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Justin Vernold

September 15, 2012

Set your biases aside, or find some other profession

The principle of objectivity is so deeply imbued in the ethics of journalism that it’s common to hear the topic mentioned frequently around the newsroom.

It will come up in discussions with reporters about the various angles to a particular story, or in editorial board meetings where the newspaper forms its stance on the issues of the day. But most often, questions about objectivity stem from the feedback we get from our readers.

In this regard, I’ve concluded that it’s probably best if a newspaper’s critics are scattered somewhat uniformly across the political spectrum, as sardonic as that may sound. No audience is ever unanimously pleased, and if you’re standing in the dead center of issues, occasionally you’ll get caught in some partisan crossfire.

Maybe the reason objectivity is such a frequent subject for debate is that – perhaps ironically – no objectively definable metric exists for determining whether a journalist attempting to report objectively has done so. Media watchdog groups such as the right-leaning Media Research Center and left-leaning Media Matters base their work on inherently subjective judgments about how to define fairness, or what constitutes positive or negative coverage.

It seems easier to define objective journalism by what it isn’t. Here at The Daily Star, editors Sam Pollak and Rob Centorani don’t always see eye-to-eye on all things editorial. But both agree that MSNBC hosts Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz should either take part in political rallies and campaign events or cover them for MSNBC – but not both. The same goes for Fox News, which employed Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee as paid contributors while all four were considering campaigns for the White House.

This question becomes a bit more nuanced in cases such as that of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel intern who, according to Columbia Journalism Review, was fired this year after signing a petition in support of recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

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Justin Vernold
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