The End of Newspapers and The Future of Information. That is the book I took on holiday with me last month in which Bernard Poulet (yes, he is French) puts forward an interesting point at the beginning of the book directly questioning the role objectivity in journalism.
Coming from a French background and having followed a three-year Journalism course, it is a well-known fact at home that a good journalist must be an objectivity gate-keeper. Fairness, disinterestedness and factuality are just some of the noble qualities that are necessary for journalistic objectivity. Non-partisanship seems to provide strong credit to the media industry and to audiences. This is also valuable for other societies than France. Modern literature seems to have emphasised the importance of objectivity in the U.S. as David T.Z. Mindich discusses “how objectivity came to define American Journalism”. Globally, factuality seems to be the key.
The Washington Post helped redefining journalism’s role
At the same time, several recent studies investigating journalism’s image in France reveal the poor opinion French people have towards the “Fourth power”. Poulet explains that for the last two decades, credibility has sharply dropped, resulting in a vertiginous drop in newspaper sales. He further notes that it is in the 1980’s that audiences paradoxically started to question journalists’ credibility as media professionals bore new neutrality standards. This period coincides with the Washington Post’s revelations on the Watergate scandal, setting up a new example of journalism in schools and universities. Importantly, Poulet ascertains that it is this new objective journalism that contributed to trust and sales issues in the print media industry.
Indeed, the argument being made about the French audiences is about readers sharing and believing in their newspapers’ stances. This phenomenon was particularly important between the two World Wars and after 1945. Newspapers embodied different ideologies and readers created a real bond with them, as a form of ‘activist commitment’.
“Circle of Reason”
Conversely, today’s journalism seems to have installed some kind of distance between journalists and readers in the name of objectivity. Hence, the journalists’ role would be limited to telling their ‘own’ version of reality about an event, a public figure or a phenomenon Poulet states. In this way, he further argues that this objectivity has endorsed a real moral role, sometimes to autonomously participate in political debate. Trust issues within the media could then be explained as readers struggle with journalists’ “pretention” or “arrogance” to relate their own views of objectivity. This phenomenon has been described by Alain Minc as the “circle of Reason” (“le cercle de la raison”). Minc’s analysis takes into account the journalists’ lecturing role towards society. As a result, media professionals would establish what is of “reason” and everything that does not belong to this “circle of reason” would be nonsense.
As journalists have lost touch with readers and become so didactic that they are resented by their own audiences, the media has been associated with the establishment and the elite. In this instance, Poulet refers to the well-know national newspaper Le Monde. During the European Constitution referendum in 2005, the title placed itself as a genuine power institution, with the aim to set up the society’s new values, not on behalf of personal commitment, but on behalf of objectivity. While Le Monde expressed favourable views for the establishment of a Constitution for Europe, results demonstrated a clear refusal on the ratification of the treaty.
In sum, according to Poulet’s original stance, it would be by defining journalism as the most potent power in society that media professionals would have endangered themselves. The media print is at the heart of this lost of trust according to him, and it is now being expanded to other areas in the industry. To show the magnitude of this, he further takes the example of the activist press, which dramatically declined over the years in France, with the depletion of major titles such as L’Humanité, Combat and Le Populaire.
Facing its biggest challenge ever in France and elsewhere, media professionals have been in the urgent need to reinvent themselves in the hope of capturing audiences and regaining trust, particularly within the print media. The role of objectivity in the news is still at the heart of heated debates considering journalism’s salient role in democracy. Nonetheless, elements of answers have been put forward, and it seems that engaging and understanding audiences have never been that important for the survival of the traditional media.