Why do journalists have so much difficulty being objective?

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Friday, 27 April 2012 17:43 by Ad astra
Let’s acknowledge that ‘being objective’ is a challenge not just for journalists. All of us have the same struggle. All of us bring to what we say and write our own beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires – our own personal agenda. This piece uses examples of writings about the same subject in one edition of the one paper to draw attention to how a story can vary depending on the optics of the storyteller.

Lest we start with different ideas of what ‘objective’ means in this context, let’s at least accept some common dictionary definitions: ‘impartial’, ‘free of bias’, ‘based on facts’, ‘observable’ – all reasonable synonyms.

Arguably the most important reform announced this year by the Gillard Government was the suite of aged care reforms detailed last week. Let’s use them as a template for assessing objectivity among those who reported it.

Starting with the front page headline in the Weekend Edition of The Australian Financial Review: Means test slugs wealthy, with the byline: Gillard’s aged-care shake up, we are invited to get the drift of Bina Brown’s article, or at least what initial impression the sub-editor is fostering. The word ‘slugs’, which my dictionary tells me means to ‘strike with a hard blow’, suggests that under this scheme the wealthy will be beset with an unreasonable imposition. Yet the article begins: “Aged people with high incomes and more valuable assets will have to pay more for their care in nursing homes under the biggest aged-care reform in 15 years.” That is a balanced factual statement. So why the provocative headline? I image you know – simply to attract attention. Accuracy is irrelevant. Later we read: “The plan is designed to ensure anybody needing care who can afford to pay, will pay.” No mention there of the wealthy being ‘slugged’. It ends: “In a positive for the thousands of elderly Australians that would prefer to remain in the family home, the plan includes almost 40,000 extra home care packages.” Again, a balanced, objective statement of fact.

I could find nothing negative in Bina Brown’s piece, yet the headline is pejorative and misleading. I wonder how she feels about the message of her piece being perverted by the headline. I can hear some of you saying: “Don’t subeditors always pull this stunt? Answer: not always, but often. But is that objective journalism? No, it’s misleading journalism, and it’s just not good enough. We do not deserve to be assailed by this editorial trickery by those running their own agenda.

On the next page we read the assessment of the highly-respected Laura Tingle, titled: Broad Support for the reform under a generic heading Retirement overhaul, which begins: “A major overhaul of aged care that invests new resources to allow more people to be cared for in their own homes and addresses a crisis in the aged care workforce has won plaudits from providers, consumers and industry groups.” Pretty positive stuff! The piece is accompanied by a table that lists the pluses and minuses of the ‘Stay at home’ and the ‘Enter a nursing home’ options. The list is objective, the pluses greater than the minuses, with the latter ending: ‘Tougher means test for fees’ and ‘Some people pay more, some less’, respectively. The article ended on a positive note: “The Council on the Ageing, aged care providers and union representing workers in the aged care sector presented a united front on Friday to endorse the package.” I could not find one negative word or pejorative comment in her article. It was an objective, factual account of what was proposed. If Laura can do it…!

Then there was the Industry view by Jason Murphy: Risk tactics spoil results. You might reasonably ask: ’What does that mean’. I don’t know and the short piece doesn’t clarify, but from the first paragraph, I doubt if the headline was meant to be complimentary. The piece begins: “The Government has dumped key Productivity Commission recommendations on aged care to dodge political repercussions and fiscal risk, industry insiders say.” Note ‘dumped’, where ‘not accepted’ would have done; note ‘dodge’, where ‘avoid’ would have sufficed. Words are important – they convey not only meaning but also the attitude of the user. Murphy reports that a Jim Toohey, a participant in the PC’s funding workshop, had said that: “…the package was positive overall but the government had been ‘cognisant of some of the politically damaging political fallout’. Who would have thought it? Murphy’s piece ended: “Canberra’s response to the report notes that full implementation of the [PC’s] recommendations would have involved significant cost.” Maybe that was why they ‘dumped’ some of them! Why the AFR included this nondescript piece is a mystery, but it appears its intention was to be somewhat negative. What personal agenda was the writer running?

Next there was journalist Brian Toohey’s piece: Time for balance in who pays how much for what. A regular rider of the ‘cut middle class welfare’ hobbyhorse, it was no surprise to read his opening paragraph: “It makes sense for a government trying to eliminate a $40 billion budget deficit to seek a bigger contribution from well-off retirees who are the biggest recipients of upper- and middle-class welfare in Australia. They receive heavily subsidized nursing home accommodation, bigger government rebates for private health insurance than low-income workers, much cheaper prescription drugs and an $800 cash grant to help with utilities bills they can afford to pay themselves.” Note that he makes his assertion and backs it with reasons. Later he says: “The government rejected a Productivity Commission recommendation that the new means test include the value of the family home. Perhaps the government did not go further because it anticipated the opposition’s unprincipled reaction. Having often called for smaller government and greater individual responsibility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott attacked Labor for applying means tests and user pays charges to nursing home care.” Note again that Toohey backs his facts with his reasons. In the second half of his piece, he goes onto another of his hobby-horses, superannuation. Nowhere is he negative about the package.

Finally, let’s turn to the back to the paper for its editorial, which because it is found under ‘Opinion’, leaves the writer more leeway to stray from fact to express his or her own views. The author is not stated (it never is), but the Editor-in-Chief of the paper is Michael Stutchbury, previously from the Murdoch flagship The Australian. After the mostly positive articles earlier in its pages, garnished with facts and reasoned argument, the AFR editorial announces: Aged-care reforms miss the mark. We sense we are in for some negativity, and we are not disappointed. The first paragraph reads: With the number of Australians in aged care expected to increase fourfold to 1.8 million by 2050, the Gillard Government reforms will not solve the problem of too few aged care places nor attack the burgeoning costs to the budget of funding aged care.” That suggests the reform package is pretty useless – it ‘will not solve…’ the problem of too few places; and doesn’t ‘attack the burgeoning costs’. We read on looking for the reasons for these confident assertions.

The next paragraph reads: “In adopting some of the recommendations in the Productivity Commission report ‘Caring for older Australians’ released in June of last year, the government changes are a start in ending the worst of the problems that have beset aged care since the early Howard government dropped a plan to introduce accommodation bonds for aged-care places, in place of generous income and asset tests.” So it’s a start – that’s a relief. “However, the messy politics and high cost of aged-care reforms have convinced the government to propose milder restructuring than is needed. Despite the reform package announced on Friday, aged care will remain a huge expenditure item and the reforms will make a small dent in the future costs to government of funding aged care.” A dose of negativity to douse any enthusiasm, sans reasoning!

The editorial continues with facts about the reform, mixed with opinion. The writer questions whether the Government has gone far enough in ensuring that the middle class pay enough, and complains about ‘limits to choice and competition because the accommodation supplement is paid directly to the provider’ whereas it should have been paid to the individual as a voucher. Later, reverse-mortgages are canvassed as a useful reform. No rationale is offered for these opinions.

Later the writer says: “So while the government’s announcement was cautiously welcomed by major associations of aged-care providers, there is no guarantee that it will lead to an expansion in nursing care places.” A qualified endorsement of the reform (unlike Laura’s mention of plaudits), but no explanation of why it’s worth bothering with it at all if no new nursing places will likely eventuate.

In case any reader might go away with some positive feelings after reading it, this somewhat disjointed editorial ends: “Overall, the changes foreshadowed by the government will require extra federal funding [so it doesn’t come free], will create more bureaucracy and complex government regulation, [who would have thought that an extended scheme would increase bureaucracy and regulation], and will make only an incremental impact on both the shortage of places and the cost to the budget of the ageing population.” By ‘incremental’ the writer wishes to convey a small increase, and since this is the prediction, the conclusion might be to ask if it’s worthwhile after all. Ending on a negative is essential in case some reader got the feeling this might be a good package.

Now we all know that this is an opinion piece, but how come opinions are expressed without supporting evidence; how come most of the opinions are negative in the sense that the writer believes the government should have done something different? How come the opinion concludes that the whole package won’t achieve much, but no reasons are offered in explanation? How come this editorial, this opinion piece, is so divorced from the other pieces in the self-same paper? Could it be that the editorial writer has contaminated the piece with his or her inbuilt beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires, so that objectivity flew out of the window?

What a pity we can’t have more pieces with Laura Tingle style objectivity, a joy to read, and less of the hotchpotch we saw in the editorial that was so short on objectivity.

Why do journalists have so much difficulty being objective?

This analysis of several pieces from the same paper on the same subject on the same day suggests it is because some allow their subjective feelings, their inbuilt beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires, their own personal agenda, to overtake their objectivity?

In his post on 22 April Sex Text Pest Bests Rest Test on The Failed Estate, against the background of the Slipper affair, Mr Denmore concludes his piece on the state of journalism in this country with: ”You see, what matters for our partisan press is not how many people a story affects (as in aged care, the NBN, health reform or improving disclosure around financial advice - all good reforms under this government), it is how a story can be spun to suit their chosen narrative and ideological imperative - in this case confecting a climate of permanent outrage to force regime change. If it involves someone taking their pants off, that's a bonus.” That just about says it all.

Should we not expect better, even demand better, from extensively read national and state publications that inform the voting public about what their governments are doing, so that they can cast their vote intelligently?

What do you think?