen unless those issues are reported — but, beyond providing the verified facts, also explained and analyzed.

Because much of the media report only the what, when, and where a source or subject said, and the reactions of others, disinformation afflicts millions in this country despite the billions of bytes newspapers, radio, television, and online news sites generate and disseminate daily. Observing the fundamental responsibilities of interpretation, contextualization, and explaining the meaning of the day’s events can help journalists mitigate that crisis in information and democracy.