Neutrality in Journalism

When it comes to neutrality in journalism, naturally it does not mean that journalists lack the capacity to have their own opinions. In the words of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of The Elements of Journalism, “The method is objective, not the journalist.”

Oxford Dictionaries defines “neutrality” as:

 “The state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality… Absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling…”

But generally speaking (and this can be debated in a multiple ways) journalists in their professional capacities are expected to be neutral.

John Morton wrote for the American Journalism Review (December/January 2010), “The very basis of the business model for modern newspapers rests on the theory that what newspapers report is factual and that opinions are segregated to the opinion pages.” And the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ Editors Weblog states, “Many journalistic institutions stake their name on neutrality,” citing BBC and CNN as prime examples.

To explore this theme further, let’s look at some specific cases where neutrality has been encouraged or mandated in the journalism world.

“Use With Care”

Last year, the International Press Institute (IPI) made its Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict available online. Six Israeli and Palestinian journalists/media experts wrote the contents of the glossary of terms geared towards “journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“Through a process of discussion, the explanations were fleshed out and revised, and every effort has been made to ensure all the explanations are accurate, and that they use language that is as neutral as possible,” wrote Naomi Hunt, as part of the glossary’s Editor’s Note.

In other words, the handbook presents neutral alternatives to terms that were determined to be loaded, problematic or have different meanings depending on cultural context.

For example, “assassinated” or “killed” are suggested alternatives for “murdered”; and  “protests/protestors” are alternatives for “riots/rioters.”

Journalists Who Tweet

Andy Alexander’s Washington Post Omblog from September 25, 2009 shared how the newspaper had recently released guidelines for its staff using social media. They had been in the works for several months but their completion had been prompted by the Twitter activity of one of the paper’s managing editors, Raju Narisetti. For example, one of Narisetti’s Tweets was, “We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not…But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”

Narisetti said he intended his Tweets to be shared with a “private audience” but realized they were “unwise,” described Alexander. In other words they could have been perceived to represent the views of The Washington Post.

Excerpts from the Post guidelines released in 2009, according to Alexander, read: “When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment…Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

Note: The Washington Post has since released at least one new version of its “Digital Publishing Guidelines”. Patrick Pexton’s Omblog from September 2, 2011 presents revised Post guidelines as well as those of other news organizations from that time. 

Neutrality Up for Debate?

The IPI’s “Use With Care” glossary and a news agency’s policies on their journalists’ Twitter activity, are examples that have caused heated discussions.

Also debated is the concept of neutrality in journalism, where questions arise like, does neutrality mean the same thing as objectivity? Or can being too balanced take away from the core truth of a story?

It seems with many areas in life, journalism principles or ethics are not so clear-cut, crossing into the grey zone,  and even changing with our changing times.

Meet the Author

Michelle - Contributing Editor

Michelle Brunet is a freelance writer who contributes to numerous print and online publications, including JournalismDegree.com. She holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Studies/Biology and a B.Ed. Prior to writing, Michelle spent time teaching (in Canada and South Korea), volunteering on an organic farm in Ontario, camp counseling in Hong Kong, and a range of other short term gigs, from waitressing at a resort to separating recyclables on a conveyor belt. She loves meeting new people and is constantly fascinated by their unique stories.