Journalism, Objectivity and NPR

By Steve Byers

Juan Williams, former NPR analyst

Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

I’ve been thinking about Juan Williams lately. First when I read of his firing by NPR after voicing comments on a Fox Network show about his concerns when flying on a plane carrying people dressed in traditional Muslim garb. Pretty stupid, I thought, but not that far removed from other stupid things I’ve heard on television lately.

Then in rapid fire came reading of a firestorm on the right from politicians and others who demanded de-funding NPR for the umpteenth time (the right seems to believe that NPR, which I consider the most balanced broadcast medium around, is a hotbed of liberalism—at least, it likes to attack public radio on a regular basis), then I read a comment in a Facebook string about the situation from Milwaukee conservative blogger and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee instructor Jessica McBride that “I’m not sure I ever saw him as inherently liberal OR  conservative. He was refreshingly nonpartisan, I thought”—she was commenting on another post calling him an “honest liberal.”

Interesting, I thought, but still not interesting enough to pull me away from the fascinating task of correcting homework from my Publication Editing class (note to self: sarcasm really is hard to convey in blog posts).

Then I got an email from recent Marquette masters graduate Jackie Blackburn asking if I planned to write anything about Williams and offering some intriguing questions of her own about how Williams’ firing, including the key question “Can journalists be objective AND act as opinion commentators?” This really got me thinking, when along came a CNN piece that strengthened my thinking, which is that journalism has been on a slippery slope for some time as opinion has crept into much straight reporting. It can be a simple as a TV anchor commiserating with a reporter on the scene of a tragedy (“We all feel her pain” was a comment not long ago after an on-scene reporter filmed a parent who had lost a child), or as complex as a decision made by the Journal Sentinel’s staff that politician (fill in the name) was lying in the latest attack on his or her opponent (and, yes, those are opinions even if backed by some evidence).

Blackburn’s question is really the key. Can a journalist be objective and comment? While I think they can—although it’s very, very hard to keep the roles separate—but I also think their opinion pieces can destroy that trust an audience must have in a journalist’s objectivity.  I teach that objective journalism is a process. That the journalist doesn’t claim to be objective, but that their reporting can be if they verify.  But could I trust a journalist’s objectivity if that journalist were voicing opinions.  It would be awfully hard, and it seems to me that trust is something that journalists need more of these days.

What do you think?

Steve Byers is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.

1 Response to “Journalism, Objectivity and NPR”

  1. 1 Jackie Blackburn October 25, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Another issue to consider is the role of journalists as gate keepers and opinion shapers for the public. Let’s be honest: the vast majority of Americans aren’t savvy enough to discern the difference between commentary and reporting, opinion and fact. Such in-depth information analysis would require critical thinking that many people either don’t want or are unable to put forth. We’re driven by sound bites: the sensational, the catchy, and the simple messages are what stick in our brains and aid us in information processing, especially when we hear information that mirrors our own presuppositions and beliefs. So when Williams made his infamous statement, the audience will likely recall the information presented as fact rather than his opinion. And because he is a journalist, a member of a profession that has long claimed to strive to deliver objective information to the public, Williams impacted the audience’s view of Muslims.

    Whether they ask to be or not, journalists qualify as public figures. Like professional athletes, pop singers, and other celebrities, Americans look to these figures to guide their beliefs, attitudes, values, and goals. Because of this tendency, I think it’s important to consider whether or not journalists have the ethical right to use their professional medium of choice as a platform for voicing their personal opinions. Williams is fully entitled to express his views regarding Muslims or what he had for breakfast or whether he prefers boxers or briefs. Indeed, the first amendment guarantees this right. What the first amendment doesn’t guarantee, however, is how that right is expressed. Williams is perfectly able to stand on a street corner and scream at the top of his lungs without fear of obstruction under the law. But by going on national television and stating his opinion, Williams used his platform as a journalist to validate a personal prejudice against Muslims as potential terrorists, reaching a wide-ranging public (well, those who would give credence to Faux News, anyway). That is an awesome power and responsibility, which, either through carelessness or a personal agenda or who knows what, Williams abused when stating his opinion on Fox News.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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