Objectively Engaged Journalism: An Ethic, by Stephen J. A. Ward

Suzanne Franks has reservations about an impressive study of the ideals journalists should embrace

October 19, 2020
Journalists gathered
Source: Getty

Ethics is a core module in most journalism courses. That is certainly the case at my own institution. And Stephen Ward, who teaches at the University of British Columbia, has a strong track record in explaining and illuminating how and why ethics matter to journalists. His latest book confronts the contested area of “engagement” and the extent to which journalists can (or even should) aspire to strictly objective standards of reporting. He argues that journalism is inevitably a “value-laden craft” and offers instead a version of “pragmatic objectivity”.

These debates are at the very heart of contemporary digitally based journalism in a world where the US president (or his media adviser) can boldly talk about “alternative facts” when claims about the comparative size of an inauguration crowd, for example, are self-evidently false. In this environment, it might appear that the search for and promotion of objective facts is more important than ever. But instead Ward offers a template for journalism that is not neutral and detached but democratically engaged, seeking thereby to “enable an informed and participatory public”.

In recent years, the BBC has struggled with the important distinctions between neutrality and impartiality, for example in a 2007 report titled “From Seesaw to Wagonwheel”, which neatly summed up these tensions. Some of the early reporting of climate change fell in to the trap of false balance, leading to angry recriminations. And recently the new director general, Tim Davie, reminded BBC journalists in his first speech of the precious value of impartial reporting, instructing anyone who did not aspire to this to find another job, especially if they wanted to make noisy and biased interventions on Twitter. Ward’s contribution is to provide a timely underpinning for these arguments, but with a different twist. He believes that impartiality can also be engaged and indeed even passionate, particularly in the service of promoting egalitarian democratic values. This is heady stuff, positioning journalism as a way to “help societies make the often difficult ascent to better forms of democracy”.

The problem is that this argument is so high-minded that it pays almost no regard to the grim pressures of contemporary journalism, with tumbling business models and the ubiquity of clickbait as a means of clamouring for attention. There is also surprisingly little about the wider environment of journalism today, ranging from the unpleasant verbal attacks at Trump rallies to growing physical threats in many countries. Indeed, the struggles of journalism in populist tyrannies barely get a mention until the final pages. It would also have been interesting to have more than a few brief references to the positioning of journalism as a profession in a context where anyone with a smartphone can now call themselves a journalist. And there are potentially interesting debates about the extent to which changing views about engaged journalism and what is sometimes referred to as “the journalism of attachment” connect to different generational attitudes. To what extent does a younger audience view impartiality as an old-fashioned concept? But overall Ward writes elegantly and has produced a philosophy text that is both accessible and inspiring to those still striving for the finest forms of journalistic endeavour.

Suzanne Franks is professor of journalism at City, University of London and teaches an ethics seminar.


Objectively Engaged Journalism: An Ethic
By Stephen J. A. Ward
McGill-Queen’s University Press
288pp, £27.45
ISBN 9780228001881
Published 16 April 2020

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Reader's comments (1)

the propaganda model and the five filters - our journalists and mainstream media have done a really good job of holding the Tory government to account over covid - haven't they - £12 billion pounds to Serco for a fatally flawed private sector test and trace and virtual silence? or their role in the demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn - and as for the Guardian CP Snow must be spinning wildly in his grave - so what is it you are teaching them?

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